Good Governance for School Boards

Trustee Professional Development Program

Module 8 — Conflict - Managing it Creatively

Last updated in 2015

(module update currently in progress)

Conflict - Managing it Creatively
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  • Explore the nature of conflict
  • Learn about conflict management tools
  • Explore their role in facilitating discussion and resolving conflict

Perceive all conflicts as patterns of energy seeking a harmonious balance in the whole



Conflict represents a clash between multiple realities or points of view. We may clash or struggle over any number of things, including ideas, needs, interests, values, agendas, and cultural misunderstandings. People may experience conflict because they are in competition for the same things, such as resources, power, or prestige. Diverse points of view can cause conflict. Anytime people interact, the potential for conflict exists. When we talk about parties in conflict, the word parties can refer to individuals, groups, organizations, communities and societies.

It is important, even consoling, to remember that conflict is a normal and inevitable part of life: “Conflict is inevitable in a setting where people have different points of view and freedom of expression is encouraged. The effects of conflict can be either disruptive and destructive or creative and constructive, depending upon whether the persons involved can work toward mutual understanding or simply an agreement to differ without disrespect. Inability to cope with conflict constructively and creatively leads to increased hostility, antagonism, and divisiveness; clear thinking disintegrates, and prejudice and dogmatism come to prevail…[1]

Unlike conflict resolution, conflict management does not necessarily seek to terminate or even “solve” the conflict. People’s socially learned behaviours, norms, values, beliefs, languages, and other components of their culture help us understand the causes of conflict and how we perceive and manage it. More specifically, different ways of communicating, leadership styles, gender roles, methods of getting work done, and how we behave as a member of a team are only a few of the cultural variables that come into play[2].

If managed well, conflict can lead to:

  • Increased understanding of issues, factors and points of view
  • Greater group cohesion through renewal of mutual respect and confidence in the group’s ability to work together effectively
  • Improved self-knowledge through examination of goals, values and focus
  • Openness to change and adaptation
  • Improved trust in the process and the people involved
  • Increased collaboration
  • Informed decisions rather than the forced agreements of “group think”

Conflict is not a bad thing and conflict management processes and techniques can be learned and practised. In education, where constructive conflict is necessary for intellectual debate, new ideas and creative solutions – conflict at an appropriate level should be welcomed. Conflict must be managed – to encourage and maximize the benefits it can bring to informed decision-making and the building of productive relationships.


Participating as a member of a school board calls upon our intellect and our hearts as well as our skills. People bring to any important conversation a wide range of experiences and perspectives. Wherever individuals with strong convictions work together there will be differences; how we engage and manage those differences determines whether such conflict will get in the way of our collective wisdom, or, enable it to emerge.

What makes elected boards strong can also be the source of conflict since boards:

  • Are a collective of democratically elected individuals representing diverse constituencies and responsive to different pressures. The more diverse the board is, the more they are challenged to manage sources of conflict.
  • Involve passionate, caring people
  • Struggle with being unified and focused in terms of mission and goals in the face of many important demands
  • Require shared leadership by an elected board and chief executive officer
  • Operate in a dynamic, frequently adversarial, political context

Given these characteristics, it is not surprising that management of conflict is a recurring challenge. Most of the differences experienced are more complex than individual styles or traits. Friction can certainly result from unhelpful “behaviour” in terms of interpersonal communication. But conflicts more frequently result from lack of information, different views of what information is important, or even varying interpretations of available information. Often, conflict is rooted too in different needs or interests and the perception that all the choices facing the board are in competition with one another. Structural conflicts involving a struggle over power or authority also occur. Value conflicts, the most difficult to resolve, result from different ideals, different ways of understanding the world[3].

Areas of Conflict

People who invest their energy and passion in a difficult issue have a need to achieve clarity and resolution. And when they do, an amazing sense of accomplishment and commitment results.


Conflict - Board Members

Conflict on the board can arise from differences between or among individual members or member factions. Varying perspectives can sometimes seem irreconcilable. An effective board chair can be influential in managing the conflict. This involves achieving a balance between encouraging the airing of conflicting views until a productive resolution has been reached and knowing when to step in to make sure that the conflict does not prevent the board achieving its business and making necessary and timely decisions. The chair should be careful not to add to conflict by making peremptory rulings and cutting off discussion prematurely. An effective chair will set the tone, clarify the decisions that need to be reached, and make sure that all trustees have all the information needed to make informed decisions.

