Facilitation Saves The Day (AGAIN!) Five Steps to Easing Tension and Conflict in Groups


How does conflict show up in groups?

I’d like to share three short stories about my own facilitated events that went wrong and then either turned out great, OK or failed miserably. These stories illustrate how conflict shows up differently in groups. Then we’ll share some tips, tools and a five step process to ease tension and conflict in groups.  P.S. This works for individuals too.

Story 1: This is one of my more successful feel-good events. They do not always turn out that way. A not-for-profit group hired me to work with them to improve customer service and if time, “do something on staff-management relations” (their exact words).  (Tip – that is code for conflict.)  I attended a staff meeting and realized the “staff-management relations” piece was huge in their mind and it probably needed more attention than improving customer service.  I was therefore prepared for conflict but did not know exactly when the group would feel safe enough to bring it up in front of their bosses.

I decided to use the Technology of Participation (ToP®)  retrospective review tool, also known as the Historical Scan/Journey Wall because it really is amazing in allowing conflict to surface elegantly and safely for the group.  Part way through this activity, someone mentioned a certain “incident”.  “Ah”, I thought to myself, “this might be it.”  I asked curiously, “Can someone tell me about this incident?” The room went silent. (Tip – that is one of the signs of conflict!)  Five hours later, after we had fully debriefed this incident from six years ago, the tension was noticeably less.  I used the Non Violent Communication framework to help me with this.  A few days later, I went to visit the group.  They said for the first time in six years, everyone felt happy about being at work again.  Now, that is a success story!  Facilitation saved the day!

Story 2:   The next group that comes to mind was another quasi government group that was composed of both Native (Indigenous) and White Heritage staff members. I was asked to come in and do “Strategic Planning” with the management team only.  I asked why not invite the staff? It would be preferable because then you will have  great input from staff and everyone will be aligned on your vision and strategic directions.  So they agreed to that.  There was absolutely no mention of any conflict within the group.  It surfaced at the vision stage.  I was using the Technology of Participation Consensus Workshop Method to do the visioning.  One of the participants replaced one of my neutral symbol cards (used to cluster their vision ideas) with the symbol of a tomahawk (This is a sacred tool to this and many tribes, in Canada at least).   I am not sure when this card got replaced  but suddenly a White person said, “Why is there a tomahawk up on the wall? I take offense at that!”

I was absolutely dumfounded about this turn of events and shaking inside.  I asked the person who chose to put that tomahawk symbol over a particular group of ideas to share her thinking. (Tip: Be curious and neutral in your questions.)  She explained that this group of ideas seemed sacred to her. That began a long conversation about the historical use of the tomahawk, the vastly different associations that Whites and Natives have of the tomahawk, the tension the native staff were feeling with especially the White management staff, and more!  Again, we “paused” for a very long while and I left at the end of the day feeling we had not really gotten anywhere.  To my surprise, I checked in with them before I was to return to carry on the work. This is what they said, “We  practiced what you taught us and had a circle for sharing all Friday afternoon and we are ready to return to the strategic planning now…” And so we did.  We completed the strategic plan over several sessions and the tension seemed,  to my outsider eyes, much less and the atmosphere was respectful and light.  Again facilitation techniques saved the day!

Story 3:  This story is much shorter and sadder. I was told there was huge conflict between the  owners of a family business. I  prepared by doing interviews with each member of the business and then holding several group conflict–resolution sessions. In the third session, one of the members brought their own lawyer and asked that this lawyer sit in on the meeting.  I told him this could happen only if the other family members agreed, which they did not.  The end result was that this person walked out of the meeting.  Shortly afterwards,  I  told the group that I did not feel I was serving them well, that the conflict had escalated and was likely beyond my facilitation skills.  I suggested that I terminate with them and  provide names of mediators or arbitrators should they choose to go that route.  I felt defeated and stunned.  But I was also proud that I knew when to end the contract with them.  I had  been explicit in the beginning that I was not a mediator but a facilitator with good conflict resolution skills.  In hindsight, I realize there were many factors in play which I could not resolve… and yet  it still feels bad. My beloved facilitation tools and skills did not save the day!

