I’ve recently been involved with a couple of community groups experiencing conflict. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever been involved in an ongoing group that hasn’t had some conflict. A group without conflict is probably in danger of stagnation.
What’s important is how we respond to conflict.
I find a problem solving approach to conflict can be particularly useful when working with groups, families and communities. The following are 12 principles that can help in adopting a problem solving approach to conflict.
1. Conflict is seen as a normal part of life. People often try to avoid conflict and see it as being destructive, painful or unconstructive. Conflict, however, can be seen as a normal part of life that is neither positive nor negative. What is important is how we respond to conflict. Conflict can actually encourage change and growth. If we deal with conflict before it becomes a crisis, it can be easier to resolve — so avoidance might not always be the best way forward.
2. A problem solving approach requires cooperation rather than competition. In a problem solving approach, the emphasis is on working together to overcome a problem. Conflict is thus not seen as a competition or a contest, and the people involved are encouraged to be collaborators rather than opponents. Although not all conflicts can be resolved in ways which everybody is totally happy, at least we might be able to agree to a process that will allow us to move forward.
3. It is important to respect the interests and needs of both yourself and the other party(s). A cooperative approach is more likely to be successful if the people involved don’t just focus on what they want, but also consider what the other people want as well. A focus only on your own interests is less likely to lead to an outcome that everyone can accept.
4. The aim is to find an outcome that everybody involved can at least accept. In order to promote cooperation, the aim of a problem solving approach is to find an outcome everybody can accept; ideally a win/win. Although there are conflicts involving mutually exclusive needs, especially those involving limited resources, there are many situations where it is possible to find “win/win” solutions. Even if we might not be totally happy with the outcome, we might be able to accept it as fair or reasonable.
5. It can be helpful, particularly in the early stages, to focus on interests (or needs) rather than solutions (or positions). Conflict is more likely to be resolved if we start with a focus on interests or needs rather than solutions or positions. Whilst there are some deep-rooted human needs which cannot be compromised, by exploring the underlying needs and interests first, a number of solutions which satisfy everybody can often be found. Initial solutions or positions might be mutually exclusive, but once the underlying needs are explored, alternative solutions might be possible.
6. The role of communication in conflict is vital. A lot of conflict is the result of poor communication or miscommunication, and clear communication can assist in conflict resolution. Strategies such as I messages and active listening can help promote clear communication.
7. Analysis is an important part of conflict resolution. An analytical approach can allow conflict to be approached in a rational and logical manner. Being clear about things such as the characteristics of the parties involved, their prior relationship, the nature of the issues involved, and the consequences of the conflict can make a big difference.
8. Emotions are a vital part of conflict and need to be addressed. Even though a rational and logical approach helps, it is important to recognise that emotions also play a major role in conflict and cannot be ignored. Unless we address the emotional context of conflict, it may be very hard to proceed. For example, an apology often plays a very important role in moving forward.
9. Self-awareness helps one to respond effectively to conflict. If we are aware of things like how we react to conflict, how other people respond to us and our communication style, we are more likely to be able to respond positively to conflict. Self-awareness also help us to deal with hidden, underlying or unconscious aspects of conflict.
10. Conflict is not always easily resolved and we need to accept that not everybody uses a cooperative approach to conflict. This means it is important to explore ways of dealing with difficult situations and people. At time is may help to use a neutral third-party to help with mediation.
11. Despite problems or provocation, it helps to maintain a cooperative approach, to remain open to new possibilities and to seek a fair or just solution. Even when someone is acting in ways which makes it hard to resolve the conflict constructively, it can help if we remain caring and fair and see the other person as being worthy of care and justice. Sometimes a negative response can suggest that we need to pay more attention to the emotional context before moving on to try to address the other issues involved.
12. It helps to remain positive and optimistic. Even when things are going badly, we are more likely to be able to resolve the conflict successfully if we believe it can be done. By remaining positive and optimistic, possibilities can emerge that we might otherwise miss.
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