Planning Magazine

Use These 5 Conflict Resolution Tips to Design Better Meetings

Don’t get bulldozed. Learn ways to navigate conflicts to achieve shared goals with stakeholders.

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Set the stage at community meetings to anticipate and diffuse misunderstandings, miscommunication, power struggles, and more. Photo by Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP.

It's a feeling that countless planners have experienced.

The meeting for a big issue has started. It could be about any hot-button topic, from housing affordability or a big zoning change to developing a plan to grapple with the effects of climate change. Then, conflict happens. An elected official vehemently disagrees with the project. A member of the public wants answers to questions that are still being researched — and they want those answers right now.

Your heart is beating fast. Your stomach is in knots. You can feel your anxiety coursing through your veins, and you're wrestling with responding or running for the door.

Take a moment, breathe.

Conflict is a normal — and at times necessary — aspect of working with others to achieve a goal. While it can be stressful, planners are equipped to not only handle these issues in the moment but also manage them within a larger environment of change so that they can turn tense situations into fruitful outcomes.

Throughout her career, Jennifer Raitt has been eager to solve problems and try to make things better in her neck of the woods. As the executive director of the Northern Middlesex Council of Governments in Lowell, Massachusetts, Raitt has found that doing that work sometimes means having to embrace and manage conflict.

"Community change comes with a lot of challenges," Raitt recently said in a webinar hosted by the American Planning Association (APA). "You might find that you're in the middle of a lot of conflict. It's really the nature of our work."

But there are ways to handle these types of situations. In "Mastering Conflict for Effective Planning: Navigation and Resolution," Raitt highlighted several key skills for planners, including managing relationships and optimally designing meetings to get better outcomes.

"Conflict can be about breakthrough change," Raitt said, adding that it can lead to a deepening of relationships and alignment on ideas that could become shared goals in the future. However, planners often lead communities through difficult issues, and getting to a resolution often means confrontation somewhere along the way. "Getting to the heart of that problem means understanding conflict scenarios and group dynamics."

Managing Conflict Through Anticipation

Conflict can come from misunderstandings, miscommunication (or lack of communication), differences of opinion, strong emotions or biases, values, or even power struggles. It also may be tied to a person's core identity — what Raitt described as the characteristics like beliefs, rituals, allegiances, or emotionally meaningful experiences that define an individual or a group of people. It also may be tied into their identity politics of who gets what and when and how.

A way to help manage conflict is through anticipation. It's one of the four A's — anticipating, accepting, appreciating, and acknowledging — that Raitt teaches planners to use to help manage conflicts. There are several ways planners can put anticipation skills into practice.

SET THE STAGE: Whether you're planning a one-on-one conversation or a group session with stakeholders, think through and design a purposeful meeting agenda. Planners can create greater clarity about the desired outcomes of the engagement by clarifying the roles of the people in the meeting, how to participate, understanding the meeting's purpose and objectives, and being clear about your expectations.

UNDERSTAND THAT EVERYONE IS DIFFERENT: Be open to participants' varied learning styles, thoughts, and perspectives. Tap into your empathy skills to design meeting experiences that acknowledge the different ways people engage with a learning process.

LAY OUT DECISION RIGHTS AND PROCESSES: Not all participants have the same decision-making authority. Understanding the level of decision rights in a public process and communicating them clearly puts everyone on the same page and helps planners get ahead of potential conflict.

REQUEST INPUT AND ACCEPT FEEDBACK: Focus on the perspectives of those you have engaged and share information as you receive it. Put that input to work by plugging it into scenarios and trade-offs in the process and use it to negotiate or mediate issues. Effectively accepting and incorporating feedback could help build a strong foundation for making recommendations to find agreement or consensus down the road.

PREPARE FOR DIFFERENT PERSONALITIES: The expert wants to dominate with their knowledge on a topic. A bulldozer plows through conversations trying to get their way. Then there is the conversational arsonist, who not only wants to throw a match onto an incendiary situation but also fan the flames. A hairsplitter needs all the nitty-gritty answers right away. Regardless of the personality type you are engaging with, remember that you are inviting them to be a part of the group process — so find ways to engage. Ask questions, give affirmation, and practice active listening to truly communicate.

Ultimately, Raitt believes harmony is the way to achieve broader goals. By anticipating what might happen at a meeting, planners can prepare themselves to shift away from "individuals who might take over or other dominant forces that are getting in the way and [toward] acknowledging more of a communal mindset."

Nurturing that communal mindset, she says, often can sway "adversarial people to become cooperative, the self-righteous to potentially become more compassionate, and people who feel more closed to become more open to engage."

To access this course and learn more strategies related to the four A's (anticipating, accepting, appreciating, and acknowledging), visit Passport.

This article is part of a collaborative effort with APA's Upskilling Initiative, a program dedicated to providing members with the practical skills essential for maintaining excellence as world-class planners. The Upskilling Initiative empowers professionals with the tools they need to navigate the evolving landscape of planning.

Jonathan DePaolis is APA's senior editor.