Embrace Conflict and Get Creative

Nobody likes conflict. Some people are even proud to say they are “conflict averse.” But if you are in a for-profit business, or a non-profit business, or a family, or any business that includes other people, you are in the conflict business. In fact, being happy and successful is a matter of deciding that a conflict is an opportunity to get smarter and more competent. Anger is a natural reaction to behavior that offends, but getting mad is literally crazy. Don’t get mad; get creative.

Terry, the board chair of a medium-sized nonprofit, had started to worry about whether they had made a mistake putting Quinn on the board. In each of the last three board meetings, he had disrupted discussions with long arguments that were, at best, peripherally important. It was beginning to be bad for morale.

Even as she drove to the next meeting, Terry still hadn’t figured out what she would do about Quinn. The agenda included a decision to launch a capital campaign. Terry needed it to end with high enthusiasm.

Luckily, Quinn arrived early to the meeting. Terry smiled, offered him a cup of coffee, and said, “Did you have a nice weekend?”

“Yes. We watched ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ again.”

“I love that movie,” said Terry. “I’ve watched it three times.

“I know. I have, too.”

Then, with a big smile, Terry said: “You’re a lawyer, aren’t you?”

“Well, no. I wanted to be a lawyer, but my parents pushed me toward banking, so that’s what I did.”

“Still, I do see a lawyer in you.”

Then other people started to arrive.

Early in the meeting, Quinn made a short, constructive observation, and Terry said, “Excellent argument, counselor.” They both smiled.

A few minutes later, Quinn interrupted another trustee and began to take the discussion off track. With a smile, Terry cut Quinn’s pontification short with, “Contempt of court, counselor.”

Quinn participated constructively with no more interruptions for the rest of the meeting. They launched the capital campaign, and in the course of the next three years, they became close partners.

Every relationship is either a conflict or an incipient conflict. Our success or failure depends on continuing to build our conflict repertoire. Conflict aversion is a disability.

So, if you find your hand clenched in a fist, remember five things …

1) Pre-forgive the person.

2) Find common interests.

3) Provide feedback that is hearable, seeable and doable.

4) Think creatively together.

5) Go into a conflict knowing your best move if your adversary is committed to being your adversary.

...and your hand will be open, ready to shake hands.

Guest columnist Rick Ackerly is a nationally recognized educator and speaker with 45 years of experience working in and for schools. With a master’s in education from Harvard University, Rick has devoted his career to building thriving learning communities.  He has served as headmaster of four independent schools and has been a consultant and coach to teachers, school leaders and parents for many years.


Are You and Your Nonprofit Ready for a Change?

Upon engaging our services — whether it’s for strategic planning, board development or fundraising — most nonprofit staff and board leaders eagerly tell us what they hope we will accomplish for them and how anxious they are to receive our recommendations.

Sometimes they share confidential information about another person or group who needs to improve in some way — by thinking more strategically, working more efficiently, and so forth. Working collaboratively, we do our very best to create the plan or process that will lead nonprofit leaders to their goal.

Inevitably, our strategic planning process or development plan calls for every person involved in the organizational initiative to change in some way, large or small. Some people jump on the opportunity to grow, but for most, change is tough. “Not me,” says the board member with an iPhone full of contacts, “I cannot ask people for money. I volunteer my time.” “Not me,” says the executive director, “I was hired because I have X skills – don’t ask me to do Y.” And so on.

Whether an organization is forging a new strategic direction or raising sights for fundraising, the hardest and most important thing to learn and put into action is the simple truth we all know: change begins with me.

I experienced the challenge of change when it came to creating the new website for Capacity Partners. I solicited professional advice about my decision to launch a simple e-newsletter — and was told by many experts that I needed a new website. Yikes! It took me months to agree. Next I was told I needed new colors. Ouch! Then I was told we really needed a new logo. That was the hardest to stomach.

But more was coming: our messaging needed to improve, our photos needed to be changed, our font was wrong — etc. etc. After resisting every step of the way, I finally decided – THEY ARE RIGHT! And in that moment I opened myself to change and to the creation of our beautiful new logo and website. Many thanks to all those who pushed me to be my better self!

The point of resistance is where one most needs to grow. For me, that point was recognizing that Capacity Partners had outgrown my valiant attempts to do it all myself, and was calling for a more professional approach — and that it is time for me to focus on that which I do best.

Thanks for visiting our new blog! In future posts, the Capacity Partners team and I will be sharing stories of what we do best in nonprofit strategy and development, and what we’ve learned in working with fantastic clients over the past 15 years.