There are people out there who have researched and analyzed conflict resolution for years. They are amazingly skilled and confident in it. I’m not one of them. You may not be either. That said, anyone who deals with groups of people – especially passionate people like volunteers – needs to have at least a working knowledge of conflict management, so I have studied it.
Volunteer programs often bring together people from different backgrounds and experiences. This will almost inevitably lead to conflict. And, while conflict in and of itself isn’t necessarily bad (check out Margaret Heffernan’s TED talk “Dare to Disagree”), if it’s not handled well, it can destroy a program.
Conflicts are bound to arise, but it is how we resolve them that can make all difference in creating a positive and productive environment for volunteers.
In my experience, there are five key points to focus on.
Stop it before it starts.
The best type of conflict resolution is prevention. Stop it before it really gets going. It takes courage, but be willing to deal with even the small signs of resentment as soon as they appear. Don’t let things fester!
It isn’t always easy to see conflict before it becomes a major issue, but it’s one of the skills that leaders of volunteers need. Pay attention to the little signs of bitterness and disrespect that may show up. Things like one volunteer rolling their eyes when another one speaks, or back-handed compliments. I dealt with an issue once where one party kept saying things like “Oh, so-and-so is great at that.” Condescension just dripped from her voice. I had to pull her aside and find out what was behind the spite before it blew up into a full-scale battle.
Listening is probably your most powerful tool in conflict resolution because it allows all parties to feel heard and understood. In many cases, that in itself may be enough to solve the problem! Ask questions to clarify issues and help all sides understand where the others are coming from. It also helps you as the mediator to get to the root cause of the conflict. Often what people seem to be fighting about isn’t the real issue.
It’s vital to stay objective. Even if you are fully on the side of one party, it is essential that you don’t do or say anything to indicate that. Demonstrating preference will only escalate the issue. If you remain firmly neutral and calm, you help everyone else step back from the emotion a bit, and discuss things more reasonably. Objectivity helps people focus on facts rather than personalities.
There are two exceptions to this rule. One is if the conflict is between a volunteer in your program and a staff or board member. The volunteer is part of your team so – as long as their position is reasonable – it is your responsibility to defend them. Part of your role is to advocate for the volunteers in your program and to have their back.
The other is if one of the parties is being abusive to another or is doing something that may harm someone or the organization itself. In this case, you need to treat it less as a conflict and more as a disciplinary issue.
Search for win-win solutions.
Once you have heard all sides of the conflict, come up with common ground. Things that all sides can agree on. Look for shared values or interests and use those as a starting point to build understanding. Many conflicts are less about what goal to aim for as they are about methods to reach that goal. What can be done to satisfy all parties? Once you have taken the emotion out of the conflict by hearing all sides and focusing on the facts of the core issue, most people are willing to look for a solution that satisfies everyone, even if it means compromising a bit.
Show empathy and understanding.
According to Dr. Sherry Turkle, professor of Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, empathy allows us to “combat the dislocation and anxiety that people feel when they face a moment of crisis alone.” When people feel disconnected and anxious, they are more likely to fall into conflict with those around them. By showing empathy and understanding towards all parties, by acknowledging their emotions and helping them feel valued, you build trust and create a more positive and productive environment to foster conflict resolution.
You don’t need to be a professional mediator or an expert in conflict resolution to deal with the issues that will come up in your volunteer program. Focus on the five points above and you will find that you can help people work through most of the animosity that may arise.
It’s not the most enjoyable part of the job, but you’ve got this!