Turning Group Conflict into an Asset

by Gary Gilles

Being involved in groups is an inevitable part of life. You might have regular group meetings at work, serve on a committee at church, volunteer for an organization or attend a 12-step group. Participation in a group can be a very fulfilling and energizing experience as you work cooperatively to accomplish your goal. But, as anyone who has been in a few groups knows, groups that are not working together well can be miserable. And the most common reason for bad group experiences is conflict that never gets fully resolved.

When conflict arises in a group setting it can instantly create an uneasy tension. Too often the conflict lingers beyond the initial gathering and creates tension between group members. The next time the group gathers, the tension hangs in the air like dense smoke. When new conflicts arise, it is difficult to know whether it is old, unresolved conflict or new matters that are at issue.

It is typically the group leader’s job to identify and manage this conflict. Unfortunately, many group leaders do not know how to address and resolve conflict in a healthy manner. Disagreements arise, attitudes flare and harsh words may be spoken leaving individuals feeling hurt, misunderstood, or alienated.

 Conflict as an asset

Anyone who has worked with a team of people knows that conflict is inevitable. It isn’t a question of whether there will be disagreements, but rather how we will deal with them when they arise. So why not use conflict as an asset to strengthen relationships, make sounder group decisions, and increase motivation among group members.

It can be done, but requires all group members to practice some basic ground rules of conflict management. Without mutual practice of these principles, conflict can become destructive and sometimes downright ugly. If your group has spiraled down this abyss in the past, it may take some time and effort to rescue them from the pit of conflict avoidance. But these ideas will work if the group is committed to them.

Express your disagreement

Group members must first decide they are going to be honest with one another. This means that when they have differing views on subjects, they will express that disagreement instead of remaining silent. This is not an invitation to say whatever you want, which we’ll talk more about shortly.

By not speaking up when you disagree, you deprive the group of potentially valuable insight. This insight might redirect the way a problem is solved, or an important decision is made. You could even say that by not speaking up, you are deceiving the group. Your silence conveys agreement, when internally, you feel very different.

An open forum where disagreement is freely expressed needs to be encouraged by the group leader. If the leader is insecure about ideas being expressed that are contrary, little honesty among members can be expected. This promotes a lack of satisfaction among group members because their views are not heard. It also greatly reduces the effectiveness of decision-making because all ideas are not considered.

Be sensitive to others’ issues

As you express your disagreements, be aware that the words you choose can either positively or negatively affect those listening. For instance, a woman in a recent class I was teaching on group communication made the bold statement: “Men don’t listen well to each other in conversation.” While her comment may have been an honest expression of her opinion, it was not sensitive to the men in the group. Instead she could have made a general statement such as, “I find it difficult when someone I’m talking to doesn’t listen well.” This captures the essence of what she wants to say, but doesn’t push emotional buttons for those in the group. And pushing buttons will inevitably derail you from the topic at hand and create unnecessary tension between group members.

Considering your words carefully is more than just being politically correct. It is extending consideration to those around you. Your disagreements have a greater chance of being heard when you phrase them in sensitive language.

Criticize the idea, not the person

Express your disagreements in a way that doesn’t devalue the person with whom you disagree. To help make this point, let me share an example of how it was done well at a meeting I attended not long ago. A man had just finished explaining a project proposal to a committee. One member, who was opposed to the proposal, responded by saying, “One significant flaw in your proposal is that it excludes families with lower incomes from participating in your program due to cost. What can be done to include them?” While the responder may have wanted to say something like, “Who is the bonehead who came up with this idea?” he chose to address the issue and not attack the person. As a result, the discussion continued moving forward in a productive manner.

If your goal is to use conflict as a means of building a more cohesive group, don’t allow personal attacks or name-calling to infiltrate your relationships. It will only serve to escalate conflict in a negative direction and cause people to choose sides. If it does happen, simply stop the conversation, make your point about such behavior being counterproductive, and ask the person to restate their disagreement by focusing on the issue. This sets a precedent for future discussions even if it hasn’t been in place before. Call it each time it happens and group members will express their disagreements openly because they feel safe from verbal attack.

Disagree with inquiry, not defensiveness

When you’re on the receiving end of a disagreement, you can feel defensive even if the person is not attacking you. Often the disagreeing person is simply not grasping your point. Rather than trying to defend your position, listen actively to member’s remarks. Ask them to summarize your main point. This enables you to pinpoint possible misunderstandings and further clarify your position.

This is not an easy skill to master. No one likes to be told they are wrong, including me. I was conducting a workshop a few months ago and one participant interrupted me mid-sentence with an accusation that I was being narrow in my presentation. My first thought was to defend my point and move on with my material. But instead, I took a break from my content and asked her some questions. “What is your main concern with the idea I’m presenting?” I asked. She responded with several objections in a passionate and animated way. The more she talked, the more she seemed to distort what I said, so I asked, “What did you hear me say?” She paraphrased my comments in her own words, to which I replied, “I think you misunderstood what I was trying to say.” Then I restated my point concisely, asked her if this made sense, and moved on. I diffused the conflict by entering into it instead of trying to sidestep it.

By taking an inquiring posture with those who disagree with you, new ideas and suggestions get thrown into the conversation. These may lead to creative solutions that were never considered. And so what if your idea eventually falls flat. By inviting discussion you moved the process forward in a positive way that defensive reaction could never accomplish.

You can make conflict work for your group but it takes a commitment from all group members. Each person must agree to honesty state their disagreements in a sensitive manner that focuses on the idea, not the person. Conflict can be one of your greatest assets if you use it wisely.




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