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Tips for dealing with conflict in transdisciplinary research

Working with people can be challenging. If you work with stakeholders, chances are the thing you dread most is conflict. If good knowledge exchange is all about relationships, then you want to avoid conflict at all costs. But whether it erupts in a workshop you’re facilitating on a one-to-one basis, conflict is inevitable at some point for most of us. So how do spot and avoid conflicts before you’re in them? And if it’s too late and you’re already involved in a conflict, how do you deal with it effectively and quickly?

If you’ve already got to the point where people are having angry outbursts and verbally abusing each other, chances are it’s too late to avoid conflict – you’re already in it. But if you can spot the early warnings signs, it may be possible to avert conflict. For example:

  • Are you noticing people closing their body language (e.g. crossing their legs and arms, dropping eye contact etc.)?

  • Are people becoming cold, distant, withdrawn (e.g. moving back from the table, giving one word answers etc.)?

  • Are people withholding confidences or ideas?

  • People often dress up insults as jokes to make it socially acceptable for them to attack someone else and to make it hard for others to criticize them for their comment (“I was only joking”). Look to see who’s smiling at the joke – and more importantly who’s not smiling. If the person the joke is aimed at is colouring up, chances are they took the joke as an insult. You might be too late to do anything about it first time round, but you need to watch the situation like a hawk and politely stamp on any future “jokes”, if you want to maintain a positive group dynamic

  • Are people becoming increasingly argumentative, disagreeing and/or blaming each other?

  • Are people moralizing or intellectualizing each other?

But for the really early warning signs of conflict, you need to look inside yourself and empathise with the group you’re working with. If you can really get in touch with the way that the group is feeling, and become sensitive enough to your own feelings, you will start to detect the earliest glimmer of conflict and be able to watch out for other signs and act early. If there’s someone in the room who is feeling really uncomfortable, nervous or angry in the group, chances are they may project those feelings onto you, or that you may detect their feelings through empathy – and you’ll start feeling uncomfortable, nervous or angry yourself. Are you experiencing irrational, anaccountable feelings, urges or thoughts, or acting uncharacteristically out of role? Chances are, that’s how someone in the group is feeling. The stronger they feel this, and the more people who feel this way, the more likely you are to pick up on it and experience those feelings yourself. In this way, you can pick up on likely conflict well before there are any visible signs, so you can manage the situation and bring back a more positive dynamic into the group before conflict erupts.

But no matter how good a facilitator you are, some conflicts are unavoidable, whether in a group situation or one-to-one. We’ve all been involved in conflicts from time-to-time. Sometimes we deal well with conflict, and at other times we end up making the situation worse. By thinking about our approach to conflict, it is possible to resolve these difficult situations as consistently and quickly as possible. So here’s what I (try and) do:

  1. Face it as soon as possible – don’t hide from it. There is a very small chance it will simply go away, and a very significant chance it will grow bigger and more intractable with every day you hide from it

  2. Have a conversation about “what happened” but taking pains to avoid apportioning blame. Focus on the future rather than the past, trying to understand enough (and no more) to be able to deal with what happened

  3. Recognise there are always many sides to any story – they probably feel just the same as you do, and there’s a good chance they’re just as upset with you as you are with them. Therefore seek out what role you played in the conflict – what did you do that made things worse? How could you have done things differently and do things differently in future? This isn’t about “taking the blame” – it gets you off the attack, them off the defensive and you both onto a constructive discussion of how you might both do things differently in future

  4. Make your goal to find a constructive way forward that works for you both, not getting an apology

  5. If you have been wronged, focus on “I feel” rather than “you did”. How you feel is incontestable, avoids blame and stops people becoming defensive. Find out how they feel and why they feel that way – get beneath the anger

  6. Try and get to the heart of the conflict – the majority of conflicts are about something completely different to what’s really at stake. The same argument will resurface in different guises again and again until you resolve the underlying issue. Don’t be afraid to ask “what’s this really all about” or probe in more subtle ways. Sometimes the person you are in conflict with isn’t aware if the underlying reason for the conflict themselves – it may be something buried very deep. That shouldn’t stop you trying to read between the lines. If you think you know what’s really going on, it may or may not be appropriate to talk about this, depending on how buried it is, and how well you know each other. But you should always act on this, rather than the thing on the surface that’s triggered the conflict.

What’s your approach to avoiding and dealing with conflict?

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