It is natural to shy away from conflict, but this is what drives the meaningful conversation that engagement is after. This being said, it is important to understand why conflict develops and how to respond to difficult situations, so the conversation continues to be productive.
Conflict in community engagement arises when there is a real or perceived incompatible goal or idea between either community members or facilitator and community members. Conflict is more likely to arise when one idea has the potential to interfere with the other goal or idea materialising. It may be because the community or stakeholders your engaging feel something they care about is threatened in some way.
These situations can become stressful, upsetting and frustrating for all those involved, especially when the topic is close to the community’s heart. For example, there might be tough conversations that need to happen around recent natural disasters, housing acquisitions or job losses. These topics will have strong opinions and emotions from the crowd. But avoiding this conflict means avoiding engagement, so it is critical there are strategies in place for turning what might become an argument into productive conversation. This means – leaning into the emotion and conflict in engagement.
In order to lean into the conflict and create a productive environment, it is necessary to understand the factors that decrease the likeliness of engagement, this way you can mitigate these risks.
Some factors that reduce successful engagement identified by Black (1990) and Morrill (2017) include:
- Relative socially inequality
- Cultural fluidity and major differences
- Lack of collective understanding
- Organisational fluidity and asymmetry
- Normative or opinion-based information
By identifying which factors exist before engagement starts, the facilitator can plan. While most of these are unavoidable, the information presented by the facilitator and how the forum runs can help to minimise the effects of these risks.
Finally, when conflict does arise in community engagement, how it is dealt with can change a dispute to empowerment. When hearing conflict, it is important for the facilitator to be attentive and willing to hear, process and problem solve all sides of the dispute. This can increase the engagement of the audience, as the last thing to do is leave them feeling dismissed. Sometimes, the best ideas come from these tough situations. To learn more about navigating challenging groups, dynamics and situations, check out the Articulous Academy Facilitating the Tough Stuff course.
Harrison, T. & Muhamad, J. (2018). Engagement in Conflict. In The Handbook of Communication Engagement. (pp. 187-204). https://www.researchgate.net/publication/324822765_Engagement_in_Conflict