Conflict between board and the director

Differences between the board of trustees and the director are often structural in nature, that is, they have to do with the boundaries of each other’s roles and responsibilities. Trust is a huge factor in the board-director relationship. The more the board is involved in strategic decisions, the greater will be the trust. In contrast, the board exhibits less trust when there is greater involvement in overseeing operational decisions. Clarity about the respective roles and responsibilities of the board and the director are an essential tool in managing conflict.

Conflict between the organization and its constituency

Sometimes the decisions of the board can be challenged by individuals or groups that are part of the board’s constituency. This can arise whenever people become unhappy with specific budget or policy directions being undertaken by the board. Open communication with the public is critical to ensure that they can become informed about decisions and, wherever possible, the rationale behind the decisions.

Good Practices in Managing Conflict
  • Pay attention to good interpersonal communications

    No amount of written policy statements or role descriptions can substitute for regular attention to good communications practices in board meetings and e-mail communication. Boards and senior staff need to have a conversation about such practices on a regular basis. Meeting “ground rules” can help. Boards should devote some time, at least once a year, perhaps at orientation, to reflect on and discuss good communication practices. On an individual level this includes balancing “inquiry” (asking questions of one another) and “advocacy” (stating our own viewpoint), being aware of our assumptions, and being more intentional in listening to one another. Board members can be more effective if each person puts into practice the principle that one should ‘seek first to understand, and then to be understood.”

  • Operate with a strategic plan

    The existence of a strategic plan or involvement in a strategic planning process that helps articulates goals, objectives and outcomes can be of great value in reducing the potential for conflict over the meaning of the organizational mission, strategic choices and priorities.

  • Clarify roles and responsibilities

    Boards must strive to clarify the roles and responsibilities of individual members and officers (especially the chairperson) and the board’s role in relation to staff. This is helpful in establishing mutual respect. An annual board orientation session is a logical place for such a discussion. Job descriptions outlining duties and responsibilities can be helpful but are seldom sufficient for clarifying roles, especially where board and staff responsibilities overlap such as in determining and working on strategic objectives.

  • Help develop a skilled chairperson

    An effective board chair is critical to managing conflict. Such effectiveness comes from clarity about the chair’s role, personal integrity, an understanding of the importance of process and the liberal use of proven facilitation techniques. A chair needs the board’s support in assuming an active role in guiding the board. (Please see Module 15 — What makes a Great Board Chair? for more information.)

  • Learn about conflict resolution processes

    Boards and directors can really benefit from some familiarity with negotiation and conflict resolution processes before a conflict arises. Some understanding will help the organization determine the appropriate mechanism for a particular situation, including when outside assistance might be of value. Conflict resolution is regarded as a core skill area for today’s leaders. It is a topic that should be introduced as part of board education and be added to the list of professional development goals for senior staff, particularly the director.

  • Establish a code of conduct for the board

    Develop a written code of conduct for board members that sets standards and rules for their relationship with one another, with the director and with senior staff. A code of conduct ought to set some rules on issues such as confidentiality, conflict of interest, conduct at meetings and speaking with “one voice”. (Please see Module 17 — Developing a Code of Conduct for more information.)

  • Encourage board self-assessment

    Formal evaluation processes for the board and director are important mechanisms for direct communication and action that can improve working relationships. Boards should evaluate themselves (with the director having an opportunity to provide his/her own assessment of the relationship) and should regularly evaluate the director according to pre-determined criteria, generally based on description of roles and responsibilities. (Please see Module 21 — Board Self-Assessment: Governance Performance for more information about board self- assessment.)

  • Celebrate agreements and new understandings

    Both boards and staff can do more to acknowledge the hard work that is involved in expressing and working through tough issues. We can all show genuine appreciation for openness and risk-taking. A round of “appreciation” or a celebratory event can be useful ways of drawing attention to success in managing conflict[4].


Respectful dialogue, in the interest of searching for more complete truth, is considerably more productive than arguing for the purity of position.

Responses to Conflict

We all have emotional, cognitive and physical responses to conflict. It is important to pay attention to these responses as they often tell us more about what the true source of the ‘threat’ is. By noticing our responses to conflict, we may get better insights into how to resolve the problem.

