Unit 4 Section 4.5: Resolving Conflicts

Conflict is virtually inevitable in a collaborative endeavor. Disagreements are bound to happen when a diverse collection of voices and perspectives gathers. However, conflict does not always have to be negative. When handled appropriately, conflict can provide an opportunity for constructive change.

What topics are likely to produce conflict in CBPR partnerships?

  • Discriminatory “isms” such as racism, sexism, ageism, etc.

  • Contrasting goals, values, or priorities

  • Conflicts between different members of the partnership

  • Communication break-downs

  • Power imbalances

  • Commitment imbalances or unequal work loads

  • Clashing organizational cultures

  • Financial or budgetary losses  or conflict about resource allocation

When conflict arises, consider the following:

  • Always assume there is a legitimate reason. Do not seek out a “trouble-maker” or lay blame.

  • If serious conflict occurs, take the time to resolve it. If conflicts are ignored or buried by the group, they are bound to grow larger and resurface again.

  • If you are unsure about the cause of group conflict, ask other thoughtful group members outside of the group setting. It may be helpful to use an outside consultant or party to help facilitate discussion of conflicts and contentious issues. In making difficult decisions such as eliminating a program or position or working through a sticky political situation, it can be difficult to have someone from within the partnership facilitate this conversation. Contracting with a facilitator or recruiting someone skilled in this work may make the discussion or decision-making process easier and will ensure that everyone has the opportunity to participate. If an outsider is used, it is important to carefully consider who the appropriate candidate is and ensure that they do their homework to know the partnership and have a clear sense of what the partnership wants to get out of their assistance.

  • Conflict evokes emotion. When the group members are hurt by conflict, it must be addressed or they will not feel safe. This could stop the group from making any further significant decisions.

  • Open, clear communication is the best prevention to avoiding unnecessary conflicts and can help resolve misunderstandings before they become full-blown arguments. Be very open and deliberate about all decision-making processes. For difficult decisions, for example on budget cuts, ensure that all the information and discussion points are out on the table. There may be less conflict when everyone wrestles with the difficult decision together. This is also a way to share power.

Example 4.5.1 Steps for Resolving Conflict

1. Understand diversity of styles, background, perspective, assumptions, race, ethnicity, culture, language, training, and point of view. Be aware that cultural differences can affect our approach to communicating, disclosing, making decisions, and resolving conflict.

2. Discuss and resolve differences as they arise

3. Assume that everyone has the right to bring up their feelings and get them resolved to their satisfaction.

4. Identify the probable cause of the conflict:

  • Are differences of opinion caused by lack of information?

  • Is there a power struggle or competition? Are two individuals trying for leadership or control?Are institutional interests at stake?

  • Is there a “personality conflict”? That is, are individuals personalizing differences of style, communication, or approach?

  • Is the group tired? Feeling hopeless, discouraged, or unsuccessful?

  • Is the group confused about its task?

  • Are differences of power related to race or culture causing conflict?

5. Negotiate solutions using a problem-solving approach. You may consider asking a mediator or other neutral third party to facilitate. Hear both sides and focus on shared interests. What does each party want? Where is the common ground? What solution(s) would be most fair?

6. Develop a written or verbal agreement and a process for checking progress.

Adapted from the Center for Collaborative Planning, www.connectccp.org


Exercise 4.5.2: CBPR – “The REAL World”

This role-play can be a great way for a CBPR partnership to explore challenges and possible strategies, laugh, and relieve stress.

Place the following scenarios on strips of paper and mix in a hat (and/or develop your own scenarios).  Ask for two volunteers to pick a strip out of the hat. After reviewing the scenario, the two people “act it out” in front of the rest of the group.  Those in the audience can “mix it up” by doing the following:

  • Joining in as a third/fourth party;

  • Replacing one of the people in the situation; or

  • Announcing “switch” to start a new scenario.

Sample scenarios:

  • After two years of stable funding from the State Health Dept, you learn that you are “no longer a strategic priority”: What do you wish you could say to your funder?

  • For the last 5 meetings, the same partner has arrived over a half hour late to every single meeting and makes you rehash everything you have already covered: What do you wish you could say to your partner?

  • Your department chair never gets you letters of support on time and makes it difficult for you to get your proposals together in a timely fashion: What do you wish you could say to your chair?

  • Your Mayor has agreed to be a keynote at a report launch. At the last minute (after the press has been notified and all the invites have gone out), s/he backs out. What do you wish you could say to your mayor?

  • A reporter repeatedly misquotes you and misses the point of your harm reduction approach and regularly paints your team as irresponsibly encouraging teen pregnancy. What do you wish you could say to this reporter?

  • Your partner has made her twelfth thousandth grammatical revision to a paper you thought was great 15 drafts ago. What do you wish you could say to your partner?

  • Someone suggests that the partnership starts their meetings at 7 am before they have to go to work. You are not a morning person. What do you wish you could say to your partner?

  • You have been up until 3 am finishing a presentation. Your partner tells you they hate it. What do you wish you could say to your partner?

  • You have been working with the same person at Agency Y for 3 years who was a total delight. Recently, that person quit and there is a new person on board who is impossible to work with. What do you wish you could say to the Executive Director at Agency Y?

  • What are the top 10 things that drive you crazy about working with/in Universities?

  • What are the top 10 things that drive you crazy about working with/in Community-Based Settings?

  • You find out that one of your key survey administrators has been fabricating results for the last 3 months. What do you wish you could say to him?

Even though humorous interpretations of these scenarios can be a lot of fun, it is important that the exercise moderator is able to ensure that some useful and practical suggestions are suggested for each of these real-life experiences. For example, after each scenario is acted out in different ways, the moderator can ask the audience if they have successfully navigated the situation in the past and what strategies they would suggest for how to handle it in the future.