Conflict resolution in co-operatives

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Conflict can be a tricky subject to deal with, especially in Cooperatives where the stakes can be high - emotionally, financially, and socially. We mostly shy away from it, afraid that it will damage our relationships with others or our confidence in ourselves. This is mainly because we learn strategies for dealing with conflict as children, perhaps in the schoolyard, and rarely have the opportunity to revisit or review those strategies, which may not be effective in adult life.

Different ways of dealing with conflict

One way of looking at different responses to conflict is to see them along a continuum leading from "run away" (the Monty Python conflict strategy ..?) to confrontation, usually based on violence or power relationships. Somewhere in the middle of the continuum are strategies based on changing the subject - such as comedy or confusing the issue.

Run away!

None of these approaches is really satisfactory - if we run away we know we have not solved the problem, we have learned nothing and the next time we will probably run away too.

Make a joke!

The "changing the subject" strategy can work for a while - comedians sometimes say they learnt to be funny in the schoolyard as a technique for dealing with the school bully - but such a strategy is not always successful and can be unreliable.

Have a fight!

Violent confrontation also has its downsides, such as a bloody nose or, if you win, enemies that may try to bring you down later.

The co-operative way

However, confrontation does not have to be violent. It can be based on an assertive approach: “I know I have rights and I acknowledge your rights - so let's negotiate a settlement to this dispute that will suit us both”.

This assertive, co-operative approach is the most satisfactory way to deal with major conflicts, since it involves people working together to find a solution everyone will commit to.

Conflict is part of life. It is evidence that there is a wealth of experience, knowledge and ideas in the co-op. Within the co-op some conflict is inevitable and we need to know how to deal with it in a constructive way when it arises. That’s what this article is about.

We can reduce conflict by improving communication skills and by understanding how to make decisions and how to hold effective meetings. Co-operatives also need to understand how to avoid conflict arising out of organisational growth and development, as well as conflict caused by misunderstandings about the role of the Committee or Co-op Board.

A choice between achieving personal goals or having a good relationship with other people?

People deal with conflict in different ways. We can identify five different approaches, based on a dynamic relationship between achieving personal goals and maintaining good relationships with others:

Competitive When we focus entirely on achieving our own ends at the expense of our relations with others. This approach is aggressive and unco-operative, but in extreme situations may be called for to protect the vulnerable.

Accommodating When we believe that good relationships with others are more important than our own needs. This approach is unassertive and powerless, but could also be described as selfless and focusing more on your responsibilities than your rights.

Avoiding When we are neither achieving our own goals nor building good relationships. This approach is passive and unco-operative but could also be described as a tactical withdrawal, or survival technique.

Compromising When we work out ways in which we can achieve our own goals without confrontation, using techniques such as splitting the difference, rolling a dice or taking it in turns.

Co-operating When we work together with the other party, investigating ways in which we can both win, thus achieving our goals at the same time as building good relationships. This approach works towards win/win solutions, it is assertive and co-operative.

There are situations in which each of these styles is appropriate and they all have their advantages and drawbacks. However, we all have our habitual responses to conflict situations, so it’s helpful to identify what they are, and to recognise that other styles may be more appropriate.

Techniques of Principled Negotiation

Of all these attitudes towards conflict resolution, it is the co-operative approach which provides the most satisfactory solutions - the solutions which most people will feel able to commit to, because they have been consulted and involved. However, it can be time consuming, so may not be appropriate for more trivial or short term conflicts, and it is not always easy. A useful set of techniques for resolving conflict using a negotiated approach has been developed by a team based at Harvard University. In their book Getting to Yes[1] authors Fisher and Ury describe the "Techniques of Principled Negotiation" based on four steps:

  1. Separate the People from the Problem
  2. Focus on Interests, not Positions
  3. Invent Options for Mutual Gain
  4. Insist on Using Objective Criteria

A good half of the book focuses on the "Yes, but" questions - What if they are more powerful? What if they won't play? What if they use dirty tricks? - providing useful examples and illustrations of the techniques in action. “Getting to Yes” is published in paperback by Arrow Business Books and should be on the bookshelf of every community enterprise!

Tools for conflict resolution

Listening skills

Sometimes conflict arises simply because people do not feel heard, so just making the time for them to speak, and actively listening to them, can take the sting out of a situation and help you to more easily negotiate a resolution.

Active listening involves just listening and nothing else. Normally there is an overlap between listening, thinking and speaking and we are often trying to do all three at once! However, this means we are not really paying attention to the person we are listening to and we may miss some of the meaning of what they are saying. Also, we often focus more on what our response will be rather than on what the other person is actually saying.


In a co-op, where management is democratic and where good teamwork is essential, it is vital for people to understand how to behave assertively - ie knowing their own mind and standing up for themselves and their own opinions, without being pushed around by others - and without pushing others around.

In contrast, people often behave in ways which are either:

  • Aggressive – trying to get their own way by bullying or other power strategies
  • Passive – accepting other people’s opinions or decisions without thinking for themselves
  • Manipulative – using underhand or devious strategies to get their own way.

Assertive behaviour is much less likely to lead to conflict and indeed there is a technique for giving criticism assertively which will help to bring about the changes you want without causing hurt or offence to the recipient.

Here are some simple steps to getting someone to change difficult behaviour such as habitual lateness or missing deadlines in an assertive way.

  1. First you need to be clear yourself about the behaviour that you would like your colleague to change. Do not use this as an opportunity for a put-down. It's important that you address the behaviour and not attack the person.
  2. Remember that you both have rights - you have the right to expect colleagues to deliver to a standard you have all agreed and your colleague has the right to be treated with respect.
  3. Find a time and a place where you can speak to the person privately.
  4. Be specific about the change you want and talk about behaviour you can see - talk about facts and your feelings, not your opinions.
  5. Do this as soon as possible after realising the impact your colleague's behaviour is having on your work. Don't let it build up until you are angry and resentful.
  6. Ask your colleague how they see the situation and try to get them to work with you to bring about the changes you want.

Following these steps means you’re more likely to get the change you want. You have been assertive and it’s more likely that you’ll get a response which isn’t aggressive or passive from your colleague.

Dealing with tension

It's sometimes helpful to use a well tried and tested formula for dealing with tensions between individuals in the workplace. The following guidelines can be used by the protagonists or by other members of the team. The aim is to be constructive and to seek changes that will make both of you happy rather than attempting to "win". Again, it's important to be specific, talking about actions not opinions, facts not accusations, examples not generalisations. Talk about how you feel (ie angry or disappointed) and be clear about what you want to change. Be positive - ie ask the person to start or increase doing whatever it is you want (not to stop doing what you don't want). Explain why, as it helps if they understand your reasons. And here's the famous script:

When you do (or did) ..... (concrete example)
I feel ......................................(acknowledge your feelings)
and I want you to ..............(specific concrete request)
because ................................(your reasons)


If the techniques listed above have not helped, we recommend using mediation to resolve the conflict. Mediation is where a mediator helps two or more people to reach an agreement to change behaviour. Any agreement comes from those in dispute, not from the mediator. The mediator does not judge or tell them what to do (beyond making suggestions). The mediator is in charge of the process of seeking to resolve the problem but is not responsible for the outcome.

See Also


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