Facilitating Conflict

I recently presented a keynote (Leading Teams) for the NJ Learningforward Conference. (Power point available here.  ) One topic I explored was supporting teams using elements I had pulled from Patrick Lencioni’s book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. I chose to take his dysfunctions and present them as areas of concentration for team builders, leaders, and facilitators.

march 8

In this blog I’ll explore the concept of “learning to work through conflicts.”  The lead article in Learningforward’s Winter 2014 issue of Tools for Learning is titled, Build a Culture that Nurtures Productive Conflict. The author Anthony Armstrong opens with a quote from Bernard Meltzer:

If you have learned how to disagree without being disagreeable, then you have discovered the secret of getting along-whether it be in business, family relations, or life itself.”

My finding is that few teachers have received any training in the verbal skills of productive conflict. Teachers, who openly handle facilitating conflict among students or with parents, tend to choose avoidance when it comes to colleagues. Hence, Lencioni listing avoiding conflict as a source of dysfunction on a team.

Armstrong proposes that conflict is an element of learning. So a professional learning community should expect conflict to be present as they explore, learn, decide, and do. I envision conflict similar to resistance that builds muscle in physical development. Without a resistant force to push or pull against the muscle can’t develop. Without resistance to my initial thinking or solution I am unlikely to improve it.

In a blog post , Conflict Can Be Positive and Productive,  Laura Stack wrote:

Some level of organizational conflict is actually desirable — it’s not always dysfunctional. When conflict exists, it generally indicates commitment to organizational goals, because the players are trying to come up with the best solution. This in turn promotes challenge, heightens individual regard to the issues, and increases effort. This type of conflict is necessary. Without it, an organization will stagnate!

  If you can approach conflict positively, it can:

  • Improve the quality of decisions

 • Stimulate involvement in the discussion

 • Arouse creativity and imagination

 • Facilitate employee growth 

 • Increase movement toward goals 

 • Create energetic climate

 • Build more synergy and cohesion among teams

 • Foster new ideas, alternatives, and solutions

 • Test positions and beliefs

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 When I am working with groups where conflict emerges, here are two strategies I look to consciously employ:

Focus on the goal/outcome where there is consensus. The common outcome goal reminds folks that while we may differ in “how” or “what strategy to use” or on the timeline, we have agreement on “why”. If we don’t have consensus on the goal, we need to back up and address purpose that unites the team.

“Ok, everyone is looking to have students make maximum growth during the class days we have left in the year”

“We are agreed that while we need to dedicate extra time for some students to master this concept, our plan needs to allow those who have mastered it to extend their learning.”

Rephrase any participant’s negative phrased comments to positive ones. By phrasing don’t, won’t, and can’t as want to and need to, your facilitation can lead into a solution oriented/consensus direction.

Participant: “There isn’t enough time to complete that process by the deadline.”

Facilitator: “You see value in the process if we can create the necessary time.”

Participant: “The students won’t invest the time to see the project through to completion.”

Facilitator: “You see it as a valuable learning project if students make the investment to complete it.”  …. “You believe we would need to gain commitment from the students before we’d decide to proceed.”

As instructional leaders when you hear conflict think facilitation.

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3 Responses to “ Facilitating Conflict ”

  1. Dollie Mayeux Says:

    Conflict measures the strength of an organization. Systems which allow for rich dialogue and depth of collaboration not only allow for differences of opinions, they often encourage it. It is only when one pushes beyond their comfort zone that they grow and change.

    Conflict often indicates individuals passion to successfully reach a goal in which others path to attainment differs. Systems which allow for conflict are built on a foundation of trust as individuals must feel safe in voicing their differences. If trust does not exist, neither will conflict or growth within the organization.

  2. Terisa Pearce Says:

    Reading your blogs is like sitting in church on Sunday morning. I always feel like you are talking directly to me. Thank you for know just what I need to hear and read. As an instructional coach and department chair,a I seem to always be facing some type of conflict. Some conflicts I know I have no control over. Other conflicts, I need to be label to guide in a positive direction. I now have some ideas of where to start. I want, more than anything, for my department to be productive and kid centered. Thanks Mr. Barkley. Something for me to ponder over spring break.

  3. Ms. Reed Says:

    Thank you for presenting at connections conference 2014. You challenge our way of thinking as teachers. That’s a good thing. I took your advice in checking out your blog. Facilitating Conflict is just what I needed for Student Council. I also created a problem solving flow chart of the steps in solving a problem which is from my own class textbook, School to Work. Again, thank you for your availability and accessability.

    Best regards,

    Ms. Reed :o)
    Community Links High School
    Chicago Public Schools

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Steve Barkley

For the past 30 years, Steve has served as a consultant to school districts, teacher organizations, state departments of education, and colleges and universities nationally and internationally, facilitating the changes necessary for them to reach students and successfully prepare them for the 21st century. Read more…

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