Resolve conflicts


How to resolve conflicts between individuals and groups.

How this helps

Conflict is a natural ingredient of any collective action. When pointed in some directions, it is constructive. When pointed in others, it becomes destructive. If you are involved in a conflict, or witnessing one, you can take practical steps to resolve the conflict. This frees people to work together. Conflict, when unresolved, can fragment and destroy teams and collaborations.


Don't set the "idiot" bit

There is an expression, "to flip the idiot bit", which means to classify someone as a useless or stupid person because of something they do or say. The problem is that once that idiot bit is set, it's very hard to clear again. But people often make mistakes - about one or two in ten times they do anything - and we tend to see errors much more than successes. Flipping the idiot bit means you are less likely to see the good in people and more likely to see the bad.

When working with people who seem to be causing problems, explain clearly and without emotion how you believe they are causing problems, and give them several chances to change their behaviour. Then, if you have the power, change the processes or circumstances to see if they are reacting to external circumstances. If that fails, then you can set the idiot bit.

Intentions don't matter

When looking at conflict, you may need to decide who is 'right' and who is 'wrong', if only because some conflicts can only be resolved by choosing a side. People are extraordinarily good at explaining why they do silly things. Don't listen to explanations, excuses, or motives. Look only at results. As the expression goes, "the road to hell is paved with good intentions."

Create new spaces

A very common cause of conflict is over territory or power. When two individuals with big egos clash over control of the same territory, the results can be messy. The solution is quite simply - create new territory. In activism, the space is effectively infinite, and a wise solution to any conflict over territory or power is to take a domain or area that is important but not sufficiently explored, and open that up.

Some of you reading this will find the notion that people fight over power or territory to be distasteful. If you're one of these people, you're perhaps a bit younger than me, and see the world as you wish it was. The day will come when someone tries to take something you consider "yours", and you will find yourself experiencing a strong emotional reaction we call "anger". Luckily, in the pursuit of science, culture, politics, art, and knowledge, there are no physical limits.

Promote strong egos

Some organisers see other big egos as a threat. It's a mistake - big egos are a valuable asset in any organisation, if they are given space to work within, and a clear ethical framework. If you are lucky enough to encounter big egos in your team, encourage them, and delegate to them. Always try to make yourself redundant.

Clear rules and authority

Organisations need crystal-clear rules enforced by an absolute authority. This is not the same as a dictatorship, because everyone is free to join or leave the organisation at any time. If the rules are unethical, the organisation will die because people will abandon it.

The failing of pure anarchism is that without rules and authority, the strong can prey on the weak, and collective efforts cannot succeed. A branch of anarchism called "philosophical anarchism" has a more nuanced analysis; it's not authority that is bad as such, it's the lack of freedom to choose our own authorities that is bad.

Avoid tribalism

Tribalism - the notion that we as individuals "belong" to a group and must defend it against others - is a dangerous element in any association that seeks wisdom and truth in its view of the world. Tribalism creates emotional reactions that overrule logic and provide fertile ground for feuds that can last for years.

The solution to tribalism is to accept that membership of an organisation demands adherence to the rules and regulations of the assocation (its constitution or statutes) but nothing more. There is no belonging. When people show repeatedly that they value emotional tribalistic debate over logic, you can flip the idiot bit and disregard them.

Merit, not position

Perhaps the worst way to resolve an argument is to invoke seniority. In a healthy organisation, people are given power by the group because they've demonstrated more ability and skill. In a meritocratic group, disagreements then tend to occur only between individuals who are of similar "rank", and this can be resolved by agreeing to disagree, to allow space for competing opinions.

Pick up the phone

An astounding number of conflicts come about from basic miscommunication. We are often bad at choosing the best tool for the job, especially if we're used to using a particular tool. Some people use email for everything. But a smart communicator - which we all have to be at certain moments - uses email for some things, wikis for others, voice-over-plain-old-telephone-systems (vopots) for others, and will even take the train to go meet someone if needed.

In general when you find you are in a dispute with someone over a misunderstanding, switch quickly to a lower-latency, higher-bandwidth form of communication. Pick up the phone, in other words.

Money and funding

Unfortunately, money always rears its ugly head sooner or later. In associations like the FFII, the rule is that volunteers do the best work, and professionals become dependent on the income. There are exceptions. However, there is a regular friction between people who treat lobbying as a job, and those who treat it as a necessary evil and a pure cost. In the typical case, volunteers feel that their hard work is taken, repackaged, and then used to raise the profiles of professionals who earn vast sums for the privilege.

It's like a university researcher seeing his work taken by another person - it does literally feel like theft, and can create very strong emotional reactions. The fact that we work in a "sharing" environment does not help lower the feelings of anger, indeed we just feel guilty about feeling angry.

The problem is very simple: sharing must be reciprocal, otherwise the person taking but not giving is cheating. And we have a very strong sense of justice that has been sharpened by hundreds of thousands of years specifically to detect and point the finger at cheats.

So the feelings of anger are accurate and the proper action is to ask such people to stop taking without giving; if they persist, to ban them from participating in the group, and to make sure everyone in the group understands and agrees. This is usually easy to explain, since people engaged in this kind of underhand competition will inevitably say unkind things about the group they are supposed to be part of, because they are angling for 'market share'.

The FFII occasionally ejects people for this kind of thing, and so far it's always been the right cure, resolving conflicts and allowing people to work without the fear their efforts will simply go to lining someone else's pockets.


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  • Pieter Hintjens <gro.iiff|hreteip#gro.iiff|hreteip>