Conflict Resolution & Negotiating with Difficult People

By: Andraea LaVant

Communication Styles*

There are four primary communication styles: passive, aggressive, passive-aggressive, and assertive. While the “assertive” style is generally viewed as the most effective, characteristics of other styles may be beneficial in certain situations.

Understanding your communication style can not only help you identify areas for personal growth, but it can also help you strengthen relationships with others and reduce potential for conflicts. Review the descriptions below along with the Communication Styles Chart provided in the “Supplemental Resources.”

 Passive Communication

Passive communication is typically used by those who want to appear indifferent or as if they don’t care about a topic or issue. Passive communicators often don’t express their feelings or needs, which can leave too much room for others to dominate discussions or impact decisions.  

Passive communicators often exhibit specific nonverbal communication cues, which include lack of eye contact, slouching, or shrugging when asked a question.

Aggressive Communication

Aggressive communication is considered the opposite of passive communication. Aggressive communicators express their opinions openly and often without regard for others.

Aggressive communicators often express themselves loudly and in a demanding manner, pointing fingers, giving intense eye contact and controlling others through blame, intimidation, criticism, threats, attacks, etc.

Passive-Aggressive Communication

Passive-aggressive communication merges both styles to form another (generally ineffective) form of communication. Passive aggressive communicators aim to appear as if they don’t care about something (passive), but subtly portray their frustration or disagreement (aggressive).

Habits of passive-aggressive communicators include muttering under their breaths or making side comments in meetings. They often communicate with body language or lack of communication, including ignoring someone or communicating about others when they’re not present (otherwise known as gossiping).

Assertive Communication

Assertive communication balances open communication with respect for others. Assertive communicators express their thoughts, feelings, desires, and needs while aiming to consider those of others.

Assertive communicators typically express themselves calmly and focus on others in a non-threatening manner (i.e. through non-threatening eye contact). They tend to use “I” statements to indicate their personal statements without placing blame on others.

As mentioned, assertive communication is considered most effective because it focuses on two-way communication. It involves expressing thoughts and allowing others to do the same.

Conflict Definition

Conflict can be defined as:

  • “Any tension which is experienced when one person perceives that one’s needs or desires are likely to be thwarted or frustrated.”
  • “A disagreement between two or more individuals or groups, with each individual or group trying to gain acceptance of its view or objectives over others.”
  • “The appearance of difference, difference of opinions, of interests.”

Types of Conflict

Successful conflict management means first understanding how conflict arises. Conflict within organizations/boards can be classified in the following categories: task, relationship, and value conflict.

Task Conflict

Task conflict centers around issues related to content, duties, or outcome-based activities. It tends to involve disagreements about answers to the questions, Who? What? When? Where? And How? For example, disagreements can arise from the questions:

  • What should be done?
  • When should we do something?
  • Who should do something?
  • Where should we do something?
  • How should we do something?

Task conflicts can be simple to resolve, but they can also be more deeply rooted in other types of conflict (i.e. relationship conflict) that may make the issues more difficult to address.

Relationship Conflict

Relationship conflicts arise from differences in personality, style, preferences, and other interpersonal issues. Relationship conflicts consistently occur in collaborative environments, such as the workplace or in volunteer settings. Types of relationship conflicts include:

  • Interpersonal conflict (conflict between two people)
  • Intragroup conflict (conflict among individuals within a group/team)
  • Intergroup conflict (conflict among different groups/teams).

Value Conflict

Value conflict can arise from distinct differences in identities and values. Values are beliefs that people use to give meaning to their lives. They explain the differences between “good and bad,” “right or wrong,” etc. Value conflict can include differences in politics, faith, ethics, traditions and other beliefs. While specific discussions about beliefs may not occur often in professional settings, individual values can affect a person’s thoughts and decisions such that it creates conflict.

Managing Conflict in Meetings

When people come together for a common interest, there’s inevitable potential for conflict to arise. Conflict can serve as a productive way to move things forward in a group or help prompt new ways to do things.

