Student Health & Promotions Coordinator, Rose Wimbush, and Martin Gladman from La Trobe’s counselling team take a look at the main causes of conflict in groups and how it can be resolved.
“Two heads are better than one!”. “The more the merrier”. “More hands make light work”. These sayings speak to the potential that group work has, to enhance your learning through peer-to-peer instruction, be more productive and develop interpersonal skills.
Unless you choose to live somewhere under a rock and never speak to anyone, you will always encounter groups of people – friends, family, work, community, even going to a club or bar you’ll encounter groups of people! Love it or hate it, group work is an unavoidable part of the University experience (life in fact!) and for a good reason.
The benefits of group work
Group work (or cooperative learning) is a highly effective and powerful way to learn. It can also be really fun! Sharing of ideas and knowledge to tackle complex and larger scale projects and problems, learning from and about other people and gaining different perspectives, having others reflect to you your strengths and weakness – all of this will help your studies. Further to that, you get a chance to develop the soft skills that are highly relevant and sought after to many workplaces all around the world such as time management, accountability, communication, leadership and problem-solving skills.
Another of these skills is conflict resolution. When working with a group of people, often you will come across conflicts. Your group members may differ in opinions, expectations and workloads, all of which can contrast with you own, creating tension in your group. This isn’t to say it’s always a bad thing though. Conflicts can lead to healthy discussion and it means that you’re learning to compromise or reason your point better, and problem solve important issues.
Types of conflicts
Conflicts over outcomes and expectations
This arises when each person has a different expectation for the outcome. For example, if a student’s expectation is to get the highest possible mark but another student is not prepared to do the work for this, it might create a conflict. Or if one student wants to meet as a group every second day for the project’s duration, but another student doesn’t have the capacity to do that, then it can cause conflict.
This is a common conflict and occurs when two or more people have personalities or traits that clash with one another and it may be hard to contain the negative feelings about it. A student might have an opposing view from another, or mislike how another person conducts themselves. Another example is one teammate might like to study in complete silence, but another might need loud music to concentrate, or both might want to lead the group, but aren’t prepared to support each other.
This conflict occurs when the disagreement is about how tasks will be completed. It might be that the team can’t decide on how to distribute tasks, who needs to do what, who makes final decisions or even when the next meeting will be. All these conflicts can lead us feeling stressed and overwhelmed, but what if there was a way to resolve these?
How to resolve group conflicts
Thankfully there are techniques you can employ to try to tackle these issues.
Acknowledge the conflict
Ignoring an issue could lead to further arguments, disagreements and potentially even hurt feelings. Avoid this by acknowledging the issue out loud and letting the team know what is happening. It may not be pleasant but getting it out in the open can then allow everyone to work on a solution. Just remember, always do this respectfully and in a way that cares for both you and the other person, yelling your problem at someone, although it might be getting it out of your system, doesn’t always lead to the outcome we’re looking for! Decency and respect should be excised at all times.
It is important that all parties in the group can have their say when a conflict arises. Open and honest communication will help the group know exactly where everyone is at and help the group understand where a grievance might be coming from. Make sure you’re respectful and clearly state the issue and how you’re feeling, but also make sure that you listen and be prepared to consider that people are allowed to see things differently.
Listen and find a solution
When listening to others, make sure you listen attentively and try to understand where they are coming from with empathy. Not everyone is the same – we all have different upbringings and experiences which can shape our understanding of what it means to communicate, what can upset one person may not upset another; give people space, yourself included, listen and do your best to bring understanding. This will allow the group to then start working towards a solution for the conflict that arises.
Reflect on what your part is
It’s important to be honest with ourselves as to how we have been with the group as well. Have we stepped up to what’s need or pulled away and withdrawn from the opportunity? Have we been reactive and shut people down or have we been open, clear and considerate? No one’s perfect but reflecting on the part we’ve played and taking responsibility for it can be a great growth opportunity and can often help the others in the groups to do the same – but not always! Be aware, take responsibly and move on, let others come to understand their part in their own way – you don’t have to force it down their throat! That never gets anyone anywhere anyway.
Appoint a group leader
It may be useful to appoint a group leader. This is not so that one person has control or complete decision-making power over the group, but to act like a mediator. A leader can ensure that everyone is heard or be the decision maker if there is a 50/50 split decision between the group. They can also be the one responsible to ensure that the project is on track and that people are content. Remember, a true leader knows when to support the lead – the title of ‘leader’ just describe one’s roles and responsibilities, not who we are as people. If you were to be appointed the leader, how would you like people to work with you in that position?
Remember the importance of the relationship of the group
At the end of the day, a conflict is usually a smaller blip in a bigger picture. You don’t have to be friends with the people in your group, but it’s probably more useful if you aren’t butting heads for the rest of the project. In the workplace, you have to be able to work with all sorts of people. Try to keep the bigger picture in mind and remind yourselves to be respectful, composed and decent to everyone.
Talk to your supervisor
If all these tactics are just not helping or the issue is more series, talk to your supervisor. They can give guidance on the next steps and an open communication line will keep them updated on what is happening with the group.
Take care of yourself
Group work can be tricky, so remember to always take care of yourself, take care of each other and reach out for support if you need it. Happy group working everyone!