Dealing with Conflict in Meetings
Conflict happens. Most simply, it occurs when there are two contradictory ideas in a room at the same time. Authentic, in-depth relationships will inevitably include some conflict, as people are different and hold diverse experiences, ideas, and opinions.
Peter Steinke, in his book Healthy Congregations: A Systems Approach, says that in healthy congregations, “conflict is normal, essential and managed” (page 45). Constructive conflict may be difficult, but it sends the message that everyone has an opportunity to speak and be heard, that there is the intention to develop win-win situations, and that there exists an underlying faith that new possibilities can emerge when different people and ideas interpenetrate.
- Conflict, if not attended to, can become negative and destructive. Environments with the following characteristics may foster unhealthy conflict:
- Unstructured meetings.
- Unclear objectives.
- Uncertain responsibility and accountability.
- Lack of (or not using) a covenant of right relations.
- No facilitation, or a facilitator who is not sufficiently skilled or assertive.
- Early warning signs of conflict are ignored—such as a lack of participation, one or two people taking control, or people being disruptive or rude.
- Closed communication systems—those with a lack of feedback loops, a few people holding all the information, secrets being kept, and new ideas discouraged.
One of Steinke’s chapters is titled “An Ounce of Prevention Is Worth a Pound of Intervention.” To prevent destructive conflict in meetings, try to nurture a culture that promotes respectful communication and creative interchange; much of this section describes ways to promote this type of culture. Early intervention is better than later intervention. Some basic ways to manage conflict in meetings include the following:
- Clarify objectives.
- Review covenant.
- Review the decision process.
- Have the facilitator or chairperson engage in process while modeling a “nonanxious presence.”
- Name the reality, and invite participants to come up with ways to deal with the situation.
You may wish to use the focused conversation ORID method to structure conversation, as described below:
Objective-Level Questions: Getting the Facts
- What are the main disagreements being expressed?
- What is being said that creates conflict?
Reflective-Level Questions: Honoring Feelings, Reactions, and Associations
- What are your gut reactions to this conflict?
- What past experiences are triggered for you?
Interpretive-Level Questions: Exploring Meaning
- What does this conflict say about us as a religious community?
- What images or metaphors come to you in the midst of this conflict?
Decisional-Level Questions: Making Decisions
- What should we do next?
- How might we navigate this conflict in a way that keeps everyone’s dignity intact?
Usually the subtle precedes the obvious, so if you can pay attention for signs of tension early on and address them, destructive conflict can often be avoided. However, sometimes conflict festers quietly or escalates quickly to become negative, disruptive, and toxic. In these cases, ask for help from outside your group. This help could come from the minister, a congregational conflict team, or an external consultant.
From Meetings that Work: Make Them Meaningful and Productiive (PDF)
New Congregation and Growth Resources
UUA Congregational Life Staff Group (2005)