What is Conflict?

—  “Conflict is an expressed struggle between at least two interdependent parties who perceive incompatible goals, scarce resources, and interference from others in achieving their goals.” – Wilmot & Hocker (2001)

—  “Successful leaders have come to understand that conflict in not only inevitable in student organizations, but it is also beneficial and healthy, if properly managed.  Conflict can stimulate new ideas, clarify elements of an issue, increase task motivation, and lead to better solutions because of increased understanding of opposing perspectives” – Franck, 1983, p. 2

As an advisor of a student organization, you will find yourself helping to manage conflict between student leaders. See the guidelines below that are designed to help you work with your students in healthy and productive ways.

Advisor Roles in Conflict can vary, but here are some points to keep in mind:

  • Groups (and relationships) go through stages of development
  • Interactions among participants are often complex (as discerned from simple or complicated) and emergent
  • Advisors need to find effective ways to help manage both interior (beliefs, values, capacity, culture) and exterior (tasks, plans, outcomes, production) in the group’s process

It is important that, as an advisor, you are aware of what to expect in these conflict situations.

—Make sure everyone knows their role and what is expected of that role. Whether they are an executive, a general member, or an advisor, each individual should remain aware and involved.

  • These expectations can be derived from:
    • Your organization’s Constitution or Bylaws
    • Conversations from the leadership team with the individual
    • An application (what goals the individual set for themselves)

Conflict Resolution is an Opportunity.

Focus on each stage as an opportunity to exercise leadership:

  • What are my personal strengths as I look at the elements of this process? Where do I need assistance in order to improve?
  • How might I facilitate such behaviors in my groups?
  • How might I model such approaches?
  • Where are there ‘teachable moments’ from which all of us may learn together?
  • How might we support one another in improving our capacity to manage conflicts effectively?


Addressing Conflicting Issues within Groups: 6 stages

Stage 1: Pre-Negotiation

  • Clarify needs of various participants
  • Understand individual ‘agendas’
  • Negotiate for the process and the role of the facilitator
  • Build an initial meeting agenda that emerges from participants’ needs and interests, dovetailing with group goals

Stage 2: Understanding & Clarifying Issues

  • Be Present – Know your Biases and Hot Buttons
  • Actively Listen – seek deeper meaning
  • Persistently focus and convey emerging understandings
  • Assert for the process of the group

Stage 3: Explore Options with Flexibility and Respect

  • Focus on Underlying Needs, Interests and Concerns
  • Generate Options
  • Clarify Criteria
  • Encourage Flexibility and Model it
  • Leadership Questions: How flexibly do we approach challenging issues… are we open to new approaches and innovative solutions?

Stage 4: Managing Impasse… Hanging out in the “Groan Zone” of Ambiguity and Uncertainty

  • Set aside the issue and “name the impasse”
  • Review definition of the problem
  • Shift from substantive to procedural needs
  • Reiterate “ground rules”
  • Consider a structured break
  • Treat the impasse with respect
  • Leadership Question: Do we treat impasse with respect or do we try to minimize it or abandon the process when confronting it? This is one of the core challenges of leadership…

Stage 5: Convergence – Building Effective Agreements

  • Patiently address all key issues        
  • Review the agreement for clarity
  • Look for “Hallmarks” of a good agreement
  • Leadership Question: Can we make the time available to our students to really work through the meaningful issues that get us bogged down?

Hallmarks of a Good Agreement

  • Fair
  • Balanced
  • Realistic
  • Responds to Needs of the Conflict
  • Specific Enough
  • As self-enforcing as possible
  • Future-oriented

Stage 6: Implementation, Assessment and Feedback

  • Do all you can to implement the Agreement
  • Arrange a time to meet together and review the Agreement:
    • Did we follow through with the agreement?
    • Is it working? How can it be improved?
    • Are there any additional areas of concern?

Keys to Success: Communicating with Integrity

  • Identify Key stakeholders- involve them in framing the issues to be addressed
  • Provide easy access to relevant information
  • Establish clear channels of communication that are appropriate to the decision-making style
  • Utilize multiple modes of ongoing reports to stakeholders, as well as relevant ‘public’
  • Facilitative Leadership
  • Focus on the process – “If you build it, they will come.”
  • Monitor underlying needs and concerns of all staff – Create channels for open, honest & routine communication
  • Provide information - reduce anxiety
  • Manage the transitions… help people mark the ‘endings’ and navigate the ‘neutral zone’ towards a new beginning
  • Attend to coordinating resources that support a ‘healthy organization’

Adapated from: and Harry Webne-Behrman’s presentation “Group Dynamics and Conflict Management” Workshop for Student Organization Advisors

Contact Student Life to Assist with Conflict Management