Dealing with conflict

  • Options for conflict management
  • Collaboration
  • Compromise
  • Power and dominance
  • Suppression
  • Denial or withdrawal
  • People-centred and task-centred considerations

Can you remember a trip when some form of conflict took the edge off your enjoyment? You might even remember a trip where a conflict significantly affected the safety of the trip, or led to a serious accident. Understanding how conflict can arise and how to handle it constructively can make your trip more enjoyable and probably safer. Negative outcomes such as a divided group, a poorly resolved navigational disagreement or an outright morale-sapping interpersonal clash are to be avoided if at all possible.

Experienced leaders have an awareness of potential ‘hot spots’ even before the trip starts. Are there people on the trip who have been involved in conflicts on previous trips? Are there personality combinations which don’t always work well together? Are there potential areas of conflict in the route choice or the challenge of the trip?

As the trip progresses be alert for differences and potential problems. Remember, you may be looking at simply managing the process rather than resolving the problem. Particularly on shorter trips, it might be best to simply control the situation for the short term. On longer trips, however, it could be important to at least defuse the situation, and preferably to bring it to resolution. It is also important to remember that the way we might approach conflict on a trip involving friends, who know each other well, may be different to how we would approach a similar situation on a trip with a group who may not see each other again.

Options for conflict management

If a conflict develops, there are a number of approaches which may be taken in seeking a resolution. The model presented in Figure 54.1 provides an overall description of five conflict management techniques. The discussion below examines the applicability of each in the outdoors, considering the balance between the need to satisfy others’ needs against your own.

A collaborative approach requires a level of trust and commitment from both sides. This draws each party into an honest examination of both positions, and encourages each side to make an effort to understand the other. The aim is to reach a win/win solution that both sides are happy with—which may be quite different from the initial position of both. Clearly this can be a time-consuming process and may not be possible in some circumstances, such as when there is an emergency or a time pressure, or when one or other party is not prepared to make the effort needed, or even acknowledge that a conflict exists.

Approach: ‘Let’s talk this through’. ‘Let’s get together and thrash this out’.

A compromise approach, each party shifting to a middle position, may be deceptively similar to the collaborative approach. However if goodwill is missing, or if one or other party feels that they have given up more than they wanted, then the compromise is more of a win/lose or even a lose/lose outcome. Negotiating a compromise in an atmosphere of mistrust can encourage distortions of the truth, and will not work well where there are ‘either/or’ situations involved.

Approach: ‘I’ll give a bit – you give a bit, and we’ll meet half way’.

Power and dominance
When the resolution process becomes a power struggle and a lack of cooperation prevails, then we can finish up with the lose/lose option of power and dominance. The power may come from the set up in the group (such as the leader taking charge) from other forms of manipulation, or a power base evolving from the social dynamics in the group. Voting, while seemingly a democratic form of collaboration if not compromise, may be a form of power-based leadership.

A resolution such as this does not always feel very comfortable and the problem may re-emerge later. At times however, such as in an emergency, a dominant leader may take charge. In this situation the process may well have the ready compliance of the whole group, or may rapidly achieve acceptance if the strategic direction selected appears to be working.

Approach: ‘I have decided that we will…’. ‘You will…’. ‘If you don’t come with us, we’ll…’.

Suppression of conflict, while quite common, is not generally a satisfying outcome. It is a lose/lose form of conflict management. While it is in one sense cooperative, both parties are in all likelihood holding onto the conflict and it may well arise again. If the leader or the group establishes a norm that it isn’t acceptable to have conflict in this group, then the process may go underground. In which case, even if there is discontent, the issue may not be touched on for the rest of the trip. This may be useful if a higher premium is placed on maintaining good relationships in the group and the conflict can safely be ignored. However, there is no airing of the issues or resolution of the problem. In club groups, where people participate together on activities regularly, suppression of issues will very likely result in them resurfacing in other club settings or on future trips.

Approach: ‘We don’t argue in this group’. ‘We run a happy ship here’.

Denial or withdrawal
Finally there is the option of denial or withdrawal, characterised by ‘Perhaps if I ignore it, it will go away’. This is another lose/lose process in which the issue is not dealt with, and there is no expression of feeling. Effectively, all parties pretend the issue doesn’t exist. For minor issues this can be the best policy, and certainly for personal issues between group members where the leader is not really involved, this can be a suitable response.

Approach: ‘It will sort itself out’. ‘Don’t worry, there probably isn’t a real problem anyway’.

People-centred and task-centred considerations

Another dimension worth considering in the conflict resolution process is the extent to which the parties involved in the conflict are adopting people-centred and task-centred approaches. People-centred approaches highly value the needs and feelings of those directly involved. In contrast, task-centred approaches place the achievement of goals (or the interests of the total group) more highly, as shown in Figure 54.2. Conflict resolution is easiest where there is a balance between people and task needs, and recognising this dimension can assist in achieving a solution.

Quite frequently in outdoors circumstances, the key issue causing the disagreement is differences between people and task needs. For example, some group members may value ‘peak bagging’ more than any other aspect of the trip, and if it is getting late on Sunday when others want to be heading for the cars, conflict can easily result. As in so many aspects of outdoor leadership, active planning and a willingness to modify goals during the trip will assist in preventing the conflict in the first place.

Figure 54.2 People-centred and task-centred approaches.

Importance of relationship (people centred)

• People accept differences
• Problem solving is easy
• Differences are expressed and understood
• Issue is not worth resolving
• People are more concerned with truth than with their own positions
• Differences are expressed and understood
• Issues are considered worth raising and working toward agreement
• Problem solving negotiation is win–win
• The relationship can be strengthened
• If relationship ends, the ending is painful but not bitter
• Differences present problems
• Little things easily become big things
• Situations can escalate
• Differences present almost insurmountable problems
• Situations have the potential to polarise parties
• People have low willingness to work toward agreement
• Situations can become win-lose
• Escalation or suppression is likely
• People can break off the relationship
• Ending will be painful and 'dirty' (blame, attack, defence, and so on
Low  Importance of issue (task centred)  High

General points

Whatever form of conflict management you use, some general points for conducting the process may be helpful:

  • Before you get too far into the process, be sure you have the facts, and that the problem is as clearly defined as possible.
  • Keep focused on the interests of the parties rather than being distracted by outcomes.
  • If you can involve the whole group, use them to generate a range of options, and then select an alternative.
  • Keep in mind both the need to get on with the job, but also the needs of the individuals involved.

Up to a point, healthy, constructive conflict can be a good thing. Encouraging people to air issues, to debate them in a robust fashion and bring out a range of views into the open can lead to satisfactory resolutions which stick. The good leader will develop the skill of knowing when to step in and how to harness the energy of this type of discussion. The challenge is to know when and how to do this with grace and dignity!