How to Manage Group Conflict

Sections of This Topic Include

How to Manage Group Conflict
How to Help Group Members Get Unstuck
Additional Perspectives on Conflict Management in Groups

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Note that many methods intended for addressing conflict in groups also might be considered as methods to address conflict between two people. Therefore, also see Addressing Interpersonal Conflict. Also note that the reader might best be served to first read the topic Group Dynamics to understand the basic nature of most groups and their typical stages of development. (It's not clear at this time if online groups have similar nature and stages.)

How to Manage Group Conflict

© Copyright Carter McNamara, MBA, PhD

If there seems to be prolonged conflict among several members of a group, then consider the following guidelines.

1. First, verify if members indeed are in conflict. Ask the members. Listen for 3 minutes.

They might not be in destructive conflict, at all. Robust groups might have conflict if members feel comfortable with sharing their views. Conflict is destructive if there is ongoing disagreements, name calling and people are getting upset. So, for now, describe what behaviors you are seeing that might indicate destructive conflict. Do not try to “diagnose” the causes of those behaviors, just saw what you are seeing or hearing. Acknowledge that conflict is natural in healthy groups, but explain why you suspect that conflict has become destructive.

2. If members are in destructive conflict, then select approaches to resolve conflict.

Take a 5-minute break. Ask one or two other members (a subgroup) to step aside with you. Ask them to suggest approach(es) to address the conflict, and then read the ideas listed immediately below. Ask them which approach(es) are most likely to move things along.

3. Use the approaches selected by the subgroup, with the entire group.

Explain that the approaches were selected by several of you, not by just one person. Ask that members set aside 10-15 minutes on the agenda to try them out. The more the members are in destructive conflict, the more likely they will be willing to try out the approaches.

Possible Approaches to Conflict Resolution

Depending on the situation and duration of the conflict, there are a variety of approaches that might support resolution of destructive conflict. Here are some possible approaches:

  • Focus on what members agree on, for instance by posting the mission, vision and/or values statements to remind people of why they are there.
  • Ask members, “If this disagreement continues, where will we be? How will it hurt our organization?
  • Have members restate their position. If it will take longer than three minutes, allow opportunities for others to confirm or question for understanding (not disagreement).
  • Shift to prioritizing alternatives, rather than excluding all alternatives but one.
  • Take a 10-minute break in which each member quietly reflects on what he/she can do to move the group forward.
  • Take 5-10 minutes and in pairs of two, each person shares with the other what he/she is confused or irritated about. One person in the pair helps the other to articulate his/her views to the larger group. Then switch roles and repeat the process.
  • Propose an “agree to disagree” disposition.
  • If disagreement or lack of consensus persists around an issue, have a subgroup select options and then report back to the full group.
  • Tell stories of successes and failures in how group members operate, including how members got past their differences and reached agreement.
  • Call for a vote on a stated question or decision.

How to Help Group Members Get Unstuck

Sometimes, even if there is a lot of participation from members and no prolonged conflict, a group might not seem to be making any progress on group activities. Members may simply be stuck, for example, during planning or when needing to make a major decision. Consider a similar general process as when a group seems in prolonged conflict (listed above). You could:

1. First, verify if members indeed are stuck. Ask the members. Listen for 3 minutes.

They might not be stuck, at all. Name or describe what behaviors you are seeing that might indicate they are stuck. Do not try to “diagnose” causes of those behaviors, just name what you are seeing or hearing.

2. If members are stuck, then select approaches to move the group forward.

Take a 5-minute break. Ask two other members to step aside with you. Ask them to suggest the approach(es) to move things along, and then read the ideas listed immediately below. Ask them to choose which approach(es) would be most likely to move things along.

3. Use the approaches, selected by the subgroup, with the entire group.

Explain that the approaches were selected by several of you, not by just one person. Ask that members set aside 10-15 minutes on the agenda to try them out. The more the members are stuck, the more likely they will be willing to try out the approaches.

