Unfortunately, nonprofits are no strangers to conflict. In the nonprofit realm, when conflict erupts it is usually in the form of disagreement with external stakeholders such as beneficiaries, funders, media and/or regulatory agencies. Conflict can also ignite internally dividing members, directors, and staff into competing factions.
The field of conflict resolution offers some simple principles that can be utilized to help nonprofits deal with internal and external disagreements. What follows is a ten-step primer for turning conflict into a opportunity for positive change.[i]
- Consider the Human Element. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you can fix something by looking solely at the facts. Human emotions and relationships are inevitable, and you will be much more successful if you take this into account as you deal with others. In other words, in addition to technical issues, you must also consider the “human factor”.
- Avoid Assumptions. You must fully understand all the facets of the problem. DON’T ASSUME ANYTHING. There may be issues that underlie the problem that can undermine what appears on the surface to be a perfectly good solution. Preparation is key. Anticipating possible pitfalls will lead to more productive meetings and longer-lived outcomes.
- Develop a Strategy and Stick to it. Your strategy should include the following steps: find a common definition of the problem, agree on negotiation procedures, identify the issues and interests of each party, develop options for a solution, arrive at a solution, and agree how that solution should be implemented.
- Don’t Shoot the Messenger. Develop and maintain positive working relationships. Conflict often results in a breakdown in communication. Do not fall into this trap. When a conflict becomes polarized, pertinent and important information is mistrusted or ignored and nothing of import is accomplished.
- Get to the Heart of the Problem. Work on defining the issue as a mutual problem to be solved. If necessary, break the problem down into manageable components that all parties agree on, and tackle them one at a time.
- Get all Parties Invested in the Solution. Not only does this spread responsibility to everyone, it gives each party a stake in the outcome. You are much more likely to avoid a rejection of a good solution if all involved participate in devising the solution and have something to lose if the problem isn’t solved.
- Focus on Shared Interests. Instead of staking out a hard position, think of the interests behind your position – and ask others to actively state their interests. It is surprising how similar interests can be when positions are, on the surface, seriously divergent. Solving issues based on meeting parties’ interests results in long-term solutions, which is a goal shared by everyone.
- Be Flexible. Conflicts, facts, and parties can change. Allow your well-thought-out plan to adapt to current circumstances. This doesn’t imply haphazard management, but rather wisdom and the courage to change tactics to achieve the best outcome.
- Anticipate Potential Pitfalls. Anticipating pitfalls does not suggest seeing the glass half empty, but instead is a benchmark of any good strategy. Plan your meeting and set goals – but explore what problems may arise. Once you have identified possible problems, have a plan in place to address them. This may consist of calling for a break and speaking with someone individually, or it may be a matter of simply reminding everyone of the agreed-upon ground rules for board meetings.
- Do No Harm. A board’s goal should be to solve problems, not create new ones. Several key points here are:
- allow enough time to reach a solution;
- create an appropriate, constructive process for problem-solving;
- identify key parties; and finally, and
- don’t tackle a problem that cannot be solved.
While some of these steps may seem intuitive, it is amazing how often competent, successful people overlook these basics. Also, implementing them is not as simple as it appears, and can be quite difficult. It will, however, allow you to stay the course and find your way to the best resolution to the problem. Conflict resolution requires patience, as the more controversial or complex an issue, the more time it may take to resolve. Investing the time needed to reach the best solution is well worth it in the long run.
About the Author: Kimberly A. Witherspoon is an attorney practicing in Little Rock, Arkansas. She has practiced on the litigation side for over 14 years. She is currently completing a conflict mediation/negotiation graduate school program at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
[i] See Managing Public Disputes, Susan L. Carpenter & W.J.D. Kennedy (1988)