Anyone who spends several years as a Scoutmaster will end up arguing with a fellow Scouter, committee member, or parent. While these conflicts aren’t inevitable they are unfortunately probable. What follows is plain-spoken advice from Ask Andy, a fantastic resource for Scouters with questions or difficulties.
Having weathered several of these conflicts I can assure you that this is solid advice. Study it carefully and follow it faithfully – it will save you a great deal of heartache.
In the course of many years of service as a Commissioner at many levels, I’ve seen far too many cases where wonderful and dedicated people serving in the same unit, committee, district, etc., have come to differences in how their visions of Scouting are to be executed. Usually a very dedicated and good individual feels strongly that he/she is trying to stand for rules or policies that seem to be pretty clear. And just as often the group feels they are doing pretty well and the individual is making things unnecessarily difficult. Taken individually, each person is a great individual, dedicated to Scouting, and trying to do the best they know how. Communications break down, tempers flair, differences become difficult to resolve, or other symptoms of a real problem show up. The harder any of them try to get acceptance of their views the more polarized the problem becomes.
When it gets to this point, the situation is extremely hard to resolve and in most cases it is best for the person or persons in the minority to think about other ways or places where they can do more good and have a more enjoyable experience. Continuing to fight when things have reached the pass where a vote is about to be taken to exclude a person only prolongs the agony and rarely produces any results that are helpful to anyone. It is probably time to make an exit and start on new projects.
Making an exit is not a cause for shame. It can be a show of strength of character where we realize that we need to work where our strengths are better matched to the tasks at hand. And the manner of exit should be with grace and without rancor. Don’t burn bridges, fling the last insult, try to get in the last word, or any of that. Instead find ways to recognize progress and thank the folks for the opportunity to serve. This may help prevent the old problems from following the departing person.
While this situation does not inspire much hope, I also want to talk to units and commissioners that are seeing the start of conflict and give some tools that can help prevent more disasters.
When folks are excited about getting something done and have more enthusiasm than training, it is easy for conflict to develop. Disagreements can crop up. Usually good natured people will easily resolve these differences. But sometimes a conflict is harder to resolve for many reasons. In the early stages of conflict before the differences are too polarized, there are some conflict resolution principles that can help any group. The following approaches when used may help diffuse a problem and make resolution easier.
1. Think Before Reacting
The tendency in a conflict situation is to react immediately. After all, if we do not react we may lose our opportunity. In order to resolve conflict successfully it is important to think before we react–consider the options, weigh the possibilities. The same reaction is not appropriate for every conflict.
2. Listen Actively
Listening is the most important part of communication. If we do not hear what the other parties are communicating we can not resolve a conflict. Active listening means not only listening to what another person is saying with words, but also to what is said by intonation and body language. The active listening process also involves letting the speaker know that he or she has been heard. For example, “What I heard you say is……”
3. Assure a Fair Process
The process for resolving a conflict is often as critical as the conflict itself. It is important to assure that the resolution method chosen as well as the process for affecting that method is fair to all parties to the conflict. Even the perception of unfairness can destroy the resolution.
4. Attack the Problem
Conflict is very emotional. When emotions are high it is much easier to begin attacking the person on the other side than it is to solve the problem. The only way conflicts get resolved is when we attack the problem and not each other. What is the problem that lies behind the emotion? What are the causes instead of the symptoms?
5. Accept Responsibility
Every conflict has may sides and there is enough responsibility for everyone. Attempting to place blame only creates resentment and anger that heightens any existing conflict. In order to resolve a conflict we must accept our share of the responsibility and eliminate the concept of blame.
6. Use Direct Communication
Say what we mean and mean what we say. Avoid hiding the ball by talking around a problem. The best way to accomplish this is to use “I-Messages”. With an “I-Message” we express our own wants, needs or concerns to the listener. “I-Messages” are clear and non-threatening way of telling others what we want and how we feel. A “you-message” blames or criticizes the listener. It suggests that she or he is at fault.
7. Look for Interests
Positions are usually easy to understand because we are taught to verbalize what we want. However, if we are going to resolve conflict successfully we must uncover why we want something and what is really important about the issue in conflict. Remember to look for the true interests of the all the parties to the conflict.
8. Focus on the Future
In order to understand the conflict, it is important to under- stand the dynamics of the relationship including the history of the relationship. However, in order to resolve the conflict we must focus on the future. What do we want to do differently tomorrow?
9. Options for Mutual Gain
Look for ways to assure that we are all better off tomorrow than we are today. Our gain at the expense of someone else only prolongs conflict and prevents resolution.