Emotional responses: feelings ranging from fear to anger to despair to confusion. Emotional responses can be misunderstood because people think that other people feel the same way they do. Differing emotional responses can be confusing and even threatening.

Cognitive responses: thoughts and ideas, sometimes in the form of self-talk. (What does he think he is doing? How selfish!) Cognitive responses can contribute to emotional and physical responses.

Physical responses: heightened stress, bodily tension, increased perspiration, tunnel vision, shallow or accelerated breathing, nausea, rapid heartbeat, etc. Biologically, we are programmed for flight or fight. These responses can be controlled to a certain degree by using stress management techniques. If physical responses are controlled effectively, a calmer emotional environment may result[5].

Conflict Styles

The work of Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann identified five main styles of dealing with conflict that vary in their degrees of cooperativeness and assertiveness. They argued that people typically have a preferred conflict resolution style. However they also noted that different styles were most useful in different situations. It is important to understand both your preferred style and other possible approaches. This allows you to consider the best approach or combination of approaches for the situation you are dealing with.

  • Competitive: People who tend towards this style take a firm stand and know what they want. They usually operate from a position of power (position, rank, expertise, seniority, persuasive ability). This style is useful when there is an emergency that requires a quick decision, when the decision is unpopular, or when defending against someone who is trying to exploit the situation selfishly. However, it can leave people feeling bruised.
  • Collaborative: People who tend towards this style try to meet the needs of all people involved. These people can be highly assertive but cooperate effectively and acknowledge that everyone is important. This style is useful when you need to bring together a variety of viewpoints, when there have been previous conflicts in the group, or when the situation is too important for a simple trade-off.
  • Compromising: People who prefer this style try to find a situation that will partially satisfy everyone. Everyone is expected to give up something. Compromise is useful when the cost of conflict is higher than the cost of losing ground, when there is a standstill or when there is a deadline looming.
  • Accommodating: This style indicates a willingness to meet the needs of others at the expense of one’s own needs. The accommodator often knows when to give in to others, but can also surrender a position when it is not warranted. Accommodation is important when the issues matter more to the other person or when peace is more valuable than winning. However, this approach is not likely to yield the best outcomes.
  • Avoiding: People who tend towards this style don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, and they sometimes evade the conflict entirely by delegating difficult decisions. This style can be appropriate when victory is impossible or when someone else is in a better position to make the decision. In most situations, however, it is a weak and ineffective approach to take[6].

It will always help to be open to adopting a conflict management style that suits the situation you find yourself in even when that means stepping outside your preferred style. This will be influenced by such considerations as: time pressure; whether important priorities or values are at stake; the importance of your relationship with the other party; the respective power of the parties to the conflict. Choosing the optimum style for the situation goes a long way in resolving the problem, respecting people’s legitimate interests, mending damaged working relationships and setting the stage for sound decision-making.

Five-Step Conflict Resolution Process

The following is a collaborative approach to managing conflict in ways that offer all participants a voice and ensure that all relevant information to reach a solution is available.

I. Step One: Set the Scene

  • Make sure that people understand that the conflict is a shared problem and that resolving it is a shared responsibility
  • Ask for cooperation in resolving the conflict
  • Suggest that the conflict might be resolved through discussion and negotiation
  • Present your perception of the problem
  • Use active listening skills to be sure you hear and understand others’ perceptions of the problem
  • When you speak, use an assertive approach rather than a submissive or aggressive style

II. Step Two: Gather Information

  • Try to get to underlying interests, needs, motivations, goals, and concerns

  • Ask for and confirm respect for everyone’s opinions

  • Try to understand the conflict in objective terms

  • Is the conflict hampering decision- making?

  • Focus on the substantive issues and leave personalities aside.

  • Use active listening

  • Identify issues clearly and concisely

  • Clarify feelings

  • Remain flexible

III. Step Three: Agree on the Problem

  • Try to reach a common perception about what the problem is
  • If there are a number of related but interlocking problems, clarify the connections and try to focus the issues

IV. Step Four: Brainstorm Possible Solutions

  • Encourage everyone to contribute solutions
  • Be open to all ideas, even if they seem far-fetched
  • Accept all suggestions

V. Step Five: Negotiate a Solution

  • By this stage, the problem may already be solved and a mutually satisfactory solution will be evident to all
  • You may have uncovered real differences between positions which will require more time and effort
  • Be calm, be patient and have respect
  • Move into a win-win negotiation[7]

Note: It is always helpful to record what was decided to ensure there is no confusion at a later point.

