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Conflict in Nonprofits is Hard, and We Need to Get Better at It

We recently revamped a document we’ve been using for years here at COCo, the “Conflict Continuum”- one that we wanted to share more widely with the community groups in our network. The model seems pretty simple at first glance, but we’ve found it to be a very powerful tool when organizations, or individuals within those organizations, are considering how they want to respond to a conflict.

Essentially, this model is trying to demonstrate that proactive conflict resolution models (like talking directly to each other, listening carefully, and increasing each of our skills in conflict), take less time and money, are usually less traumatic for the participants, and can result in solutions that are much more likely to meet the actual needs of the people involved in the conflict. Once we start moving away from those proactive strategies — the ones that are closest to the people actually involved in the conflict– and towards reactive conflict resolution, the options available become more expensive, draining, and often traumatic, and the resolutions they can offer are usually less satisfying for everyone.

Many of us jump to external solutions, like the law, complaints processes, or disciplinary measures. The desire to “go nuclear” is a very normal, even if often unhelpful, reaction to interpersonal conflict.

The problem is that when we are hurt or angry with someone, the last thing many of us want is to have a conversation. With many of the conflicts we hear about, the people involved feel like they have already tried to address it with the person, and it hasn’t worked. In that feeling of hopelessness and fear, many of us jump to external solutions, like the law, complaints processes, or disciplinary measures. The desire to “go nuclear” is a very normal, even if often unhelpful, reaction to interpersonal conflict.

In the case of nonprofit conflict, those external options are often not actually available to us. There is no 9-1-1 for nonprofit fraud, and many of us laugh at the idea of having enough resources for an HR department. But it’s also a wider problem. A lawyer friend of COCo’s, who works at a legal clinic, recently described a pattern where people come in, wanting the legal system to solve problems it was never meant to solve –issues with our family, friends, and neighbours, for example. That is happening, he argues, because we are taught that the legal system can solve our conflicts, and because the social infrastructure we would need to handle these conflicts ourselves doesn’t exist. The answer is to work on building it, even at the micro level of our own community groups (we’re often inspired by this project, if you want an example!). 

The Conflict Management Continuum can help us to slow down and re-evaluate those options. Instead of jumping to reactive conflict strategies, we can instead do the (difficult and challenging) work of finding our way through a conflict in a way that truly centers the needs, experiences and perspectives of the people involved.

We would love to hear what you think of the tool, so don’t hesitate to shoot us a line or leave a comment underneath!

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