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Effective communication and conflict management
David Cohen, Rosa de la Vega and Gabrielle Watson
July 25, 2006

Leadership needs to address conflicts and tensions as they emerge, helping coalition members to voice concerns or frustration, and to identify creative solutions drawn from multiple perspectives.

Creating space for open discussion is critical but can be difficult when members feel it's risky to speak up or when anger, distrust, or other emotions are involved. Leadership can create and strengthen an open environment in a number of ways:

Set the example that all voices should be heard, Be aware of some members speaking more than others and what power dynamics among members may be involved. For example, members who are from groups with less traditional power - such as women, minorities, or representatives of smaller organisations - may find it difficult to speak up. Help the group develop and observe ground rules that prevent anyone from dominating discussions and encourage quieter members to participate.

Create "safe space." That is, a comfortable environment where members feel listened to when they voice concerns. The avenues for voicing concerns can range from one-on-one conversations or anonymous feedback to caucuses or full-group discussion. For tensions that involve the full group, be sure to hear from everyone.

Take time for conflict management and problem solving. It only takes one person to serve as a "bridge builder" and to help resolve conflict. Consult with members individually or carve out time during a coalition meeting. Focus on the key elements of mediating conflicts:

  • Identify common ground. Use this to focus the discussion as you address differences. Also, focus on the issue rather than the personalities involved in the conflict.
  • Ask questions to seek more information to manage the conflict. Make sure everyone has the chance to speak. Also, share all relevant information. Be specific. Use concrete examples.
  • Acknowledge the role of emotions. Do they help highlight critical issues? Or do they cloud judgement and the ability to problem solve? If necessary, allow emotions to cool down before problem solving. Give each person the chance to express their concerns without being challenged or corrected. Also, keep in mind that some strong emotions that are expressed may be unrelated to the conflict. Try not to take others' outbursts personally.
  • Maintain and demonstrate mutual respect for each other. Don't personalise criticism.
  • Don't question someone else's motives or place blame.
  • Don't act defensively if you disagree with someone. Ask questions to better understand others' perspectives, feelings, and ideas.

Listen well to get to the heart of the matter and to draw out ideas for possible solutions. For example:

Focus on the speaker and demonstrate that you are listening and understand. Body language, eye contact, tone of voice, and the questions you ask all demonstrate that you are listening - rather than distracted, disinterested, or already decided on the matter.

Avoid blocks to listening, such as:

  • Talking without allowing someone else to speak.
  • Deciding on your opinion before someone finishes speaking or you've heard from more than one person.
  • Rehearsing a response in your head while the other person continues to speak.
  • Avoiding conflict by agreeing with anything the speaker says.
  • Trying to "win" the argument rather than focusing on common ground and possible solutions.
  • Being afraid to be wrong or assuming you're right.
  • (In some contexts) Heated emotions.

Summary of Key Points
"Collaboration" is working with individuals and groups who share a common focus or interest. The purpose may range from sharing information to taking joint action. While the distinctions are fluid and change over time, it can be helpful to consider informal "networks" at one end of the spectrum and more formal "coalitions" at the other. Whatever their name or structure, collaborative relationships are an essential ingredient in any advocacy effort.

If you are wary of working in a coalition without a compelling reason, then it probably isn't worth the investment of time, energy, and other resources. However, you do have alternatives, such as sharing information in an informal network or working together on a single event or short-term campaign.

Based on the experiences of the Advocacy Institute's facilitators and alumni, a number of ingredients are critical if you do choose to enter a coalition:

  • Willingness to experiment and to learn from mistakes.
  • Skilled and diverse leadership.
  • Diverse membership and broad outreach.
  • Basic coalition structures.
  • Trusting relationships among members.
  • Effective communication and conflict management.

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