Conflict Resolution in a Community

How to overcome conflicts and grow a community.


Conflicts in a community

Any time you bring people together you will have more than one opinion. Instantly. On anything. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard of arguments in a group of people over some of the silliest things. It’s human nature. We want others to agree with our point of view. We want everyone to see things our way, and yet, we also know if we all shared the same view there would be something seriously wrong with us.

If two people agree on everything, one of them is unnecessary
— Winston Churchill

How we handle conflicts within a community is important to the long-term success of the community. Let’s examine the concepts involved in conflict resolution within a community of individuals. To begin we should focus on why this group of unique individuals has come together.

What is a community?

A clear definition of terms is always important when discussing things. How can we discuss something if we are looking at two different things? So let’s look first at the definition and structure of a community. I think this is a great place to start. Obviously I assume most of us have a fairly good grasp on what comprises a community so we’ll run through this quickly. According to Wikipedia a community is defined as follows:

A community is a group of people whose identity as a group lies in their interaction and sharing. Many factors may affect the identity of the participants and their degree of adhesion, such as intent, belief, resources, preferences, needs and risks.”

That’s a basic definition which serves our purpose quite well. A community brings a group of people together to form a common identity. Singular. One identity. A group of diverse people forming a single identity around a unique intent or belief. Seth Godin offers a slightly different definition on his blog and in his book, Tribes:

Working side by side doing something that matters under adverse conditions… that’s what we need.”

But there are many, many types of community. Let’s save some time and look at only a few of the more common types (want to see the full list? check the footnotes).
Voluntary Association: A group of individuals who voluntarily enter into an agreement to accomplish a purpose.
Interest: A group of individuals who share a common interest or passion
Practice: A group of individuals who choose to collaborate over an extended period to share ideas, find solutions, and build innovations.
Purpose: A group of individuals who are going through the same process or are trying to achieve a similar objective.

So, step one, evaluate what type of community you have joined. Does it fit a distinct definition above, more than likely it’s a hybrid of one or more types. It’s important to start here though. You need to know the underlying purpose of the community you are volunteering in. This will help as we continue to the next step.

Find your motivation

Once you have a good working definition of exactly why your community is formed you need to work out why you want to volunteer and be a part of it. What motivates you? Why do you want to invest your time, talents, and energy in this community. It’s an interesting question I admit. Interesting because it’s simple and yet surprisingly complex. What drives us to do the things we do. Sometimes I’m not sure how to answer this myself but it’s a good exercise to undertake.

But wait, it doesn’t stop there. It’s not a one-time question either. Not only do you need to know why you want to start volunteering but you need to periodically ask yourself why you wish to continue volunteering. Has your motivation changed? Has the community changed? If you answer yes to any of these questions then you need to take a moment and thoughtfully consider your situation. Have your feelings changed, have you lost your passion, drive, or motivating desire; if so, then you know it’s time to move on to a new community and a new opportunity.

Side Topic Let’s talk about that for a minute. I just said move on. Does that mean I think your services as a volunteer are of no value? Absolutely not. Every single individual has a unique set of talents and abilities that together form the identity of a community. Does that mean you should never move on. Absolutely not. Interests change, people change, and as we just discussed communities change. It’s not a badge of honor to stay in a community where you are not happy. This leads easily to the next question…

What makes you happy?

If we take the answers you worked on earlier (you did work on them right?) then now you need pick them back up. An important part of any community is evaluating how volunteers are appreciated. See how this relates to your happiness? If you know what makes you feel appreciated and fulfilled and you can define it, you’ll be much more likely to find a community which fits. What are common methods of appreciation in the workplace? Gary Chapman has written a great book on the topic, The Five Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace. Below is a quick summary. I highly recommend reading the full book as it offers a much more detailed review of each.

  1. Words of Affirmation: Uses words to to communicate a positive message to another person. Praise for accomplishments, affirmation of character, praise for personality. This affirmation can take the form of one-on-one, a group setting, and in either written or verbal format.
  2. Quality Time: Giving the person your focused attention. This means quality, focused conversations, listening to thoughts and feelings, and all without distractions or disruptions.
  3. Acts of Service: Providing assistance “What can I do to help?” Assisting someone in the way they would like things done. Be sure to ask before helping.
  4. Tangible Gifts: Physical items, could also be time off. Remember they should be something the person values.
  5. Physical Touch: Human to human contact. This is not a primary means especially in the workplace. Examples would include fist-bumps, handshakes, and high-fives.

