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Facilitation Resources - Volume 6

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Volume 6. Dealing with Group Conflict

Overview: Dealing with Group Conflict

Conflict in groups is a normal part of the group process. Disagreements and differing points of view have the potential to add important information, broaden the perspectives of the group, and serve as a positive contribution to the work. Although the outcome may be positive, there will be some stress and discomfort. Typically concerns and disagreements will arise in one of the following areas: 1) the process the group is using, 2) the content being discussed, or 3) the people (personalities) involved in the discussion.

Facilitating Conflict-Habituated Situations

As a facilitator, your role is to help provide a safe environment where disagreement and conflict can surface and be put to use as a positive and creative force. Establishing ground rules and clarifying the expectations of the members at the beginning of the group process is one of the most important things a facilitator can do. It provides participants a clear sense of the boundaries of the group. Having group members acknowledge that disagreements should focus on the ideas being discussed, not on the people involved in the discussion, is an example of a ground rule that can be used in a group. Asking people to state as clearly as they can their understanding of the opposing viewpoint is another method that can help build understanding and communication within a group. In some cases, disagreements may become so intense that it is helpful to have group members take a break, cool off, and return to the conversation after some time for reflection. It is important that, as a facilitator, you develop a level of comfort and confidence in working and being in groups where conflict is occurring.

Some techniques for facilitating conflict-habituated situations will help to ensure the group moves forward. For example, understand that transforming conflict requires moving with or toward the adversary, not continuing the fight. The facilitator must have sensitivity to recognize how difficult it may be for people who have seen themselves as "enemies" to come into the same room and discuss an issue.

Techniques for leveling (letting the other know how you make sense to yourself) and listening (understanding how the other makes sense to him- or herself) are important tools for facilitators, especially in situations where conflict is accelerated. An example of leveling in a group is sharing your thoughts, feelings, hopes, concerns, or needs without expectation that the other should respond in a particular way. An example of listening is checking out your interpretation of body language: "I see that you have your arms folded. Sometimes this means that a person is feeling defensive. What are you feeling?"

Conflict Framework

When a group is experiencing conflict it is useful for the facilitator to analyze the potential source of that conflict. A planning team of the entire group may also analyze the conflict. A conflict framework is useful to analyze the causes and potential interventions within a group. Conflicts may be about:

Each of these areas of conflict can be resolved with facilitation interventions such as: agreeing on a process to collect and assess data; setting ground rules to block negative, repetitive behaviors; developing tradeoffs to satisfy the interests of different stakeholders; allowing parties to agree to disagree; and/or reallocating ownership or control of resources.

Problem Meeting Behaviors

Facilitators can learn to recognize and handle common problem meeting behaviors. These behaviors may include the long-winded dominator, the side conversationalist, or the quiet participant. These behaviors are considered to be problems because they distract from the agenda and disrupt the attention of the group.

It can be helpful for a facilitator to think about why someone is expressing a problem meeting behavior. For example, the long-winded dominator may be overly prepared to speak on a point, or the quiet participant may be waiting to be asked to contribute. Understanding the "why" of behavior is helpful as a facilitator considers "what to do."

Becoming comfortable with responses to negative group behaviors is an important skill of facilitators. For example, the facilitator may visit with the long-winded member during a break or after the meeting and ask the person to be more concise or to allow other members to speak.

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