How to Identify the Causes of Conflict in Local Government

How to Identify the Causes of Conflict in Local Government



Hi, I’m Tracey Lorenson and welcome to this “Quick Tips” episode,
How to identify the causes of conflict?

Local government decision-making is a “contact sport”

Clashes between priorities, philosophies, and interests are inherent, so working in the sector is not for the faint of heart. In our work with local governments, we’ve seen how the ability to identify and navigate through conflict is critical to individual and organization performance.

We want robust disagreement, but when it becomes personal, it becomes a damaging distraction.

The key question is, “How do we keep it productive?”

“Conflict is inevitable, but combat is optional.”

Difficult conversations are a normal part of life. No matter what personal or professional gains you make, there will always be difficult conversations that have to take place.

According to the Family Institute of Cambridge and Harvard Law School’s negotiation workshop, within each difficult conversation, there are actually three conversations happening. That is, there are three undercurrents driving the energy behind each conversation.


First, we have the “What Happened?” conversation

This is the disparity between each party’s interpretation.

Who is right?

Who is to blame?

No matter how we phrase it, in this conversation we are usually telling the other side that they are to blame.

Our goal should be to shift the focus away from establishing blame and toward an acknowledgement that we can never truly know other people’s intentions.


Second, we have the “feelings” conversation

Whose feelings are valid? Should they be acknowledged or peeled off of the conversation? How can that happen? How should you address feelings without walking into a landmine?

Regardless of how much you try to check your emotions at the door, there are emotional undercurrents to most difficult conversations. Even more, difficult situations don’t just involve feelings; they are based on feelings.

Sometimes a situation is so sensitive that feelings can’t even be broached. You will benefit from learning how to acknowledge and talk about the feelings associated with the situation.


Third, there’s the “identity” conversation

What does this situation mean to each of us? What judgments are we likely making about each other? How is this affecting self­ esteem?

This conversation asks, “What does this say about me?” Even when you are the one who is delivering the bad news, identity still comes into play. How will people see you after this conversation?

The bottom line is that conflict resolution starts by being able to effectively listen to the perspectives of the other person in the conflict situation and depersonalize the conflict.

Now that we’ve considered the three types of difficult conversations, click the attached link for a free resource to assess your approach to conflict.


Use Conflict as a Catalyst in Local Government

Use Conflict as a Catalyst in Local Government

How Do You Use Conflict as a Catalyst for Productive Change?

As a consultant to local governments, a common question I get asked is: “How do we maximize decision making while not letting conflict get in the way?”

Ironically, it is the avoidance of small issues that enables debilitating conflict to flourish. Whether caused by personality conflicts, unclear roles, or differing expectations or philosophies, the existence of conflict is part of local government management and elected office.

This is further complicated by the fact that, based on the management training we do, we find that the overwhelming majority of local government managers are not particularly comfortable in conflict situations.

This makes it critical to consider the possible benefits of conflict.

“If two people in business always agree, one of them is unnecessary.”
William Wrigley Jr.

Conflict is inevitable and can be an early warning sign of your team’s demise. But it can also be an essential part of collaboration and solutions thinking.

How do you walk the tightrope of harnessing the energy that conflict creates while making it work for you (and your team, department, or organization)?

If your group is galvanized by a clash, begin by isolating the conflict from its cause.

In all communications, frame the conflict as separate from the group and its goals. It is important to convey to the group that the conflict is not a breakdown of the group, but a natural stage that teams go through.

Second, identify how the conflict is currently being handled, both by the whole group and, if possible, by individual members.

Physically arrange the members to focus on the problem, allying with them against the conflict or dissension.

A tip we’ve found useful with our local government clients is to use a flipchart to put the problem up, so the group is looking at the problem during a discussion (instead of each other). This also has the entire group owning an issue, instead of personalizing it.


What are some of the causes?

People often have:

1) an inaccurate understanding of the situation; or
2) a differing interpretation of data.

In our work with elected officials in particular, we see many conflicts that would actually be resolved (or minimized) by slowing down and collecting (and agreeing on) the underlying facts. In any event, your approach to resolving conflict will always depend on the cause.

We don’t want a conflict to unravel our team or decision making, so try to position conflict as a normal component of doing business and accomplishing your organization’s goals. Communicate this directly to the team or department. In short, convey that you are not skittish about conflict, and they don’t have to be, either.

If you’re not comfortable with conflict, realize that it is a skill that can be learned and focus on developing it. When things go wrong, look at the situation as a learning experience rather than an opportunity to point fingers. Your example will influence members of the team to behave the same way.

Your ultimate goal is to foster a team that can handle at least some of the conflicts amongst themselves.