As noted in Getting to Yes (Roger Fisher & William Ury) this principled negotiation method of focusing on basic interests, mutually satisfying options, and fair standards typically results in a wise solution: “The method permits you to reach a gradual consensus on a joint decision efficiently without all the transactional costs of digging in to positions only to have to dig yourself out of them. And separating the people from the problem allows you to deal directly and empathetically with others as a human being, thus making possible an amicable agreement.”

Active Listening

We were given two ears but only one mouth, because listening is twice as hard as talking.

Active listening is a way of listening and responding to another person that improves mutual understanding. Often when people talk to each other, they are distracted, half listening, half thinking about something else. In conflict situations, they are often busy formulating a response to what is being said. They assume that they have heard what their opponent is saying many times before so, rather than paying attention, they focus on how they can respond to win the argument.

Active listening has several benefits. First, it forces people to listen attentively to others. Second, it avoids misunderstandings, as people have to confirm that they do really understand what another person has said. Third, it tends to open people up, to get them to say more. When people are in conflict, they often contradict each other, denying the opponent’s description of a situation. This tends to make people defensive, and they will either lash out, or withdraw and say nothing more. However, if they feel that their opponent is really attuned to their concerns and wants to listen, they are likely to explain in detail what they feel and why. If both parties to a conflict do this, the chances of being able to develop a solution to their mutual problem becomes much greater[8].

Listen in order to fully understand what is being said to you.

Rephrase what you heard the person say so you can be sure you heard correctly

Ask questions that help you get more information, e.g., “What did you mean when you said….?”

Offer encouragement and support.

Ask how the person feels. Be careful not to assume that you know how the person feels[9].

Communication Blockers Communication Helpers
Blaming and attacking Asking for more information and problem solving together
Being distracted or using other body language that is non-attentive Giving full attention such as making eye contact or leaning toward the other person
Dismissing or making light of someone’s problem Showing empathy, validating the other person’s feelings
Interrupting Staying silent until the person is finished speaking
Lecturing/moralizing Withholding judgement
“Yes…but” statements “Yes….and” statements

Brainstorming is a process for generating creative ideas and solutions through intensive and freewheeling group discussion. Every participant is encouraged to think aloud and suggest as many ideas as possible, no matter how seemingly outlandish or bizarre. Analysis, discussion, or criticism of the aired ideas is allowed only when the brainstorming session is over and evaluation session begins[10].

Ground Rules for Brainstorming

Focus on quantity – the more ideas generated the more likely that a creative solution will emerge

Suspend criticism – focus on fleshing out ideas and leave critical evaluation to the decision-making stage

Welcome unusual ideas – divergent thinking can generate unexpected solutions

Combine/improve on ideas – building on and blending ideas presented can produce new solutions[11]

How to run a Brainstorming Session

  • Clearly define the problem to be solved
  • Clarify that the object is to generate as many ideas as possible and that all ideas will be faithfully recorded for the whole group to see
  • Make sure that everyone has an opportunity to offer ideas
  • Encourage people to add to the ideas of others
  • Make sure that no one criticizes another’s ideas during the session
  • Invite a whole range of ideas from the very practical to the apparently impractical
  • Keep the contributions moving without too much time being taken up by any one person or idea

Getting to a collective decision

As a group:

  • Sort by most likely to least likely solutions
  • Reduce your list to the items that are most important or relevant to addressing the problem to be solved
  • Combine items that are similar
  • Eliminate items that may not apply to original issue to be resolved
  • Discuss each item - in turn - on its own merits to clarify the solution(s) that garners the group’s support

Think through the following points before you start negotiating:

Goals: what do you want to get out of the negotiation? What do you think the other person wants?

Trades: What do you and the other person have that you can trade? What do you each have that the other wants? What are you each comfortable giving away?

Alternatives: if you don’t reach agreement with the other person, what alternatives do you have? Are these good or bad? How much does it matter if you do not reach agreement? Does failure to reach an agreement cut you out of future opportunities? And what alternatives might the other person have?

Relationships: what is the history of the relationship? Could or should this history impact the negotiation? Will there be any hidden issues that may influence the negotiation? How will you handle these?

Expected outcomes: what outcome will people be expecting from this negotiation? What has the outcome been in the past, and what precedents have been set?