When facilitating meetings, here are a few tips to help manage conflict:

  1. Prepare: Proactively prevent conflict by preparing well for meetings. Create a detailed agenda that allows for some flexibility, but that can be referenced to get the meeting back on track when conversations veer off or conflict begins to arise. Also, encourage meeting participants to prepare for meeting as well. Provide the agenda/discussion topics in enough time before the meeting for them to think through discussion points, gather research, and devise conclusions on their own. This will help participants make informed decisions in the meetings and eliminate assumptions and other conversations that can cause conflict.
  • Begin with the common mission and goals: No matter the subject, aim to prevent or deescalate conflict by beginning each meeting by reminding participants what everyone has in common. There is generally a shared mission and goals that are bringing everyone together. Start by stating the main question you’re coming together to answer or main reason you’re meeting. At the end of the meeting, summarize your collective answer or agreement to the statement you made when you began the meeting. When people are reminded of their shared goals, they focus less on individual differences and preferences and more on collective goals and how to reach them together.
  • Listen and acknowledge: Aim to listen to others when they communicate. This will help bring understanding and convey your trust and respect. Ask questions to clarify your understanding of different points of view. Then, acknowledge that you’ve heard others by repeating or reflecting on what’s been said. For example, use phrases such as, “That’s a good point. It addresses (goal 1) in this way,” or, “I understand what you mean when you say (point 1).”

In general, it’s important to make people feel that they are valued and entitled to their opinions, even if their views aren’t the same as your own. Always remain focused on the goal and be willing to compromise.

  • Remain alert to signs of conflict: “Body language” can serve as a cue that there’s a potential conflict. If someone is shaking their head or rolling their eyes, these can be signs of disagreement. Even a heavy sigh or mumbling can demonstrate someone’s disapproval. If you sense there’s disapproval in a meeting, ask if anyone has any questions or concerns they’d like to put forth. Better to address things as soon as possible rather than allowing them to escalate.
  • Agree to disagree: Sometimes it’s just not possible for everyone to come to an agreement, especially in meetings. In situations like these, it’s best to agree that you won’t be arriving at a conclusion at that time. Aim to leave time in every meeting to devise next steps, including who will be responsible for specific actions and when or if you will revisit the topic.

Tips for Handling Difficult Board Members

Boards are made up of all types of people and personalities, which means certain personalities can be tricky to manage and hard to work with. Many of the tips mentioned above, such as reminding board members of the common mission and goals, or listening to their thoughts and observances, can be especially helpful when working with difficult board members. Here are some other tips:

  • Structure meetings so everyone can contribute – One of the more apparent traits difficult board members exhibit is a tendency to dominate meetings or “stir up trouble.” When you are leading a meeting and know a difficult board member will be present, structure the discussions so everyone in the group has an opportunity to contribute. For example, set a time limit for each person to comment on a topic. This helps ensure everyone has the same opportunities and no one takes over the meeting.
  • Address issues face-to-face: Often when we feel frustrated or that someone has acted inappropriately, our first action is to send an email expressing our thoughts or feelings. Starting a back-and-forth “email war” tends to make things worse. Instead, reach out to the person to determine when you can meet face-to-face (either in-person or virtually). Although it may feel a bit uncomfortable at first, meeting face-to-face provides the best environment to speak openly, come to a resolution sooner and keep the issue from getting worse.
  • Focus on the goal, not the person: No matter your personal relationship with the board member, it’s important to consider the needs of the board/organization, not the individual. This means that if a board member is exhibiting negative behavior, set up a time to discuss how the behavior is affecting the organization’s goals. Emphasize that you need them to change a behavior because it will serve the organization better, not because they are a bad person.
  • Provide examples and use non-accusatory language: It’s important to remain professional, even when dealing with difficult board members. If you need support from other board members or staff, ensure these conversations are minimal and constructive (no gossiping!). When you do communicate with the difficult board member, use specific examples to identify issues. For example, rather than say, “You never let anyone else speak,” say, “At yesterday’s meeting, each person agreed to speak for no more than three minutes. I felt disappointed that I didn’t get to provide feedback. How can we work together to ensure that doesn’t happen in the future?”

The “Negotiating with Difficult People” PowerPoint provides a few scenarios to help you think through some of these tips.

IMPORTANT TO NOTE* The information shared above is based on what can be considered “communication norms.” This does not account for perceptions and stereotypes that others may have about different people groups. For example, women that demonstrate confidence and directness can often be characterized as “aggressive,” while a man demonstrating the same characteristics may be deemed “assertive.” Similarly, a Black man who speaks honestly or even uses inflection in his voice will likely be deemed aggressive, while his white male counterpart would be viewed as assertive. When it comes to disability, an autistic person who does not make eye contact can easily be judged as passive, when they really are assertive. Before we act on any communication concerns or issues, it’s important to consider the societal perceptions that can influence our judgments and/or make others misinterpret or mis-characterize us.