Embracing Conflict: Honing Your Conflict Management Skills

Conflict is increasingly permeating through every aspect of our lives — and community meetings are no exception. For planners, meetings can feel like an arena and public discussions a political debate. So, we must reshape the narrative by better understanding and using conflict management skills to help navigate community engagement. This transformation begins with our attitudes toward conflict. When done effectively, we can usher in feelings of fulfillment, purpose, and potential within our profession.

The American Planning Association (APA) has multiple training opportunities that not only identify disruptive behaviors and group dynamics but also provide planners with the skills necessary to manage conflict when it happens.

Reframing Conflict as an Opportunity for Growth

At the introductory training held via webinar, we delved into the participants' perceptions of conflict. The resulting word cloud depicted a spectrum of emotions, with many expressing feelings of anxiety, discomfort, frustration, and uncertainty during public meetings. Conversely, fewer felt attentive, composed, hopeful, or peaceful. Recognizing this disparity, we spent time reframing conflict as an opportunity for breakthroughs, deeper connections, and goal attainment.

We also explored how individuals' attitudes toward conflict are shaped by their beliefs and values, often evolving into identity politics. Participants were encouraged to be introspective, examining their own beliefs and attitudes toward conflict and how these are reinforced with each encounter — resolved or not. We discussed diverse mindsets and different styles for managing conflict, emphasizing the importance of releasing past emotional burdens stemming from unresolved conflicts.

Jennifer M. Raitt, executive director of the Northern Middlesex Council of Governments. Photo courtesy of Jennifer M. Raitt.

Jennifer M. Raitt, executive director of the Northern Middlesex Council of Governments. Photo courtesy of Jennifer M. Raitt.

The next online training, in February 2024, capped participation, so we were able to go deeper and explore professional identities and values. Participants honed their skills in active listening and learned to actively engage with conflict constructively. Through interactive exercises, participants applied these newfound insights to address conflict scenarios, which were based on feedback we received from the previous session.

Planners shared a myriad of conflict types they encounter, including clashes with colleagues or clients, disputes with elected officials or policymakers, tense public meetings, and conflicts related to local decisions and governance. They exchanged strategies for dealing with a wide array of challenges, from NIMBYism and conspiracy theories to verbal abuse and historical injustices.

Equipping Planners to Navigate Conflicts

The demand for conflict resolution tools is palpable among planners and local decision-makers. A Learning Lab at the APA 2024 National Planning Conference, Mastering Conflict: The Case for Large-Scale Solar, equipped participants with strategies to navigate conflict, particularly when implementing large-scale solar projects.

The session began with APA staff discussing APA's Upskilling Initiative and Solar@Scale, a U.S. Department of Energy-supported partnership between the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) and APA. Planners presented two real-world conflict scenarios on trying to permit solar in their communities and participants worked in small groups to explore and discuss effective approaches to managing conflicts that could arise.

The first scenario, presented by Charlie Nichols, AICP, illustrated the intersection of politics and zoning when a decade earlier a county's board of supervisors wasn't aligned on updated regulations for utility-scale solar projects. The outcomes from the first scenario demonstrated the power of a compromise, and the effects of an iterative planning process as the rezoning process included conditions that addressed issues that supervisors from the board agreed upon. Solar@Scale: A Local Government Guidebook for Improving Large-Scale Solar Development Outcomes, offers compelling options for local planners looking to minimize or mitigate the effects of large-scale solar installations and the potential tradeoffs that can be explored as part of a negotiated planning process.

The second scenario, presented by Christy Eichorn, AICP, focused on a county board considering an application for a utility-scale solar project with a comprehensive plan that did not include data, goals, or strategies for addressing renewable energy projects while dealing with public disrupters in the audience. The outcomes from the second scenario demonstrated the power of time and patience in a public process. In this case, the matter is unresolved as the county extended project review and community discussions continue. But Solar@Scale provided suggestions for process design and engagement.

These scenarios show that the time it takes to resolve conflict can vary depending on the scale of the issue and the depth of local beliefs, values, and even identity politics. The second scenario showed that time and patience are key and can spur collaboration to advance the goals of all parties, deepen relationships, and increase trust and commitment. But if we try to "win" by making accommodations or avoiding conflict altogether, we might lose out on longer-term goals and gain superficially in developing relationships.

Conflict Resolution Passion Led to Urban Planning

Reflecting on my journey, I realized early in my career my affinity for conflict resolution, mediation, and group facilitation. This passion led me to urban planning, where I embraced the inherent challenges and divergent perspectives that accompany community change. Indeed, conflict is woven into the fabric of our work and planners should anticipate it. But remember, it's also an opportunity for growth, innovation, and positive transformation.

Top image: Planners practice the conflict resolution strategies they learned during several training sessions hosted by the American Planning Association during a Learning Lab at NPC24 in Minneapolis this past April. Photo by Sagar Shah.

Jennifer M. Raitt is executive director of the Northern Middlesex Council of Governments based in Lowell, Massachusetts.

June 18, 2024

By Jennifer Raitt