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Managing Conflict and Difficult Public Issues

Understanding and managing conflict surrounding public issues is a challenge that virtually all community engagement efforts encounter to one degree or another, or at one point in time or another. It should be recognized, however, that not all conflict is necessarily detrimental to engaging your stakeholders or developing solutions. Creative or productive conflict, managed effectively, can greatly contribute to your long-term outcomes. The key is to manage it in ways that are productive and above all else, foster trust and build relationships.

The reasons conflict arise are, of course, as varied as the communities and individuals in which the issues take place.  In addition to the considerations outlined in Understanding Wicked Issues, conflict may have any number of origins. 

  • Faulty or inconsistent communications – between leaders and residents as well as among residents themselves
  • Competition for resources – in many cases, either real or perceived, one group of stakeholders’ gain is seen as another’s loss
  • Value clashes – quite simply, residents and stakeholders all view issues through the lens of their particular experiences and values- affecting often both their perception of the problem, as well as any potential solutions
  • Variable comfort levels with change – as is well-documented, citizens and leaders alike all ‘come to the table’ with variable levels of comfort with change regardless of the merits or circumstances of the issue
  • Poorly defined responsibilities and authority – it is often the case that either or both the cause and/or the responsibility for solutions is not well understood or agreed upon
  • Need to recognition – all community members in one way or another are driven by the need to be recognized as valuable and legitimate. All too often this is overlooked in community affairs
  • Power or status differences – can frequently be the source of conflict that may or may not be apparent
  • Unresolved prior conflict or lack of trust – legacy considerations that you may have to consider

In addition, there are a number of other reasons that adversarial behavior may influence your engagement efforts negatively. Some of these include:

  • When participants or stakeholders are taken by surprise about an issue or process
  • When the stakes, either real or perceived, are high
  • An adversarial tone is set either in the community or by those leading the effort – and spreads
  • It’s what many are accustomed to – many have not been trained or have experience with other forms or expectations of dialogue and the development of solutions
  • Many stakeholders may feel there are no better alternatives to resolving the conflict or being heard

Complex problems are typically defined as those that include the ability to approach them from multiple, sometimes competing, perspectives and which may have multiple possible solutions.

Robinson (1978) identified the now widely recognized Conflict Cycle – the stages that most community conflicts go through. While it is worth noting that real life is not as discrete or as linear as the this graph might suggest, and that different stakeholders may reach each point at different times, the value of this cycle lies in using it as a diagnostic tool for determining what’s going on and how you might best intervene.