Facilitation Friday #36: Working through Conflict

As a group works through the stages of development, we know that at some point conflict is going to emerge.  Effective facilitation can greatly enhance a group's ability to respectfully work through perceived disagreements and reach an agreeable resolution.  Here are a few fundamentals to remember if you are facilitating a group when conflict begins to emerge.  These suggestions most relate to conflict between individuals within a working group.  A future post will address conflicts between different groups that often arise in community conversations or collaborative effort efforts.

  • When conflict emerges the environment in which the conversation changes.  It is useful to acknowledge this shift (participants will have felt it) and to remind individuals of the shared agreements they have made about how they want to interact with each other. 
  • Effective facilitation generally means operating from a position of restraint, but in a conflict situation, your facilitation interventions need to be more assertive.  By being more active in managing the conversation you provide support for people who find conflict challenging or something to avoid.  You must not let people speak disrespectfully to each other or to hijack the conversation for a personal agenda.
  • It's not unusual for many people to want to speak.  To make sure everyone is heard, begin stacking the discussion. The Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision-Making specifies four steps to do so: (1) ask who wants to speak; (2) record names in order; (3) call on people as their turn arrives; (4) start another round of stacking after the last person speaks.
  • Participants in a conflict management discussion often focus on their differences.  When facilitating, you want to listen for common ground and agreement, reminding people where they share the same viewpoints.  Doing so generally is a catalyst for more positive discussion moving forward.
  • Remember that the behavior individuals display is a function of themselves and the environment in which they are participating.  Consider how you might change the environment to make the conversation more positive and less divisive.  If participants are spread out physically, it is easier to lob verbal bombs at other people.  Creating a more intimate setting interrupts that while also allowing for more eye contact and attention to nonverbal cues.  As facilitator, I suggest you move closer to the group and use your presence to ensure there is a safe climate for the discussion.
  • If emotions run high among all individuals, consider taking a short break to clear the air.  If you encounter an individual speaking in a charged way, you should try mirroring rather than paraphrasing what an individual says.  By repeating the person's exact words you reduce the likelihood the individual will feel the need to clarify your remarks.  Mirror the speaker’s language, not the tone. Speak in a neutral tone and this will help other participants hear the content of what was expressed when the tone might have turned them off.
  • Help the group surface the exact nature of the perceived conflict.  Is it about incompatible goals or more focused on the tasks and work itself?  Is it tied to different belief systems or mental models individuals may hold about what is "right"? Does it surface from personal attitudes and styles among the individuals involve?  Groups often lack clarity about just exactly what is being questioned.
  • Do not forget that you also are bound by the larger (and probably longer) agenda for the conversation that has been convened.  Managing the conflict needs to be done with full consideration of the other work that also was planned.  That said, sometimes a group is locked in such a deep conflict that no other work is possible until it is resolved.  "It seems we are at a stalemate on this particular issue. Are we in a position where we can set it aside for now and move on to other agenda items, or do we simply need to call it a day and identify how else are unfinished work will be completed?"
What other approaches have you found effective when facilitating conflict resolution discussions?