How to Deal with Conflict in Your Group or with Another Group

(Thanks to the Citizensí Coal Council for permission to use this article)

From the day your group starts until it disbands, leaders will probably have to deal with conflicts among members or with other groups. It may range from simple disagreements over tactics to explosive divisions that lead to splinter groups. Weíll first look at in-fighting among members then at conflicts with other groups.

Why Does In-fighting Happen?

Dislikes. Some people arenít always going to like each other, no matter how strong their common interests.

The power play. Many members of a community organization have had little or no experience in dealing with power. For some, the first taste of power can be intoxicating and they will do almost anything to get more. Others feel they increase their own power by taking from someone else.

Bored or frustrated. When a group isnít working on an active campaign, or has suffered some setbacks, members may find it easier to attack each other than to deal with the original common enemy.

Ducking responsibility. Trying to pin the blame on someone else is a lot easier than accepting personal or collective responsibility. This causes a lot of pain, especially when things go wrong.

Poor planning and lack of focus. If goals arenít clear or arenít shared by many members, there will likely be in-fighting of the worst kind over the purposes of the organization and how it should carry on its work.

Poor decisions on recruiting members. Another example of poor planning is making bad judgments over who should be recruited into the group. If you try to recruit everyone and keep them all happy, the group may find itself paralyzed as it tries to arrive at "consensus" positions that wonít offend anyone.

What Leaders Can Do About In-fighting

Here are five actions a leader can take if in-fighting starts in your group:

1. Ignore it, especially when itís minor, and let people find their own levels. This approach means accepting that people will probably always fight and your job as leader doesnít include holding peoplesí hands. Of course, you should use some sensitivity and judgment to know the difference between minor and serious problems. A problem is serious when it blocks a group from doing what it has to do to win.

2. Talk. Discuss the disputes in the group and keep the focus on why they are fighting and how to resolve it. This approach works best when you deal with problems early.

3. Referee. Work out the differences between the "trouble-makers" by playing "referee" while they work out their differences. You should also decide how important the people are and whether their value to the group is worth your time and energy. If the dispute involves key leaders, this approach may well be worth the risks and costs involved.

4. Have clear rules of operation. For instance, if your group has meetings with a set agenda, a leader could gently but firmly get things back on track by reminding the in-fighters that "The purpose of this meeting is to plan for the next weekís public hearing." For members involved in power plays, clear rules allow leaders to enforce proper rules of behavior. Example: "Look, John, we have a rule in this group that only Executive Committee members can make statements to the media on behalf of the group.

5. Make peace. The best response to a splinter group is to try to make peace with them and acknowledge the differences. If you try to fight them, or denounce them publicly, you serve no oneís interests except those of your opposition. "Agree to disagree" if you can. It doesnít hurt to make conciliatory gestures, like asking to work together on things where you still share a common interest.

As mentioned, having a clear focus, statement of purpose and a good plan is all-important. You can prevent the problem of splinter groups by thinking through whom you need to recruit to win Ė donít try to recruit the whole county if all you need is your neighborhood.

Be democratic. Set up your organization with a clear democratic structure and reasonable rules for procedure and behavior.

Leaders lead. Develop good leadership skills in yourself, encourage them in others and work toward building new leaders. Involve others in decisions and share duties. Help people work out their differences by acting and working together on projects and committees. The most important job of a good leader is to share leadership with others. Dictators deserve all the fighting they cause.

Keep at it and stay busy. When people are working on issues, they have less time to hassle each other over personal problems. Keep it lively and fun. That will keep morale up and prevent people from clawing at each otherís throats.

Conflicts Between Groups

Often conflicts between groups begin to occur as the groups get stronger and win more power. Conflict itself is not a bad thing -- like the bumpersticker says, it happens.

But constant or long-standing conflicts between groups working on the same or similar issues have caused groups to lose an already-won victory and their hard-won power. Often these conflicts arise over getting the resources that are vital for any grassroots group to live and thrive: members, money and publicity.

Some leaders try to dodge dealing with these conflicts over resources as "just a little turf fight." Little turf fights can quickly become big and nasty wars. They must be dealt with, the earlier the better, because people fight hard and "dirty" when they think their groupís survival is threatened.

What Leaders Need To Know

Leaders can work to prevent or reduce bad conflicts between their group and another when they understand these four ideas.

1. Everyone gets to play. No group is the exclusive owner of an issue, funding source, or media contact. They donít belong to any one group.

2. Less doesnít mean more. If one group pulls out of working on an issue, that doesnít mean another group will get more members, donations or publicity.

3.Lots of pie for everyone. Every group working on an issue can get credit for its work to help get good publicity, raise money and recruit members. For example, the funding pie is big enough for everyone to have a slice. If a funder gives money to one group for work on an issue, it doesnít mean other groups wonít also get funding. In fact, foundations urge groups to work together on issues and are more likely to give money to those who have built close alliances or work on hot issues that attract several groups.

4. Some wonít work to get along. Working together takes work! We have all met at least one person who likes to fight about anything, even about the sun rising in the East. Some groups also like conflict, thrive on it and create it if none exists. Other groups act like mafia thugs -- with no grassroots base or a history of work on an issue, they will jump on the bandwagon of a grassroots groupís winning campaign and try to claim the credit.

Five Ways to Reduce Conflict

1. Make a clear agreement about what each group will do and the nature of the relationship between the groups.

2. Be up front with your members, funders and the press in describing the work your group has done and what allies you have worked with.

3. Listen and talk. If another group seems to be taking credit for your groupís work, then talk in a friendly way with its leaders about what both groups are doing and what specific actions you want taken to resolve it.

4. Get a referee. If the conflict still remains, then you may look for a neutral party to referee the differences.

5. Get a divorce. If peace canít be made or the other group wonít work to resolve the conflict (or refuses to understand the concerns of your group), then itís time to go your separate ways.