This means that the time you spend now on fostering solutions thinking within the group will pay off later in fewer emotional meetings and lost productivity with a fragmented and upset team.

However, sometimes you do need to get involved…

Even when you have given your team all the tools it needs to take care of most situations, at times you need to make the final call on a conflict. Here is a way to frame your decisions:


There are 4 different approaches you can take to a conflict (or negotiation).

Accommodate – One loses, the other wins.

Compromise – Both sides win, both sides lose.

Collaborate – Both sides win.

Compete – One side wins, the other loses.

As you consider the situation, the business and resource implications, decide which of these models will work best.

Regardless of which of the models you decide to use, concentrate on the resolution as a means to accomplish the group’s goal.

Use the energy that was created in the vortex of conflict to refocus the group and propel it on to accomplishing its goal. At this point, whether the group can reach a solution with or without your involvement, quick recovery and redirection are essential.

In most situations, talking about conflict is the best means to diffuse it; what we avoid tends to grow.

As stated by Phil Knight:

“There is an immutable conflict at work, in life and in business, a constant battle between peace and chaos. Neither can be mastered, but both can be influenced. How you go about that is the key to success.”

Click the link below to find out more about your approach to conflict, and how to choose the most effective strategy to resolve it.


How to Have Constructive Conversations in LG

How to Have Constructive Conversations in LG

How can you have more constructive conversations?

In most local governments, people have a tendency to wait until a conflict is festering and large before dealing with it. Ironically, this is related to the fact that many local government professionals are not comfortable with conflict.

Although it may seem counterintuitive, those that are least comfortable in conflict need to develop the skills and confidence to deal with small frictions or “pinches” as they occur.


What to do with things that annoy us?

First of all, whether in an elected or staff context, we are expected to put up with things that don’t align with our personal preferences. Not everything that bugs us needs to be fixed.

A specific behaviour, although annoying, doesn’t define an entire person. When we get “offside” with someone, we notice all of the things they do that fit into our (annoyed) mindset.



If we decide we can’t let it go (and I mean let it go, not store it up for another time), then we have to decide what to do about it. Are we going to speak directly to the person or do we need to get advice?


What we shouldn’t do is gossip about others.

One of my mom’s sayings (she was wise) was, “If you tell one person you’re venting, but if you tell another the same story you’re gossiping.”


Three Worlds

When something occurs (at work or home) there are three different perspectives in action.

  • My world – What did I see happening? What was my interpretation of that?
  • Your world – What was your intention?
  • The World – What is the observable behaviour?

When we label other people’s intentions, we’re guessing. Anytime we hear, “They’re just doing that because . . .” the remainder is fiction, our made up version of what they intended. To have constructive conversations requires us to stop guessing and have a discussion.


Here’s a 5 step model for having “Constructive Conversations” discussion about small scale annoyances (before it becomes a conflict):

Step 1
Describe the “trigger” event – what happened in THE WORLD – in completely neutral terms and tone of voice.

Step 2
Reveal what went on in YOUR WORLD when that happened – what you made up about that.

Step 3
Ask what was happening in THEIR WORLD when that happened – and trust what you hear.

Step 4
Make a request about what to do the next time, that would break the pattern. “The next time X happens, let’s try . . .”

Step 5
Get a commitment from the other person or group and make a promise to support their commitment yourself.


An example of how this might work is if you had a colleague who was regularly coming late to meetings, you might assume they don’t respect the team, don’t value the meeting, or consider themselves too important to show up on time. Those might all be possible, but why start there?

What the constructive conversations model would recommend is a conversation that might go like this . . .

Hey Joe, I noticed that over the last couple of meetings you’ve been coming in late. I wondered if something was going on; what’s up?

Joe might say the meetings are stupid. They never start on time anyways, or he might say he’s got car trouble or kid trouble Regardless of the answer, you can’t solve a problem until you know why it’s occurring.

In this case, especially if you were the leader (the Mayor, Chair or Manager) you might say:

“I totally understand, but one of the things that is important to the entire team is that we all arrive on time, do you think you can arrange to do that?”

If Joe says, “I can never make it to the meeting because I have another meeting until ten so I rush over here,” there’s also a reasonable discussion around a constructive conversation to look for a solution that might prevent the annoying behaviour from occurring in the future.

The benefit of constructive conversations when things are small is that at the end of the day, regardless of Joe’s answer about why he’s late, at least we’re having a discussion about the real issue instead of speculating about the wrong issue.

Remember, the less comfortable you are with conflict, the more important dealing with small pinches is! Letting them fester and grow leaves you with a more difficult discussion! Below is a worksheet to have a “Constructive Conversation” – let us know how it goes!