Published on April 17, 2012

Reframing conflict

By Ingrid Prikken

Ingrid Prikken is Project Manager at Involve. Her work is focused on project design and management, facilitation and research. Her research covers embedding public engagement in government and citizen participation in challenging issues.

This post explores the challenges of conflict to effective participation. Should we reframe our approach to dealing with conflict in light of the localism agenda?

A few weeks ago Involve and Consumer Focus hosted a seminar to explore ‘where next for localism and co-production?’ Consumer Focus launched their research into participation and active citizenship – ‘Hands Up and Hands On’ at the event. The research identified a number of critical issues that create challenges for participation within communities. One of these issues is conflict. At the seminar I participated in a lively group discussion about the meaning of conflict. A few things stuck with me that I would like to explore a bit more in-depth in this blog post.

Conflict is an almost inevitable part of working with groups of people with different backgrounds, interests and experiences. Conflict can have negative influence on achieving a successful outcome, although it can sometimes act as a trigger for change and progression. In any case, conflict has to be dealt with otherwise it may spiral out of control. So far nothing new. Yet, I believe it is important to think about conflict and how to deal with it in the context of the localism agenda. With ‘dealing with conflict’ I mean to maximize its benefits and minimize its harmful aspects. If we agree that localism requires a rethink of how councillors, community groups and citizens collaborate, then how to deal with conflict should be an integral part of this.

Why do tensions arise?

Participation has many positive affects, but it frequently also involves conflict, within and between groups and communities, and between groups, communities and government. There can be tensions between the local authority and the community, for example due to lack of trust and faith. There can also be negative relations within community groups, for example groups that are perceived as unwelcoming or cliquey by potential participants. Add to this that lots of projects are pressed for time and it’s not hard to imagine conflict being sparked.

Poorly run meetings and lack of action afterwards can have a negative impact as well. The methods used for participation can cause conflict to manifest itself to a greater or lesser extent. Public meetings where a facilitator is spending more time fire fighting issues than actually getting on with the agenda seem to be more common than not. When implementing collaborative projects with community groups, councils and other actors it is crucial to be aware of issues and behaviour that may cause conflict, and to think about how these challenges can be dealt with effectively.

How to deal with conflict

It is not easy to deal with conflict though. We all perceive conflict differently, what is challenging behaviour will vary from one person to the next. People engage in challenging behaviour in order to achieve a certain goal, therefore it is important to understand the purpose of this behaviour and how this can be reconciled.

Easier said than done perhaps, but here are a few thoughts to take away in thinking about how to deal with conflict differently:

  • Scope – Overpromising and not delivering can potentially fuel conflict. Being clear about what’s up for grabs will minimise the potential for conflict. People might not agree with the level of influence they can have. However, when you’re transparent about the parameters of the participation from the start, you can always refer back to them.
  • Reframing – Reframing the issue or the question can go a long way in turning around a tense situation and changing the discussion into a constructive conversation again. Negative statements can easily put a conversation to a close.
  • Strengths – Rather than focussing on the problems and what divides people, it could help to start framing with what you have in common and mapping the strengths. For example, asset based community development is based on a similar principle: look for resources and expertise in the community that can be disclosed and made available for everyone’s benefit. (Have a look at ABCD Europe’s website if you’d like to learn more about asset based community development).
  • Terms of engagement – On whose terms are people participating? In order for people to participate, it would be useful if opportunities complement their lives and respond to people’s needs, aspirations and expectations. A mix of methods might be appropriate; a number of parallel spaces where people can contribute to the conversation might be a solution.

Conflicts are there and actually they are not necessarily a bad thing. It’s how you handle conflict that will determine whether it will be constructive or destructive to participation.

I’ll leave you with a statement from the seminar: “Don’t shy away from difficult conversations, be prepared for the complexity of localism”.

Image by: soikha

Leave a Reply