I’m allergic to conflict. I instinctively avoid it. But I am faced with it nearly every time I run a workshop or focus group. I find it usually starts soon after people get comfortable with their surroundings and one another. It results in people trying to undermine what other people are saying or what the facilitator is proposing. Conflict can be overwhelming and divert us from our goals as facilitators.
There is no denying that conflict is difficult, but it can lead to growth and change. It can also result in innovative breakthroughs that are fundamental to human-centered design. The trick is facilitating a workshop where conflict rises to a level and breakthroughs happen. The next step is knowing when to tone it down before it becomes counterproductive.
I recently ran a workshop on facilitating positive conflict at the Design for Innovation Symposium in Ōtautahi Christchurch. The audience was a group of inspirational and passionate human-centered design practitioners, managers and policy makers.
We role played a conflict situation using a real world scenario that is unfolding in Christchurch. Participants were asked to turn up the heat to the point where it became productive, but not too hot that the discussion was counter-productive. I wasn’t alone. Like me, most people felt uncomfortable facilitating conflict. Afterwards we reflected on the role play, and how to facilitate productive conflict.
Safe space. Provide a safe space for participants to freely discuss issues.
Improvise. Have a clear outcome for the meeting but also have the ovaries to improvise.
Body language. Watch body language for early signs of conflict.
Depersonalise. Focus on what people said not who said what.
Control. Take control and not let spectators wade in on the conflict.
Switch tact. Know when to switch from conflict to change mode.
Confidence. Have the confidence to confront participants and invite accountability.
Follow these links for a few more thoughts on constructive conflict: