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Can Conflict In Nonprofits Be Managed Successfully?

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

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

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

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,… MORE >

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