Effective Conflict Resolution Strategies for Overcoming Obstacles

Over the past four years, we have dedicated our time to studying conflict among adults in schools and delivering presentations on this topic nationwide. During these presentations, after we explain a series of recommended conflict resolution strategies, someone in the audience always raises their hand and says, “I’m sure your strategies work in 99 percent of schools, but you haven’t seen what goes on in my school!” Undeniably, conflict resolution is never a quick or easy process (otherwise, it wouldn’t be conflict!), and sometimes disputes seem impossible to resolve. Strong opponents continue to clash, similar to a 17th-century term that described unintelligent individuals or a blunt object used for forceful hits.

When a group finds themselves knee-deep in a difficult and “wicked” problem, how can a leader help? Literature in the field of organizational psychology and our own experiences suggest several strategies that leaders can employ to help a group get “unstuck” and move forward: reducing tension, asking insightful questions, and implementing new procedures.

Looking at the Conflict Differently

Reduce tension: The initial step is to lower the emotional intensity, possibly by taking a break. Leaders must also be mindful of their own emotional state to prevent exacerbating the level of social distress with their words and actions. Promoting psychological safety by respecting all opinions also diminishes the likelihood of adopting an “us versus them” mentality. Injecting a bit of humor can also help lighten the mood, with the group leader using a heartfelt smile while comparing their role to herding cats.

Consider a high school committee consisting of staff, students, and parents who are at odds over the choice between restorative justice and a swift-and-sure-consequences approach to discipline. The leader’s initial goal is to shift the tone towards civil discourse and a genuine willingness to listen. Next steps might include taking a short break, reminding everyone that they share a common goal of improving the school’s social and emotional climate, establishing a few ground rules (e.g., no personal attacks, seek understanding first, shared responsibility for finding solutions), and creating a list of questions that the group will address in future meetings.

Extend the time frame: Committees often seek quick solutions, but deep-seated conflict requires time to build trust and thoroughly examine the issues at hand. In the case of the high school discipline policy committee, a preliminary step is to commit to dedicating a year to gather information and brainstorm alternatives. “This is a complex issue,” the administrator might declare. “If there were easy answers, we would have found them already. Our work will require time.”

Clarify assumptions and define the conflict: It is helpful to identify, without making judgments, the underlying assumptions behind opposing viewpoints and analyze how these differing positions contribute to the conflict. Before discussing potential solutions, the group must have a better understanding of the nature of the conflict.

Returning to the high school discipline committee, the leader could ask the group if they can agree on the underlying theories behind each perspective. Then, they could create a three-column chart to outline the benefits, concerns, and lingering questions associated with each approach. This exercise helps to move away from the belief that only two options exist and that they are mutually exclusive. Once the group shifts from a simplistic either/or mindset to a more creative “What else is there?” mindset, healthier and more productive conversations can take place.

Shift focus from personal issues to the task at hand: Organizational conflict research suggests that intense us-versus-them disputes arise when the conflict becomes personal, with individuals attributing blame to each other’s skills, personality, intelligence, and motives. It is not enough for two people to simply disagree; they also disparage each other. Effective leaders redirect difficult conversations from “who” to “what” or “how” – from personal focus to the organization’s needs, abstract ideas, and the most effective means of achieving the task at hand.

In the high school discipline committee, the controversy may have become personal, with both sides attacking each other and making ad hominem accusations. The leader’s role is to shift the discussion from “who is wrong” to “what works.”

In this case, the leader could ask the group if they can agree on the underlying theories behind each perspective. The swift-and-sure-consequences approach relies on principles of behavior modification from psychology, while restorative justice draws on community-based principles of accountability and repair. By setting aside personal attacks and focusing on how each approach is intended to function, the team may be able to make progress.

Experiment with different approaches: Two approaches that have proven effective in resolving contentious disputes are “trading places” and “uncommittees.” In the trading places approach, members of each group take on the opposite stance. For example, supporters of restorative justice would present the views of those advocating for swift-and-sure consequences, and vice versa.

An “uncommittee” temporarily suspends the committee’s activities and mandates that each member seek feedback from a wide range of stakeholders. This feedback aims to elicit new ideas that can help the group address the current deadlock and move the discussion forward. While gathering information, leaders also take the time to reevaluate logistical aspects, as seemingly trivial details such as the table shape, seating arrangements, or meeting time can become obstacles on the path to solutions.

Asking Impactful Questions

We distinguish between genuinely inquisitive questions and statements disguised as questions. The following questions, posed by a “conflict-agile” leader, can propel a group forward:

Questions that bring clarity:

  • What is the main point you are trying to convey?
  • What is currently the driving force behind this issue?

Questions that shed light on the consequences:

  • What are the expected outcomes, both obvious and diverse?
  • What potential consequences have not been considered?
  • What might happen if…?

Questions that encourage a change in perspective:

  • Consider how others perceive this issue…
  • Why might they hold that viewpoint?
  • How can we…?
  • What would we do if money were not a constraint? (Brainstorming without financial limitations enables the group to envision ideal outcomes.)
  • What possibilities have we overlooked? What perspectives are we neglecting?

Questions that address the group dynamics:

  • If you had the power to change one thing, what would it be?
  • Why do you think we are feeling stuck?
  • What important topics have not been discussed? What is the critical issue that everyone is avoiding?

Navigating through rough waters tests the skills of any sailor or school leader. Successfully navigating choppy waters requires skilled leadership equipped with a variety of strategies that allow progress to be made, even when it seems impossible. The process may be messy and frustrating, but once collaborative problem-solving becomes the norm, transformative solutions become achievable.

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