Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

I recently was part of a conversation among a group of community builders about “conflict” in communities. We talked about different tactics how to deal with conflict once it arises and people provided a variety of approaches.

There was one thing we all agreed on: conflict in groups is unavoidable and will arise if the group exists for more than just a few weeks or months. In fact, most of us felt that conflict wasn’t just a necessary nuisance, but actually played a vital role in the evolution of the group. If the group has any aspirations to exist for a longer period of time, it will require some conflict to mature and strengthen.

What strikes me is that many community builders intuitively know this assumption to be true, yet most of us don’t act on it before actual conflict arises. To say it differently: we usually don’t design our groups with the possibility of conflict in mind, we let it come up and then have to react to it.

Here are some ideas what we can do to design groups with the assumption that conflicts will surely arise:

Provide more intimate spaces for group hygiene

Humans are highly emotional, highly complex beings. When we come together with the same people over time, personal tensions and sticky situations will eventually arise. Conflict is a pretty normal part of our everyday life – so we are somewhat used at dealing with it and working through it. We talk through and process them with the help of our romantic partners or our close friends. However, big groups are a bad place to digest conflicts and it requires smaller, more intimates spaces where we can vent, where we can feel heard, and where someone can provide us with another perspective and help us get unstuck. That can’t happen in a group of 150, but it can happen in a group of 3 or 5. That’s why smaller sub-groups are so crucial, because they provide spaces for these conflicts to come up on an ongoing basis and make sure they don’t accumulate.

Defining a conflict resolution process in advance

As a group we can agree upfront how we’ll deal with conflict when it arises. Ideally, there is a conflict resolution process in place that we all have signed off on and that provides guidance in the case of conflict.

The crux with conflict resolution processes is that when the moment of the conflict actually arises, it feels so uncomfortable, it feels so personal, it feels so complicated, that often people don’t actually stick with previously defined processes. I’m not sure how to design the process in a way that it actually gets used. My hunch is that defining a dedicated conflict manager in advance, maybe even someone from outside the group, could help.

Setting expectations: conflicts will come up and they aren’t all bad

My sense is that it could be helpful for a community to start out with the expectation that at some point conflicts will arise and hard conversations will need to be had. There is a significant honeymoon period at the beginning of a new community (or for people joining communities fresh) that is based on a romantic view of each other. At some point that will be shattered. So maybe it’s best to label conflict as a normal phase of a community’s evolution versus a terrible thing to happen? This could be part of a member onboarding process.