Facilitating Productive Conflict - Steve Barkley

Facilitating Productive Conflict

Years back, I recall having a principal tell me about one of the most successful PLCs in his school. One of his descriptions was that you could at times hear disagreement and even arguing during their meetings. It took some processing for me to understand his finding. Those PLC members saw the decisions they were making to be highly important. Therefore, they didn’t rush to quickly reach a consensus. They had respect for each other, knew that their views would be heard, and had probably experienced, over time, that their productive conflicts had led to quality decisions that were best for their students.

My finding is that few teachers have received any training in the verbal skills of productive conflict. Even teachers, who handle facilitating conflict among students or with parents, tend to choose avoidance when it comes to colleagues. Patrick Lencioni, (The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team,) lists avoiding conflict as a source of dysfunction on a team:

“FEAR OF CONFLICT”: The desire to preserve artificial harmony stifles the occurrence of productive, ideological conflict.”

That’s what the principal was communicating to me about the effectiveness of that PLC. They avoided artificial harmony.

Anthony Armstrong writing a piece for Learning Forward, Building a Culture that Nurtures Productive Conflict, shares a quote from Liane Davey, author of You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along, and Get Stuff Done,)  that struck me as worthy of reflection.

“How educators choose to embrace, or not embrace, conflict sets a huge example for what we teach our children, so we are predetermining our future and whether or not we’ll be a culture that is trapped by passive aggressive behavior or if we will benefit from productive conflict.”

Laura Stack identifies that  if you approach conflict positively, it can:

  • Improve the quality of decisions
  • Stimulate involvement in the discussion
  • Arouse creativity and imagination
  • Facilitate employee growth
  • Increase movement toward goals
  • Create energetic climate
  • Build more synergy and cohesion among teams
  • Foster new ideas, alternatives, and solutions
  • Test positions and beliefs

When I am working with groups where conflict emerges, there are three strategies I look to consciously employ:

# Focus on the goal/outcome where there is consensus.

 The common outcome goal reminds folks that while we may differ on “how” or “what strategy to use” or on the timeline, we do have agreement on “why”. If we don’t have consensus on the goal, we need to back up and address a purpose that unites the team.

“Ok, everyone is looking to have students make maximum growth during the class days we have left in the year.”

“We are agreed that while we need to dedicate extra time for some students to master this concept, our plan needs to allow those who have mastered it to extend their learning.”

# Rephrase any participant’s negative phrased comments to positive ones.

By phrasing don’t, won’t, and can’t as want to and need to, your facilitation can lead into a solution oriented/consensus direction.

Participant: “There isn’t enough time to complete that process by the deadline.”

Facilitator: “You see value in the process if we can create the necessary time.”

Participant: “The students won’t invest the time to see the project through to completion.”

Facilitator: “You see it as a valuable learning project if students made the investment to complete it.”  …  “You believe we would need to gain commitment from the students before we would decide to proceed.”

# Use Supporting Statements to respond to conflicting views and if possible, teach team members to use the supporting statements with each other


During a middle school cross curricular team meeting, the English teacher (Eric) mentions that he currently allows his students to redo a paper after he returns the graded assignment. He allows one week and replaces the initial grade with the higher grade if the resubmitted work warrants. He is pleased with the increased effort many students are exhibiting and the increase in application of learned skills that he is finding. Social studies teacher Sarah quick responds, “Sounds to me like you are penalizing the students who initially put forth the required effort.”

Their team facilitator responds with a supporting statement to each.

Jeff, the increase in student learning showing up in the redone assignment has to be quite reinforcing. What do you hope you’ll find longer term?

Sarah, the fairness of “redoes“ is an issue that educators and some parents have been debating ongoing.  Are there any situations where you would see a redo policy being fair?

Key to the supporting statement is to communicate that the person’s view was heard and that there is additional information you are interested in exploring with them. You can find more on supporting statements in this earlier blog. It is one verbal skill that I found had a big impact on my facilitation and coaching success.

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