Lessons Learned and Styles of Conflict

If we look at these three stories here are some lessons I take away:

  • Do not be afraid of group conflict.  It is generally resolvable.
  • You need training in conflict resolution.
  • You need to know the styles of conflict so you can decide which style will best be suited to the situation.
  • Some conflicts are best passed onto mediators or even litigators.  Know when to not take a job beyond your competency and/or confidence.
  • Work with a co-facilitator trained in mediation when you suspect serious conflict  will arise
  • Have a trusted colleague listen confidentially to your own fears about the job before you begin so you can think as clearly as possible.

What do facilitation tools and design have to do with resolving conflict?

When you are skilled in facilitation tools, you know how people process information and think.  You know it is helpful to ensure everyone has the same information before you begin.  You know how to ask  questions which delve into feelings and associations.  You know how to probe deeper into someone’s offensive comment and listen for places where the person is  needing an emotional release.  And finally, you can help the group make a decision to resolve the conflict and how to do that.  My favorite tools for this type of facilitation skill are The ToP Focused Conversation Method, and the Non-violent Communication Framework. Not surprisingly, both use very similar steps.  For enhanced listening skills, I use the Re-evaluation Counselling methodology.  It helps to understand Neuro-biology and how the brain processes information too.

These first two tools are also thinking frameworks and thus form the basis of good design.  We teach the Focused Conversation framework in our Top Facilitation Methods class

The other aspect of design which I am leaning on heavily now is our framework called the Five Elements of Facilitation Design©.  Conflict can be about the element of fire – the fire is suppressed or the fire is raging.  How do you contain a fire?  Put earth or water on it!  So ask yourself what facilitation tools will provide earth (grounding) or water (flowing/transparency) like qualities?  And if the fire is smoldering, sometimes you actually need to blow air on it (the elements of wind of air) to bring it out in the open and allow it be more visible.  Then you gently apply earth like qualities or water to allow it to  become that beautiful sustained blue when a fire is burning cleanly. I know I am speaking metaphorically.  But it is extremely helpful to use the concept of the elements which we all experience daily, to design your facilitated events, especially ones where conflict, cultural diversity, and other complexities exist.  The elements allow you to be flexibly thinking when surprises arise. They allow you to  know what to do. I wish I had known this framework for the event that did not turn out well (Story 3 above).

Simple Steps to Follow (5 Step Process Using the Five Elements)

Elements_only-300x288Below we give you a very simple process to follow to allow conflict in groups to emerge safely.

Step 1:  Name what you see – has the impact of grounding people in reality or brings in the earth element and name what you feel (makes the fire visible).

Step 2:  Ask, “How is it impacting you?” – Helps people connect with each other – have empathy (water element)

Step 3:  Get each person to hear each others’ needs (pull on ears of “jackal”) – also about connecting to each others’ hearts (water element)

Step 4:  Ask people to make a request of each other –  grounds people in what is needed and creates clarity (earth and air element)

Step 5:  Decide what you are willing to do as a group to move past this – brings them back to earth for a safe landing.


(all of these resources/classes can be accessed almost anywhere in the world)

  • Check out the website: www.cnvc.org for more on the Non-Violent Communication Method
  • Reevaluation  Co-counselling – See www.rc.org  or ask about classes and a community of practice in your area – available worldwide

Barbara MacKay

Barbara loves “everything facilitation”. She thinks BIG! She loves working with other facilitators around the globe to create transformational results for client groups. She loves teaching others how to do that. She loves presenting at global facilitator conferences. She loves certifying new professional facilitators. If you also love what process facilitation can do for the world, connect with her – virtually or in person. She believes facilitation processes, used well, will provide the roadmap to a more just and sustainable world.

Leave a Comment