Taming the Tension: Harnessing Conflict to Deepen Relationships and Strengthen Collaboration
Although a conflict can seem like the opposite of collaboration, conflicts that are acknowledged and processed thoughtfully can actually help a group become more collaborative. Donna J. Reid describes her experiences working with a group of curriculum leaders who participated in a week-long seminar to help them deepen their collaboration and reflection skills:
With downcast eyes, twelve adults sit in an uneasy silence around a conference table in a spacious middle school library. Donuts, bags of chocolate, and a tub of soft drinks are set out on a credenza. A handwritten poster with statements such as “We will collaborate with one another throughout the process,” “We will take ownership of our work,” and “We will strive to nurture trusting relationships” is hanging from a nearby bookcase.
The agenda posted on an easel indicates that the group should be engaged in a text-based discussion about Killion and Simmons’ article “The Zen of Facilitation,” but one member—their supervisor—has sat huddled in a shawl in total silence for over forty-five minutes, and her disengagement has strained the whole group. With its inviting book displays and colorful decorations, this library must be a cheerful place when school is in session, but now the metallic smell of an approaching summer thunderstorm tinges the air, and the gray clouds seen roiling ever closer mirror my own burgeoning frustration.
As the facilitator for this group of curriculum leaders who are in the middle of a week-long seminar to help them deepen their collaboration and reflection skills, I wonder: What should I do to address this simmering conflict?
Searching for a Positive Path
My gentle reminders to encourage full participation were completely ineffective, so the announcement, “Time for lunch,” was music to my ears. I needed to get out of that library and pull my thoughts together about what to do next.
As the group was leaving, I heard one lady mutter to another, “The tone this morning went downhill. It felt like we moved from an open door to one being slammed shut. I think the supervisor actually resented being questioned about her pet project.”
“You’re right,” her friend agreed. “This could have been an opportunity to share feedback on her project, but she just crossed her arms and stopped talking.”
“And we weren’t attacking her! Actually, her plans for the project are pretty good. She’s a hard worker, but high maintenance – she needs a lot of praise.”
That last comment gave me an idea for what to do next. I shared my concerns about the underlying resistance with the brave participant who had offered to lead the next icebreaker, and she opened the after-lunch session with an icebreaker called “Pass the Praise.” We wrote down the names of everybody in the group in our journals and used the following prompts to write down appreciative comments next to everyone’s name:
- I respect that. . . .
- You make me laugh when. . . .
- You have skill in. . . .
- I appreciate that. . . .
- If the newspaper wrote a story about you the title would be _______ because _________.
We each then picked one person to publicly praise until everyone in the group had given and received at least one compliment.
Sure enough, after this activity, the supervisor came back to life as a contributing member of the group.
Progressing on the Positive Path
Several other strategies helped this group turn the previous tension into a springboard for improved communication and understanding. We studied the article, “Stages of Team Development,” by Nancy Mohr and Alan Dichter [available at http://www.annenberginstitute.org/pdf/Stages.pdf]. This short article explicitly describes how collaborative teams may start in a “honeymoon stage” but also go through what they call the “conflict stage,” the “confusion-about-democracy stage,” the “messy stage,” and the “scary stage,” before approaching the “mature-group stage.”
The twelve group members split into six pairs, and each pair read about one of the stages and prepared a short presentation about that stage of team development. Importantly, the facilitators demanded that each pair teach their section to the larger group in an engaging way—no talking heads that just summarized the authors’ words.
Through dramatic re-enactments, continuum conversations, role-plays, colorful poster presentations, and interactive writing activities, the group members processed the article’s main points about leadership and conflict. Several pairs also referred to the specific project that had started the uncomfortable tension that morning. By drawing on their best teaching selves, the group created a shared understanding of the challenges and prospects of being a collaborative team.
By the end of the day, one member reflected, “We moved towards understanding by working through the processes with authentic work.” Another remarked, “It was nice to see how a group can go from tension and conflict to higher functioning!” Thus, having an explicit conversation about the normal conflicts involved in collaborative work allowed this group to learn from the conflict and move forward.
The Benefits and Challenges of Collaboration
For over a decade, reformers have encouraged educators to become more collaborative by re-imagining themselves as “professional learning communities” that share responsibility for student learning by developing a shared vision and goals, closely examining student work, and encouraging reflection. Teams that collaborate well benefit from improved communication, stronger relationships, and an enhanced ability to perform their jobs well (DuFour and Eaker 27).
One of the challenges of increased collaboration is that conflict is more likely to arise. When educators are rubbing shoulders instead of working in isolation, friction is inevitable: yet very little of the current literature warns educators about what kinds of conflict to expect or how to navigate through the conflict safely.
Uncomfortable friction can be minimized by laying a foundation that nurtures trust. For example, every group that meets regularly should develop meeting norms. One way to do this is for each member to write for a few minutes in response to the question, “What conditions do I need to do my best work?” Share ideas and then develop a list that can be posted where everyone can see it whenever you meet. The norms may address specific behaviors like “turn cell phones off” and “begin and end on time,” or they may address more general attitudes such as “if you have a question, ask it.”
Groups can also benefit from using protocols to encourage engagement. Protocols are guidelines for having a discussion. These guidelines help the group stay focused and assure that everyone has a chance to contribute. Wise group leaders will also spend time with teambuilding activities that help the group members get to know each other’s work styles and core beliefs. Many helpful protocols and teambuilding activities can be found at the School Reform Initiative website: <http://www.schoolreforminitiative.org/protocol/>.
Nonetheless, even groups that generally collaborate well can become bogged down by conflict. In the opening vignette, an established work group had already developed norms and engaged in several teambuilding activities. They appreciated having opportunities to “help the group gel” and “learn the comfort levels or work habits of people in non-threatening ways.” Despite the high levels of good will, conflict emerged when the group members began asking questions about a new plan of action that happened to be their supervisor’s pet project.
Although a conflict can seem like the opposite of collaboration, conflicts that are acknowledged and processed thoughtfully can actually help a group become more collaborative. The act of working through the conflict allows different perspectives to be voiced and a shared understanding to be developed. Strategies such as developing norms, building a trusting atmosphere, drawing on respectful relationships, and formally acknowledging the difficulties of building a collaborative team should be in every team leader’s toolkit.
DuFour, Richard, and Robert Eaker. Professional Learning Communities at Work: Best Practices for Enhancing Student Achievement. Bloomington, IN: National Education Service, (1998). Print.
Killion, Joellan P., and Lynn A. Simmons. “The Zen of Facilitation.” Journal of Staff Development 13.3 (2002): 2-5. Print.
Mohr, Nancy, and Alan Dichter. Stages of Team Development: Lessons from the Struggles of Site-Based Management. Providence, RI: The Annenberg Institute for School Reform, (no date).
This article was reprinted by permission from the Spring 2011 issue of Kentucky English Bulletin, a publication of the Kentucky Council of Teachers of English.