Managing Conflict in Engagement: Strategies for Success

Managing Conflict in Engagement

Conflict in engagement is about as natural as black flies in June. It should be expected, and it can be distracting and feel futile. While we might feel that conflict is “bad” or to be avoided, it can serve its own purpose; just like we need to remind ourselves about black flies.

Challenging the status quo, bringing in different perspectives and shaking up the norms of an organization can all be good things, but they can also be uncomfortable. One of the most important considerations when it comes to conflict is to ask: is this uncomfortable or is this unsafe?

Unsafe conflict can lead to stigma, shame and trauma, and it really shuts down engagement. This kind of conflict makes people feel judged, unsafe, or fearful to participate and share their ideas. We need to manage this type of conflict and we will get to some ideas on that. The conflict that is productive and safe is a conflict where ideas, norms, and ways of doing things are challenged, but people and their values aren’t. This kind of conflict is the point of engagement. If we all thought the same way, there would be no point to engage.

What can challenge an engagement process is one where there is unproductive/unsafe conflict, and it doesn’t appear that anything is “doing anything about it.” This erodes trust and faith in the process, and it makes people step away from the engagement.  What’s more, organizations that permit unsafe conflict to take place run the risk of eroding social capital and hosting spaces where trauma has taken place.

Here are five key strategies to managing unproductive and unsafe conflict in engagement:

  • Start with the individual: One of the most important elements to managing conflict is to understand the people component to the engagement. Who is engaging? What do they value? What are their concerns? Start with one-on-one interviews, and from there, work your way to pairs, small groups and then open engagement opportunities. By building rapport and understanding of the people, their values and concerns, you will create an environment where people are better known to you, and they know you. This rapport-building means that people feel they can share their concerns and there is space for respectful dialogue. Bringing everyone together in a big, open forum can lead to unsafe conflict because people do not have the experience of having engaged already on this topic and may feel this is their own chance.
  • Pre-Work and Registration: Do everything you can to understand the environment in which you will be engaging. Conduct pre-engagement interviews, meet with people who are vocal about the project or initiative, and understand the various dimensions that are at play. It is not the role of the facilitator to conduct a safety assessment, but it may be required by the proponent. Is onsite security required? Will pre-registration be required? One key approach that Engage Delaney uses is to ensure that everyone has a name tag. People respond to their name far better than “sir” or “ma’am”. Being able to say: “Peter, I have to stop you right there” is far more powerful than, “Sir, I’m going to need to ask you to stop.”
  • Set clear operating values: Provide participants in an engagement process with a clear set of operating values. This means opening a session with clear intentions about “how we will be together.” If you anticipate there could be unproductive/unsafe conflict, get very specific. For example, saying: we will treat each other with respect, might not be enough. You may need to be explicit: We will demonstrate respect by speaking one at a time, using people-centred language and not cutting each other off. Setting clear parameters for the expectations of “how we will be together” and getting buy-in for those agreements easily provides an anchor for the minimum standard of behaviours while engaging together.
  • Think resources and supports: Based on the engagement you are hosting, you may want to consider working with Elders, knowledge keepers, and peers, or consider the use of “a guardian” in a session. These individuals are generally trained, experienced and well-versed in supporting participants who might be activated or pushed into a place of conflict. Having a guardian in a session means there is one person who is simply there for participants to reach out to should they need support. They are not a participant in the process and can be available in a virtual breakout room, by text or in person.
  • Calling-in vs Calling-out: There are some instances when the facilitator must decide if they need to call in or call out a behaviour that goes against the operating values. The distinction between the two is this: calling in is generally a private, side-bar conversation where you ask the person to clarify what they meant by a remark made in a larger session. Calling-out is the public act of noting that a comment or remark is “not ok”. Typically, calling out is required if someone makes a remark that is racist, discriminatory, or highly offensive and, without question, is not appropriate. For the facilitator, this can be an uncomfortable place to be, but it is required to try and maintain psychological safety.

Let’s get more nuanced about conflict. It’s not all bad and we are not powerless to respond, but we do need to be prepared to respond. These strategies are just some of the many you can explore in your engagement practice.

Recently, Engage Delaney’s Jessica Delaney was licensed in two new IAP2 courses – understanding (1-day course) and working (2-day course) with conflict – so if you want to do a deep dive in conflict, be sure to watch the calendar for these courses or request a quote for in-person or virtual organizational training.

For more information on Engage Delaney’s Understanding Conflict in P2/Engagement course,click here.