Conflict is both normal and inevitable where a group of people are trying to achieve something. It may be a sign that relationships have not been developed or maintained well. The important thing is how conflict is dealt with. If it’s addressed constructively, conflict can be an important step in building and maintaining relationships.
Conflict may arise due to:
- Diversity and difference in values, opinions, culture, needs and perceptions.
- Power imbalances.
- Suppression of feelings and emotions.
On this page:
- Conflict in the life cycle of a group
- Strategies for managing conflict
- Using rounds to resolve conflict
- Dealing with hostility
The following model of group stages accepts that conflict is a normal part of group development:
- Forming – people are usually quite tentative when groups are new – polite, interested, keen, enthusiastic, shy.
- Storming – people move into a more relaxed mode and become their real selves. This is the stage when conflict is most likely to occur – where people get annoyed by one another’s behaviour.
- Norming – this is what occurs once some resolution takes place. For example, a person’s consistent lateness really annoyed you, so you brought this up in the group. As a result, the meeting time has changed to 9.15am, so that person has time to drop their children off at school beforehand – problem solved!
- Performing – this is the ultimate stage in a group’s life where things are going really well. Everyone knows each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and gets the job done as a team.
Conflict can happen at any time in a group but is most likely to cause real problems in the ‘storming’ stage.
Pointers for dealing with conflict include:
- Don’t panic when conflict arises – see it as an opportunity for growth.
- Recognise that people and cultures see and handle conflict in different ways.
- Try to look at things from each person’s point of view – take their feelings seriously.
- Try to separate people and personalities from the situation – consider issues only.
- Make time to talk about it.
- Be clear in your own mind what your goal is but be open to changing it or finding alternative ways of achieving it.
- Focus on mutual interest.
- Emphasise common concerns and points of agreement.
- Look for options where there are mutual gains.
If addressed constructively, conflict can be an important step in building and maintaining relationships.
As a group member or facilitator, it’s useful to have some strategies to guide the group through conflict:
- People often talk about what’s annoying them outside of the group, rather than at meetings. Providing a time for people to speak when the group is together can be helpful. Try introducing this as ‘time to discuss how we are going.’
- When people are in conflict and not dealing with it, the energy of the group will often be sluggish. Check out what’s happening if you sense an energy loss.
- Set some ground rules – things like ‘no put-downs’ or ‘using I statements.’
- Revisit the group’s purpose. Have people temporarily forgotten what they are there for or are people working towards different goals?
- If the conflict has become too big, it’s sometimes best to stop the meeting. Conflict might be better dealt with just between the people concerned or using an outside facilitator.
- People often bring things up that are irrelevant to the purpose but still important to them. Use a ‘parking lot’ piece of paper for these issues - this lets people know they aren’t forgotten. The issues can then be dealt with either after the meeting or at the end. If the issue is big enough, consider calling another meeting to deal with it.
Materials: Whiteboard or flipchart.
Time: 1–2 hours.
Process: The process uses ‘structured rounds’ where everyone in the group is given a set amount of time to comment on the issue in question. No one can interrupt or comment on what that person has said while they are speaking.
During the first round, the facilitator encourages people to state their feelings and what they see as the issue. During the second, and possibly third or fourth round, the facilitator encourages people to identify solutions to the issue. Both the issues and suggested solutions are written up where all can see. Once the alternatives have been listed, have a round where people state their solution preferences.
It’s useful to start each round with a different person. If people don’t want to speak, they can ‘pass.’
Particular skills are needed to deal with situations where people are reacting in a hostile or angry way towards you. This can be difficult in a meeting situation where protracted arguments can prevent the group achieving its purpose. It can help to consider why people might be hostile and to have some techniques for working through the situation, while acknowledging their anger.
Reasons why people might be hostile towards you could include:
- They are annoyed with something you have done.
- They are annoyed with something someone else has done.
- They feel they’ve been ignored.
- There have been historical injustices.
- They may see you as the leader and may have had problems with authority figures in the past (teachers, police, welfare staff, government officers).
- They are having a bad day or have things going on at home.
- They are hostility junkies (people who look for conflict wherever they go).
Strategies for dealing with hostility include:
- Acknowledge people’s anger and give them time to explain why they’re angry. Often trying to shut people down or offer explanations or solutions too early is counter-productive. Reflect back what they are saying so they know you have heard and understood. For example, try ‘So you’re really annoyed that you weren’t informed about this project earlier?’ rather than ‘We had a problem with our database and some people got left off the mailing list.’
- Respond using ‘I’ statements.
- Ask others if they are also concerned about the issue.
- If the person still needs to talk and time is limited, suggest taking the conversation somewhere else – for example, ‘I can see you’re concerned about this. Is this the right place to talk about it or would you prefer to meet when we have more time?’.
- If the person’s behaviour is disruptive to the meeting, check with the group what they would like to do.