A Problem Ignored Is A Crisis Invited: Managing Conflict Constructively
General Assembly 2006 Event 2076
Speaker: Dr.Wayne B. Clark, Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Director of Congregational Fundraising Services
Early in his workshop, UUA Director of Congregational Fundraising Services Dr. Wayne Clark, who has long experience in helping congregations manage conflict, surprised many attendees by claiming that conflict, rather than an ill to be avoided at all costs, is an inevitable, necessary part of human life. It is often tinged with antagonism, but we must remember that anxiety or fear of risk or loss is at the root of conflict. Clark stated that "conflict needs to be managed, not solved."
The trick is to identify it early, even anticipate it. We can prevent unhealthy conflict by dealing with tension before conflict arises and learning to manage it with more skill and assurance. Clark warned that we should anticipate that tensions which can lead to conflict will occur with almost any significant change. Examples might be any illegal or unethical conduct, changes in the facilities, meeting times, finances, or symbolic representations, or, of course, the arrival or departure of a minister . If we plan for the management of these inevitable conflicts, we can turn them into growing experiences.
Clark then asked attendees "What specific benefits would you gain from sharpening your conflict management skills?" Some answers were that we could learn to see it coming, learn about ideas you never thought of, and learn how to get a good night's sleep in spite of a conflict. Clark mentioned several benefits that others have said, including "letting go of resentments to build more cooperative relationships, building more commitment to agreed-upon decisions," and creating a situation where "everyone wins!"
Some things that can help in addressing tensions before conflict arises include listening with empathy and neutrality, and remembering that we cannot change other people, only ourselves and our own behavioral styles. Clark stressed the importance of accepting each other as growing persons, understanding that each party to the conflict has some part of the truth, and remaining clear about your mission to serve the greater good.
Another surprise came when Clark told attendees that "there are some situations where triangulation is helpful." It is "automatic, inescapable, inevitable, and not good or bad." The goal is to recognize triangulation when you are in the middle of it, manage your anxiety about it, and act in a constructive manner. Effective conflict management starts by asking "Why this issue?" and "Why now?" It is important to understand how we are reacting within the context of our own past, to address both content and feelings, to be direct and stay present, and to affirm appreciation for others' concerns without taking them on ourselves.
Clark concluded his prepared remarks by saying that we can be most effective in managing conflict by developing a "clear vision, mission statement, and strategic plan." If we "create covenants of right relations, identify decision making policies and cultivate attitudes of respect and gratitude," we can prevent unhealthy conflict in our congregations.
Reported by Pat Emery; edited by Jone Johnson Lewis.