As I mentioned, these are only brief summaries and the book provides a very good opportunity to explore the many aspects of appreciation. I want you to take a moment now and review this list. Rank them from greatest importance to those of least importance to you personally. If you know what affirmation is most fulfilling to you then you’ll be more able to recognize how to achieve personal satisfaction from a community.

Whew! Ok, enough of a side-track. Let’s get back to the issue at hand. Conflicts and resolution. First, the conflict.

Conflicts

Now that we have a good definition of community let’s look next at conflicts. Do you hear the word conflict and cringe? I encourage you not to feel too strongly against the idea of conflict. There are, in fact, many benefits and potential positive opportunities which arise from conflicts. We’ll start with a working definition of conflict from Merriam Webster dictionary:

“A difference that prevents agreement : disagreement between ideas, feelings, etc.”

Interestingly enough this is the third definition of conflict, the second definition also includes the idea that conflict “results in often angry argument”. This is the part most people associate with conflict. Angry argument. But I’d suggest the third definition listed above is perhaps a more practical and ideal definition. We all know conflict can be perceived as negative and I’ve already alluded to the idea of conflict avoidance. But there are benefits of conflict as well. In fact, several studies have been done on the subject of the positive benefits of conflict. According to a study, published by Ohio State University, there are a number of positive effects of conflict, including improving the quality of decisions, stimulating involvement in the discussion, and building group cohesion. Conflict is always present. It is not an obstacle to avoid but rather an obstacle to overcome. Conflict typically stems from three basic types: task conflict, interpersonal conflict, and procedural conflict.

  1. Task Conflict: Deals with disagreement about the substance of the discussion. These conflicts can result in improved decision quality. Also, a conflict based on the task can result in a better more thought-out “flow” through the decision process. This can be a positive conflict and resolution.
  2. Interpersonal Conflict: Often described as personality clash. This occurs when individuals disagree with another individual for reasons unrelated to the issue being discussed. This conflict will usually take the form of antagonistic remarks against personal characteristics of another person.
  3. Procedural Conflict: This conflict results when there is a disagreement over the procedures followed to accomplish a goal of the community. This conflict can be a positive form of conflict as it can lead to new procedures being formed and even possibly new goals being defined.
“Peace is not the absence of conflict but the presence of creative alternatives for responding to conflict- alternatives to passive or aggressive responses, alternatives to violence.” — Dorothy Thompson

What can we conclude from this list of conflict types?

First, conflicts are not always bad. Conflicts stem from a variety of reasons and many of them are extremely beneficial for the good of the community. They are not something to be avoided but rather taken as opportunities to improve the community. New tasks, new decision processes, new procedures, and new goals are all possible successes which can result from positively handled conflicts. Second, conflicts are not always resolvable. We’ll discuss the process of conflict resolution in more detail next. However, not every conflict can be easily handled or resolved positively. In particular, interpersonal conflicts can rarely be easily resolved as personal character qualities and preferences heavily influence our opinions and beliefs about other individuals. If a conflict is not resolvable then you need to learn how to best deal with these conflicts as appropriate for the community.


Resolution

Ah, we’ve made it through the tougher part. We can now talk about the resolution to conflict. There are a number of steps resolved in proper conflict resolution and according to the study mentioned earlier we’ll discuss each step.

  1. Recognize and acknowledge existence of conflicts
    This seems basic right? Obviously we can always tell when conflicts exist; ok, maybe not always. Sometimes recognizing conflict is more difficult then you may admit. Identifying not only that conflict exists but also the type of conflict (see above) and then being willing to acknowledge that the conflict exists. If you don’t recognize a conflict then clearly you can’t resolve it.
  2. Analyze the existing situation
    Once you’ve recognized and acknowledged the existence of the conflict you need to analyze the situation. What is the current situation? How severe is the conflict? What are the possible outcomes and what are some worst-case scenarios? This is not a step to skip. Before being able to properly resolve a conflict you need to be able to step back and look at the entire situation.
  3. Encourage communication
    Here’s where it starts to get a little more intensive. This point in conflict resolution is where passions start to get involved, tempers have the greatest chance of flaring and resolution becomes more difficult. But communication cannot be and should not be avoided. Here’s some items to attend to while encouraging positive and constructive communication.
    — Free discussion
    — Encourage accurate communication
    — Listen and raise questions
    — Allow free expression
    — Supply relevant information and facts
    — Maintain objectivity (no emotional pleas)
    — Focus on the issue and not people
    — Be gracious when successful