Possible Approaches to Get Unstuck

Depending on the situation, there are a wide variety of actions that might be helpful in moving the group forward. Possible approaches that members can use to become unstuck include:

  • Ask the group, “If we continue to be stuck, where will we be? How will we be hurting our organization?”
  • Take a five-minute break to let members do whatever they want.
  • Resort to some movement and stretching.
  • Ask for five examples of “out of the box” thinking.
  • Resort to thinking and talking about activities in which resources do not matter.
  • Play a quick game that stimulates creative thinking.
  • Use metaphors, such as stories, myths or archetypal images. For example, ask each person to take five minutes to draw or write a metaphor that describes his/her opinions and position in the meeting.
  • Have each or some of the planners tell a story and include some humor.
  • Use visualization techniques, for example, visualize reading an article about the organization’s success some years into the future. What does the article say about how the success came about?
  • Play reflective or energizing music (depending on the situation).
  • Restructure the group to smaller groups or move members around in the large group.
  • Have a period of asking question after question after question (without answering necessarily). Repetition of questions, “why?” in particular, can help to move planners into deeper levels of reflection and analysis, particularly if they do not have to carefully respond to each question.
  • Establish a “parking lot” for outstanding or unresolved issues, and then move on to something else. Later, go back to the stuck issue.
  • Turn the problem around by reframing the topic and/or issue. Usually, questions help this reframing happen.
  • Ask key questions, for example, “How can we make it happen? How can we avoid it happening?” Focus on what the group agrees on, for instance by posting the mission, vision and/or values statements to remind people of why they are there.

Additional Perspectives on Conflict Management in Groups

Facilitation Library
Why Sensitivity Training Is Insensitive and Patronizing
How to Resolve Conflicts Without Killing Anyone
Extensive list of article about resolving conflicts
Measuring the Cost of Organizational Conflict
Dealing with Conflict
Search for Common Ground
ERIC Trends and Issues Alert - Conflict Management
Free instrument for measuring the cost of organizational conflict
List of Online Articles About Mediation
Ways to Resolve Conflict in Your Team
Understanding Conflict in Nonprofit Organizations

Also see
The following are group-based methods.
Action Learning
Board Committees
Committees
Communities of Practice
Conflict Management
Dialoguing
Facilitation
Focus Groups
Group Coaching
Group Conflict Management
Group Dynamics (about nature of groups, stages of group development, etc)
Group Learning
Group-Based Problem Solving and Decision Making
Large-Scale Interventions
Meeting Management
Open Space Technology
Self-Directed and Self-Managed Work Teams
Team Building
Training and Development
Virtual Teams


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To round out your knowledge of this Library topic, you may want to review some related topics, available from the link below. Each of the related topics includes free, online resources.

Also, scan the Recommended Books listed below. They have been selected for their relevance and highly practical nature.

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Many of the Library's materials about business, leadership and management are adapted from this book. Just click on the title of the book above to see the Index and Table of Contents.
Leadership and Supervision With Nonprofit Staff - Book Cover Field Guide to Leadership and Supervision With Nonprofit Staff
by Carter McNamara, published by Authenticity Consulting, LLC.
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Many of the Library's materials about nonprofit leadership and management are adapted from this book. Just click on the title of the book above to see the Index and Table of Contents.

About Facilitation

The following books are recommended because of their highly practical nature and often because they include a wide range of information about this Library topic. To get more information about each book, just click on the image of the book. Also, a "bubble" of information might be displayed. You can click on the title of the book in that bubble to get more information, too.

About Teams

The following books are recommended because of their highly practical nature and often because they include a wide range of information about this Library topic. To get more information about each book, just click on the image of the book. Also, a "bubble" of information might be displayed. You can click on the title of the book in that bubble to get more information, too.



Also See

Strategic Planning (Facilitating) -- Recommended Books

Organizational Development (Facilitating) -- Recommended Books




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