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<xTITLE>Can Conflict In Nonprofits Be Managed Successfully?</xTITLE>

Can Conflict In Nonprofits Be Managed Successfully?

by Elisabeth Seaman
Elisabeth Seaman
Much time in nonprofits is spent in conflict and dealing with the consequences of conflict because organizations today are constantly undergoing change. Some of the dislocations that typically occur in nonprofits include changes in funding, turnover in and realignment of staff and volunteers, as well as dual roles of board members who are also volunteers.

New board members bring different outlooks to organizations that may lead to altered policies. New leadership and visions can make staff and volunteers feel disoriented and uncertain about the future. A constantly changing work environment can be a breeding ground for personal stress, resentments, hostility and interpersonal conflict.

Although conflict may occur whenever two or more people work together, it is not necessarily to be avoided. It can be either an impediment to constructive results or a positive source of energy and creativity. The key is for the members of an organization to learn to deal with conflict effectively by becoming familiar with and assimilating a process for resolving interpersonal friction.

At the base of many interpersonal conflicts are flawed assumptions we make about people and situations. Our assumptions are often not founded on factual information regarding the actions and motivations of those involved in an issue. When we target others with unfounded assumptions, we usually get very negative reactions from them.

We can get at the root causes of conflict by examining our assumptions about others and checking them out through direct communication. Simply establishing that we are operating on the basis of very different assumptions than others is a positive step toward reducing conflict.

One very effective way to clarify our assumptions is to learn to listen to others better. When was the last time that you felt really heard? Did the listener hear you out until you were completely finished speaking? Did she let you know that she had heard you by checking back with you concerning what she had understood? Did she get the facts right and did she sense how you felt about what you were telling her? Or, as is more common, did she respond by correcting or advising or comforting you? Did she shift the conversation away from your account to a similar experience or complaint of her own? Did she interrupt you and implore you to get to the point?

Active listening, when learned and practiced, can be very rewarding in that it helps us prevent as well as to resolve conflicts, both in our personal and in our business lives. Being an empathetic listener isn't the same as agreeing with what another person has to say, however. Its main message is that we care enough to want to understand the other person and to gain an appreciation of the person's point of view no matter how different from our own it may be.

Sometimes, no matter how much good will and how many communication skills we bring to a situation, it remains intractable, and we are unable to resolve our differences with others.. When this happens, it may be helpful to ask a mediator--an impartial third party--to assist us. Mediators help people to listen to and understand each other. Avoiding judgments about the participants, their situation or their behavior, mediators facilitate the discussion between the parties so that they can consider a variety of options for shared understanding and resolution. The outcome often is a mutually acceptable agreement.

Mediation requires a major shift in the way people view their world. It means giving up an oversimplified, "I'm right--you're wrong" perspective for a more complex, multiple-cause understanding of conflict. In addition, it means surrendering the attitude that others know better how to solve our problems and accepting the idea that we can take responsibility for our own decisions.

People often go into mediations feeling cynical, untrusting and angry. They typically blame others for what has gone wrong. The mediation process enables them to give voice to these negative feelings and to ultimately transform them into vehicles for productive change.

All organizations experience conflicts at one time or another. Individuals in organizations can move forward toward better relationships and productivity when there is a desire and willingness to examine old ways of thinking and behaving, and to replace them with more constructive ones.

For staff, volunteers and board members in nonprofits who are struggling to resolve conflicts among themselves, active listening as well as mediation are very effective tools!


Elisabeth Seaman, Learn2Resolve

  • Mediated over 600 cases for public and private institutions, community programs and for families and individuals
  • Bilingual in Spanish and English. 
  • Honored for her contributions to the field of mediation by San Mateo County and the California State Legislature.
  • Partner in the mediation firm, Learn2Resolve

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