This great list can be found in the same study shared earlier and listed in the footnotes below. I cannot stress enough the importance of each of these items. This is the crux of the entire resolution process. If you are not careful to actively pursue each of these items during the communication phase the entire process will stall. Communication will break down, and conflicts will abound without resolution.

Summary: Properly encouraged conversation involves free discussion related to the accurate and relevant information shared tactfully and without personal bias.

The outcome

Once these steps have been taken there is a simple plan to reach a resolution. Discuss the options (this is done mainly through the communication step previously), analyze the options, negotiate a resolution based on the facts, make adjustments, and lastly, live with the outcome of the resolution. Not every outcome is a clear “win” for one side of a debate. Most often you’ll find a blended result to be the negotiated result. I would suggest there are in fact, three possible outcomes which can result from successful conflict resolution.

  1. Compromise with a full agreement
    This is the ideal outcome. In this outcome both parties agree completely with the result and both sides believe the resolution to be the best and most successful resolution to the conflict.
  2. Compromise with partial agreement
    This is a second often experienced outcome. In this outcome one party (or both) will make concessions to reach an acceptable resolution, these concessions may cause them to not fully agree with the resolution and yet, as a result of successful communication are able to negotiate a compromise which can be partially agreed upon.
  3. Compromise with no agreement but acceptance
    This is the least desirable outcome, however still a valid resolution to conflict. In this outcome one party accepts the resolution but disagrees with the result. This typically involves accepting a solution to end a conflict but stating a disagreement with it. This should be a last resort for conflict resolution and the party in disagreement must be exceptionally careful to not allow the disagreement to be overpowering of the acceptance. Again, tact and grace are desirable character qualities to exhibit.
Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak. Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen. — Winston Churchill

Putting it all together.

I’d like to finish with three important take away points. They are quite simple: respect others, stick to the facts, and be willing to compromise. Allow me to elaborate briefly on each.

First, respect others. Be careful to debate the issues and not the person. Be respectful of others. You wouldn’t like someone attacking you in a debate; give them the same courtesy. Obey the golden rule. Remind yourself of what we looked at in the first point above — why you are volunteering? And remember, as a community we have a single common identity.

Second, don’t let your emotions control your discussion. Avoid being overly dramatic in an attempt to “win votes”. It’s hard to keep this in mind when discussing something you’re deeply passionate about. It is also hard when you must convey your thoughts on a language which is not native to you, the nuances of languages, especially English, can be a nightmare. Do your best to think through your words before speaking — choose carefully. This becomes easier when only discussing facts. State facts clearly and concisely. And then listen to others’ responses.

Lastly, work together to negotiate a solution. Compromise is often the result of debates. Don’t expect to always win everyone to your point of view. You may have times when you clearly state your facts and it is evident to all the truth in your view; more than likely some compromise will be necessary. This is not failure. You are not losing the argument to come to an agreement which involves sacrifices on both sides of an issue. See our previous point regarding the outcomes of a conflict.


About the author
David Hurley is a small-business owner with a passion for open source communities and realizing the power of people working together. He volunteers his time to a number of non-profit organizations where he seeks to enable others to become more empowered and to love what they do. You are welcome to follow him on twitter: @dbhurley or LinkedIn: /davidbhurley or contact him through email or Google+ David Hurley

Sources
Intentionally building communities (More hallway!)
http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2009/04/intentionally-building-communities.html

Conflict Management in Community Organizations
http://ohioline.osu.edu/cd-fact/l701.html

Outline of Community
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Outline_of_community

The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace: Empowering Organizations by Encouraging People
Gary Chapman http://www.appreciationatwork.com/

http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/conflict

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Outline_of_community

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