The consequences: what are the consequences for you of winning or losing this negotiation? What are the consequences for the other person?

Power: who has what power in the relationship? Who controls resources? Who stands to lose the most if agreement isn’t reached? What power does the other person have to deliver what you hope for?

Possible solutions: based on all of the considerations, what possible compromises might there be?

For a negotiation to be ‘win-win’, both parties should feel positive about the negotiation once it’s over and be able to keep good working relationships afterwards. This governs the style of the negotiation – histrionics and displays of emotion are clearly inappropriate because they undermine the rational basis of the negotiation and because they bring a manipulative aspect to them. The negotiation itself is a careful exploration of your position and the other person’s position, with the goal of finding a mutually acceptable compromise that gives you both as much of what you want as possible and that provides an effective conclusion. People’s positions are rarely as fundamentally opposed as they may initially appear - the other person may have very different goals from the ones you expect. In an ideal situation, you will find that the other person wants what you are prepared to trade, and that you are prepared to give what the other person wants[12].

What About Consensus?

Consensus is mutual agreement among the parties involved that all legitimate concerns of individuals have been addressed by the group and everyone agrees to support the decision. It is important to remember that a consensus decision does not mean that everyone agrees. It does mean that all members have had an opportunity to express their opinions and feel that they have been listened to by the group.

Noting that the formal decision-making process at meetings of the board of trustees requires the members to vote, the principles of consensus-building can be a positive approach in informal discussions and in community settings where voting is not the norm.

Tips for Consensus Building:


  • Try to get underlying assumptions regarding the situation out into the open where they can be discussed.
  • Listen and pay attention to what others have to say. This is the most distinguishing characteristic of successful teams.
  • Encourage others, particularly the quieter ones, to offer their ideas. Remember, the team needs all the information it can get.
  • Take the time needed to reach the point where everyone can agree to support the group’s decision.


  • Do not vote. Voting will split the group into > winners and losers and encourage > either-or thinking when there may be other ways. Voting will foster argument rather than rational discussion and consequently harm the team process.
  • Do not make agreements too quickly or compromise too early in the process. Easy agreements are often based on erroneous assumptions that need to be challenged.
  • Do not compete internally; either the group wins or no one wins[13].
Managing Conflict Situations

Ask Yourself:

Who are the people involved in the conflict? What is their role in the education system?

Why does this conflict matter?

What are the obvious sources of conflict in the situation you are dealing with?

What might the underlying sources of conflict be?

What possible conflict styles would you anticipate in this situation?

What emotional, cognitive and physical reactions to conflict could be at play for the various participants? What is the role of the trustee in this situation? Why is it important for the trustee to handle the conflict effectively?

What information does the trustee need in order to understand the issue better? Who should he/she speak to? What questions does he/she need to ask? What means of communication would be the most useful? What human or other resources could he/she call on to help her before he/she responds?

How could the Five-Step Conflict Resolution Process be applied in this situation?


The leadership role of a school board trustee is played out in the public domain and involves high degrees of collaboration with colleague members of the board, with staff, with parents and with the broader community. In all human interactions, conflict is inevitable. A skilled trustee will have a belief in the power of effective conflict management to engage others in creating positive change and building an education system that gives everyone a voice.


  1. From the work of Blake, Mouton & Williams (the Academic Administrator Grid: A Guide to Developing Effective Management Teams, 1981)

  2. Adapted from MindTools, )

  3. From Non-Profit Sector Leadership Program, Dalhousie University

  4. Adapted from a resource written by E. Grant MacDonald. Associate Professor (Continuing Education) at Dalhousie University and Director of the Non-Profit Sector Leadership Program and Associate Director of the Negotiation and Conflict Management Program. Companion resources to this publication are available from the Non-Profit Sector Leadership Program at

  5. Adapted from: Webne – Behrman, H. (Ed.) (2006). The practice of facilitation: Managing group processes and solving problems. Quorum Books.

  6. From the work of Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann (see )

  7. Adapted from MindTools, )

  8. From

  9. From Media Education Foundation, Techniques for Active Listening

  10. See for a step-by-step guide to using this technique.

  11. Osborn, A.F. (1963) Applied imagination: Principles and procedures of creative problem solving (Third Revised Edition). New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Son.

  12. From See also for useful information and ideas about using this technique.

  13. From There are several useful tools at this address.