Facilitating Conflicted or Unexpected Discussions

  • Posted on: 14 April 2014
  • By: Tina McCoy

Nothing 'throws people for a loop' like an unexpected issue or conflict that arises during a meeting. Rather than being discombobulated or intimidated, learn to accept such instances as normal parts of collaboration and problem-solving processes. Facilitate conflicted discussions effectively, and you'll be in a good position to provide the leadership your teams need to make decisions that are truly centered on the needs of the students.  Sounds easier said than done? Read on for 10 Tips to Keep in Mind When Collaboratively Facilitating Conflicted or Unexpected Discussions.

1.  Be cool!  If you are anxious or defensive the disagreement may escalate.

Be calm and confident. Watch your body language and rate of speech.  If you are relaxed and open, other team members will see you as confident and interested in what is best for the student. If you appear uncomfortable or argumentative, others may feel that you have a different agenda.  Make listening your first course of action when unexpected issues arise. 

2. Empathize. Take on the perspective of the person raising the issue. 

Remember that the team member raising the issue almost always wants what is best for the student, but has a different way of looking at the situation. In order to understand what they are really saying and why, you must consider their perspective.  This will allow you to better understand the discrepancy between your perspective and theirs, which will be very helpful as you work toward a mutually acceptable solution.

3. Define. Understand the problem before attempting to solve it.

Human nature dictates that people look for solutions, but often these are arrived at before the actual problem is defined. This leads to random, ill-devised plans to appease people rather than well-constructed plans of action.  As a leader, you have a responsibility to help teams constructively examine issues in ways that get at their real roots so that appropriate remedies can be determined. Gear the discussion toward defining the problem.

4.  Encourage. Directly ask others for input or information.

When unexpected issues or conflicts arise, it's time for the game of 'Twenty Questions' (figuratively speaking). Peel back the layers of the situation to get at the core of the problem. Take time to discuss concerns or challenges thoroughly, moving the discussion ever closer to the root of the issue. Let participants voice their opinions fully, encouraging those who are silent to contribute. Keep delving deeper, gathering and discussing information from all available sources.

5.  Redirect. Nervous people tend to ramble; tactfully guide the discussion.

Unproductive discussions are tiresome and annoying at best.  At worst, they lead to poor decisions. Supportively direct conflicted discussion back to the task at hand: getting to heart of the issue. Use strategies such as 'parking lots' or deferring discussion (of irrelevant issues) to later in the agenda to keep extraneous talk to a minimum. Stay focused on the issue that has arisen until you bring it to closure, if not resolution.

6.  Apologize. If mistakes were made, acknowledge them and correct the situation.

If you can verify that any member of your organization made real mistakes, acknowledge them and apologize genuinely. Don't stop there, however.  Find out where the breakdown was (why the mistake occurred) then discuss steps that will be taken to make sure the same mistake does not reoccur. Most people understand that mistakes happen, and are forgiving if they know they have been 'heard' and the problem is being addressed. 

7.  Prioritize. Keep the student's needs at the center of discussion.

As the team deliberates the issue, divert discussion away from what the teacher, parent or therapist wants, but what the student needs and why. The student is the priority.  Although meeting participants vary in their perspectives and values, they typically have one thing in common: they want what is best for the student. Capitalize on this common desire, and your discussions will be more genuinely collaborative. There will still be disagreements, but respect and trust will be cultivated when all participants see that they are working together to serve the student.

8.  Be firm. Don't concede just to diffuse the situation.

Keeping the student's interests in mind, stand your ground when you need to. 'Giving in' to appease a team member who is upset, without determining the best course of action, will backfire eventually.  If you know a requested course of action is not educationally beneficial for the student, or if there is insufficient evidence that the action will ultimately help the student function or progress, be firm. As an educator, you have a responsibility to use your professional skills and knowledge to promote educationally sound practices. Don't give in simply to avoid conflict.

9.  Reconvene if needed. Don't decide without adequate information.

When unexpected issues or conflicts arise, don't expect that they will always be adequately addressed 'on the spot'. Rushing into a decision may not be the best course of action in the long run.  You may need to collect more data, conduct evaluations, observe the student, or investigate alternatives prior to making a decision related to the disagreement. Reconvening is not 'pushing off the issue' when specific steps are needed to gather all of the information needed to arrive at a solution that is well matched to the problem. 

10. Confer. Seek guidance when needed to resolve a disagreement. 

Another reason to reconvene, aside from gathering student information, is to seek counsel from a supervisor, a trusted colleague or your attorney. If you are truly not sure of the best course of action, don't be afraid to admit it.  Be careful how you express that, however!  Don't ever say things like, "I need to check with my supervisor" or "I need to see what our attorney says about it". Those types of statements make you sound like an uncaring gatekeeper, or someone who only cares about procedures.  Rather, consider using phrases such as "I'd like to check on that and get back to you", "Let me investigate what the options are", or "I'd like to learn more about that program before we make a decision". These portray you as a caring human being who is not afraid to admit she doesn't know everything!

When unexpected issues or conflicts arise at a meeting, remain calm and open.  Listen first, and then actively help the team (through questioning and review of information) deconstruct the issue to get at the very root of the problem. Once the problem is defined, facilitate a process of reconstructing the situation in an alternate way.  In other words, systematically consider the simplest and least intrusive solutions that will solve the problem or issue.  Once these are determined, student supports that are well matched to the actual needs of the students (and which address the issues that you have uncovered) can be determined and implemented. In this way, team members can work together to provide appropriate supports and services that promote educational success without 'missing the mark', inadvertently squandering resources, or undermining a student's opportunities to become more independence.