Informal Conflict Resolution

evought's picture

Approach minor conflicts in the following preference order:

  1. Approach someone privately and discreetly.
  2. Use an informal arbitrator or facilitator.
  3. Find a way to tactfully approach an issue in a hotwash or other semi-formal setting.
  4. Escalate the matter within the chain-of-command.

It is the responsibility of officers and NCOs to help guide this process. That's one of the reasons you exist. In many ways, especially in a new organization, some conflict is helpful, because it is in resolving conflicts that we will find holes in our process and establish new procedure for the future.

Volunteers without formal management training may find the following Independent Study courses from EMI helpful:

All three provide college/CEU credit and will work toward a FEMA Professional Development Series certification.

Approach privately

In minor matters and personality conflicts, the first step should be to try to resolve the matter informally between you and them. If, for instance, another volunteer does something which bothers you or you are having difficulty working with someone, if you have a problem with the way a procedure is being handled or believe that something is unfair, approach them privately and discuss the matter. We have to strike a balance between being patient and not letting conflicts fester.

There will always be personality conflicts, people will always have strengths and weaknesses, minor annoying habits, things we like about them and things we do not. When we can ignore such things without compromising the Service, we should simply do so. On the opposite side, in an organization where many of us may participate for years, anything which has the potential to simmer and grow has to be dealt with as gently as possible before it has a chance to do so. Finding that balance is not always easy, but if done correctly, most issues can be resolved this way. The object is to bring something to the other's attention, listen to their side, and provide a chance for something to be changed without embarrassment on either side.

When you should not approach privately

Skip this first step in any of the following cases:

  • The person's behavior makes you feel unsafe
  • There is a danger to life or property
  • On the field where an immediate solution is necessary: there is a time for discussion and a time for orders
  • An outside agency, community complaint, or financial matter is at the center of the issue
  • Criminal conduct is involved
  • Otherwise in any situation where there is a legal responsibility to document what is going on

If the matter is between a superior and a subordinate, it may be wise to note that the discussion occurred and any resolution or change in policy which resulted. This creates a later baseline to go back to if the matter is not resolved and further action needs to be taken. It also demonstrates that you did not ignore a matter brought to your attention.

Email is a convenient tool for private conflict resolution if it is used appropriately.

  • Email pros
    • Convenience, no meeting necessary
    • Creates record
  • Email cons
    • Doesn't convey tone or body language, so causes miscommunication frequently and can inflate conflict
    • Email is easy to copy, forward, and quote out of context; inflates conflict and spreads information which should be confidential
    • With Blind Carbon-Copy, you don't know who else is part of a conversation
    • Because it leaves a record, you can get skewered later for brainstorming or informal proposals that weren't good ideas

Because of the potential for mis-communication, take care in writing an email. You may write a draft, let it sit for a little bit, come back later and re-read it before deciding to send it. If you can, have someone else you trust (e.g. your spouse) read through it; they won't bring the same assumptions and may spot parts that are unclear or which may ruffle feathers. If you use your superior in chain-of-command to read through it, it can be a way to get their feedback and let them know of a matter in a way where they do not have to take official notice (use with care).

Often the best approach is to have the meeting one-on-one and then use an email to document the decision (in formal terms, referred to as a Memorandum of Understanding or MOU).

From our discussion at the library today, my understanding is that we will implement the following:

  1. All press releases will be approved by [X] and reviewed by at least one other person before submitting.
  2. In order to avoid confusion, all ads for future events, no matter who writes them, will be submitted to the LC Record by [X].
  3. If [X] is not available, call the Chief of Staff.

This technique allows the actual issue to be raised in a format which allows tone of voice and body language to come into play. What is documented is not the initial conflict (negative) but what is being done in the future (positive) and only the agreed alternatives need to be written, not ideas rejected along the way (unless it is specifically important to document why some option was rejected). It also gives the other party a chance to tell you if what they took away from the meeting is different from what you took away from it

Finding an arbitrator or facilitator

If the first step does not resolve the issue or it is not appropriate, the next step is to find one or more persons who can informally sit down with you and the person involved in the conflict. This can be a Chaplain or Chaplain's Assistant, for instance, or another volunteer who is neutral and impartial in the situation. The role of the facilitator is not to gang up on the other party but to help ensure that you are listening to each other, to bounce ideas off of, or to suggest alternatives neither of you have considered. The facilitator is also a witness that the situation is handled fairly. The facilitator can be a superior, but the superior has to keep in mind in that case that their role is not to judge (unless necessary) but to listen and prod the participants to come up with their own solutions. If neither side can or is willing to solve the problem, then the superior must impose one.

Lunch (coffee, whatever) is a good way to make the situation more friendly, less formal and let one side or the other save face.

Semi-formal settings such as a hotwash

A hotwash (informal debrief after an event where people brainstorm about what happened) can be a good way to de-fuse conflict if a comment is worded positively and not directed at a specific individual. Phrase constructively where you can by suggesting a change rather than harping on failure (e.g.: "Maybe we should schedule practice on vehicle caravans before the next deployment," rather than "So-and-so really screwed up the caravan thing and we had to make four u-turns.") The discussion tools in D4H for events, including the "lessons-learned" can be very useful for this as well.

Escalating within the chain of command

If none of the informal processes are working, the issue needs to be escalated within the chain of command: take the matter to your superior and let them sort it out. The superior should sit down with both parties to ensure that both sides are heard and that the resolution is fully understood. The Memorandum of Understanding technique or a formal order from the superior should be used to document the interaction and establish any new procedure needed. Many SOPs and SOGs will start their life in solving and documenting a problem.

Training and Exercise For Conflict Avoidance

The CERT Train-the-Trainer course emphasizes that trainers are the first line of defense in weeding out potential volunteers who do not have the appropriate mindset or who do not 'play well with others'. If a recruit is:

  • losing their temper,
  • letting ego get in the way, or
  • exhibiting attention-seeking behavior

in a team-building project (remember the marshmallow and spaghetti towers?), skills demonstration, or exercise, it is a good clue that they should not be invited in or that, at the least, their application may be best delayed until we see them in more training circumstances or can check references. Disaster deployment will be more stressful than training, likely to make bad behaviors worse, and the last thing we need is a loose warhead with a gun smearing the name of our organization or of the Sheriff's Office. When considering whether to accept an applicant, we must always go back to the criteria on the enlistment/commission recommendation forms and in a particular, "attesting on my own honor to the same": when you recommend a candidate, your honor is on the line.