Conflict has the value of allowing the better understanding of the individuals that form a group (Johnson & Johnson, 1995). Within groups, conflict is usually accompanied by three major types of concerns or needs that exist within the parties involved. These are psychological, procedural, and substantive concerns (Webne-Behrman, 2006). Psychological concerns refer to such needs that are related to the emotional state of the parties, such as trust, safety, honesty and loyalty.
Procedural concerns deal with the process or protocols related to the methods of addressing problems or tackling projects. Substantive concerns deal with the actual problem at hand in a given conflict—that is, the issue that needs resolution in any given situation.
Members of a group are individuals, and as such, are prone to require different things from a given team relationship. It is to be expected that these psychological, procedural, and substantive concerns will differ in a group setting. It is therefore desirable in any such setting to address such aspects of conflicts that derive from these concerns by establishing rules, defining the conflict, and creating a positive atmosphere in which to work.
The establishing of ground rules is a foundational aspect of conflict resolution, and this element deals directly with the three main concerns found in groups that collaborate on projects. Ground rules may be defined as “statements that reflect people’s best intentions regarding how they wish to treat one another in civil dialogue” (Webne-Behrman, 2006). Such rules are the cornerstone of courtesy, and are present in any group that maintains a positive relationship.
It involves such aspects of interpersonal communication as taking turns, empathic listening, confidentiality, trust, support, and democratic freedom (the ability to express one’s opinion without fear of being harassed for being a “dissenter”).
The rules should also involve methods of defining all the concerns of the group and of garnering the respect of all members for any of the concerns detected in or disclosed by others (Epps, 2004; Webne-Behrman, 2006).
Definition of the conflict is also an area of immense importance because of the bearing that this has on the strategies that must be brought to bear upon the problematic situation being faced. This particular step in resolving conflicts is the one that deals with the clarification of the substantive concerns that each member brings to the group. All disputes tend to have this need present, and it must be acknowledged before it can be dealt with. The necessity for being specific about problems being faced cannot be underestimated because such specificity allows those in charge or concerned to be incisive in dealing with the problem that an individual or group might be facing.
If in a business setting, for example, an employee feels as though he or she is being discriminated against, the manager who must deal with the situation should encourage that employee to outline the ways in which discrimination has occurred. Strategies for intervention can then be designed around this knowledge, and more detailed plans for dealing with the problem can be formulated in response to the specificity of complaint. After examining the situation, detailed reasons for the inappropriateness of behavior (or justification of the behavior misconstrued as discrimination) can be given to the parties involved (Epps, 2004).
It is also important in any group setting that each group member feel affirmed and generally accepted. Persons are often, in the absence of this, apt to be expressing some form of psychological concern that leads them to this distrust—and many times these concerns can be addressed if tackled directly. Affirmation and acceptance are based on trust, security and safety. In reality, however, this sense of trust and affirmation is not always present in group settings—and this is often the basis of conflict (Webne-Behrman, 2006).
Whenever this is the case, persons in charge (or even assertive group members) should attempt to create such an environment. At this point, the creation of an affirming environment relies on the willingness of the group members to admit that such virtues as trust and loyalty might be lacking in the group (Epps, 2004; Webne-Behrman, 2006). Such a problem might be addressed in the following manner.
It is often fruitful to be open in naming the psychological concerns that are present within members (Bonner, n.d. p. 3; Webne-Behrman, 2006). Often this concern exists in the form of fear. The naming of a fear is a very crucial step, as it allows the concern of each member to be known to all and opens the door for brainstorming of ways to minimize or even eliminate the problems. It is worthy of note that many psychological concerns themselves stem from other concerns, such as procedural or substantive ones.
The willingness of group members to disclose their fears depends heavily upon the atmosphere that is created within the team setting. Success in creating one of affirmation and acceptance is therefore one of the first steps in resolving conflicts within a group.
Another method of improving the atmosphere within a group is temporarily to change the focus from the disagreement to aspects of the team dynamic that work well or to other issues that the team has successfully handled in the past. This method is known as appreciative inquiry (Webne-Behrman, 2006). First of all, focusing on positive areas of the team dynamic usually has the effect of diffusing animosity that might have developed between or among group members. This is likely to recreate an environment in which psychological concerns are again respected and in which group members again feel valued as a part of the team.
Secondly, focusing on positive accomplishments of the team usually also has the effect of pointing toward collaborative skills that have been successful in the past and that the team has probably abandoned in the current conflict. Such a strategy makes it possible to pinpoint the ways in which the procedural concerns of members were once respected and how regaining this respect might grant insights into how to deal with the current problem.
Finally, respect for each other within the current situation places the members in a more inclusive atmosphere, with better sentiments toward each other, and grants them effective practical (and proven) strategies for progressing through each successive step of the problem.
Understanding the needs and concerns behind the conflicts that arise in group settings is an indispensable aspect of the resolution process. Thorough understanding of the situation being faced requires not just a basic understanding of what the problem is, but of the underlying desires and unmet needs of the members that cause the substantive aspects of the situation to become problems. Such knowledge of the hidden aspects of conflict can most efficiently be identified in an atmosphere that encourages trust and that exudes security, affirmation, and acceptance.
The work of the leader is not necessarily to fix the conflict for the members but to act as a mediator and facilitator. As mediator, the leader facilitates the general appreciation of the psychological, procedural and substantive concerns of the each member and guides them in making allowances for these. In this type of environment, people are willing to work with each other and become more confident that the conclusion of the matter will be to the benefit of all.
Bonner, C. & B. Bonner. (n.d.) “Conflict resolution: steps for handling interpersonal dynamics.” The Corella and Bertram F. Bonner Foundation. Princeton, NJ. Epps, C. (2004). “Leadership development series: conflict resolution for leaders.” International Women’s Media Foundation Online Training Center. Retrieved on January 27, 2007 from http://www.iwmf.org/training/t_module3/index.php
Johnson, D, & Johnson, R (1995). Teaching students to be peacemakers (3rd ed.). Edina, MN: Interaction Book Company.
Webne-Behrman, H. (2006). “Academic leadership support: conflict resolution.” Office of Human Resource Development. Madison: U. of Wisconsin.