Planning Magazine

Planners Manage Conflict Every Day: Here's How to Get Better at It

7 takeaways to help you anticipate challenges, use emotional intelligence, and problem-solve with critical thinking.

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When emotions run high, it can be challenging to step back. Illustration by Ellice Weaver.

The practice of urban planning is so bound up with conflict — especially at this time of political division, unprecedented tech developments, housing supply and affordability challenges, and historic changes in urban land use — that many of us consider it part of our day-to-day work. But the strain of managing it can tax even the most dedicated planner.

APA's (American Planning Association) 2022 Trend Report noted political shifts and polarization as an urgent concern, and the 2023 report found that these dynamics are still in play, as are the continuing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the related challenges it introduced or accelerated. Urban planners are trained to engage and listen, and we're used to talking about change. But so many people, at least initially, see change more as a problem than an opportunity.

Planners manage conflict every day. It can be a challenging undertaking when one considers projects, personalities, and expected performance. It's important to know effective ways to respond skillfully and tactfully, but this is easier said than done.

APA has identified managing conflict as an area where planners can upskill by learning how to positively react, reroute a potentially heated conversation, and take a step back to reorganize. Managing conflict is directly connected to the ability to lead with empathy, among several upskilling opportunities planners can grasp, like cultural competency, listening, and unlearning.

It's important to fine-tune your debate skills and keep the conversation productive — a difficult task when you're in the eye of the storm, not just at one tense public meeting but most or all of the time. It can be hard to know what to do or how to move forward, and usually there's no technical solution. When emotions run high, it can be challenging to step back. Here are some stories from the trenches, with reflections and observations about how conflicts played out. Some names (marked with an asterisk) and identifying details have been changed to enable planners to speak frankly and allow others to learn from their experiences.

Illustration by Ellice Weaver.

Illustration by Ellice Weaver.

A recipe for burnout

Fitch Bronson*, an experienced AICP planner, left a big-city planning job in 2019 for a senior-level position with a smaller, growing city closer to family. But as he soon learned, smaller cities don't make for smaller challenges, especially when a place historically skeptical toward outsiders and urbanism finds itself becoming a burgeoning regional hotspot.

His new job in the planning department put him on the front lines of the development process — managing a team of planners, conducting site-plan reviews, overseeing land-use applications from start to finish, and operating the department's e-filing portal for development applications. "It's a community that, while relatively small in population, is the center of the state economy, is growing and rapidly gaining a skyline, and is nearing a decision point on whether to remain oriented toward tourism or to move toward a new status as a larger city with a more diversified economy and housing market," Bronson says.

Anxiety about change, especially on the part of homeowners spending more time than ever at home during the pandemic, was a frequent source of tension for Bronson and his staff, who went out of their way to answer questions and try to assuage concerns. But over time, their efforts, and the "increasingly coarse" discourse he had already witnessed over nearly 20 years of professional planning, became "a form of emotional labor that could and did take its toll, especially when conversations became tense (or worse, profane, which did happen)."

On the other side, developers frequently complained about the local planning and development process, with steps they termed annoying and onerous. Bronson notes that public-sector planning requires thick skin. "But constant lamentations about 'hurdles,' processing time, and review-queue lengths (as no department is capable of fully scaling up and down rapidly to meet the needs of the real estate market cycle) had a corrosive effect on staff morale, as did the occasional end run around staff to the administration."

Bronson felt he was neglecting his family even when physically present, but giving his all to the job wasn't enough. "I recall calling the city's employee assistance program one morning after an especially brutal night meeting because I needed to talk to someone about how difficult I was finding the work and how hard it was to keep a brave face for the team I led, knowing that emotions are contagious and not wanting to be seen as somehow weak or inadequate," he says. "I wanted to shield them from the difficult interactions, because I believed that to be part of the job."

In the end, it was too much. He left that job late last year for a new one with a regional planning organization serving smaller communities, a less adversarial environment with a schedule that leaves him time for family and nonwork pursuits. He's able to use his prior experience in grant writing and cultivate his interest in technology by building online tools for member communities.


DETACH FROM THE CULT OF WORK. Bronson advises fellow planners, in addition to spending time on meaningful nonwork activities, to think about work in a detached manner. "Looking back, I was in thrall to the cult of 'workism' that we hear so much about now, identifying with the idea of being a planner in a great city so much that I let the job consume some of the best parts of me, frequently leaving my family with too little on nights and weekends."

KNOW YOUR BOUNDARIES AND YOURSELF. "Reflect regularly on what the work means to you and what your 'red lines' are when it comes to difficult interactions," says Bronson. "When you feel they've been breached and are unable to respond in a way consistent with how you are feeling, due to an imbalance in power dynamics, find someone else with a kind ear to talk to, if possible, because the effects of these interactions can be cumulative."

Stacey White, dean of the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois Chicago, says that this kind of self-awareness and emotional intelligence can serve as a rudder to help navigate difficult situations, even if it doesn't make them easier to bear. And an overly avoidant approach can undermine your goals. For less experienced planners, or those in especially fraught situations, she recommends spending some time on self-assessment to better understand how you manage conflict and develop strategies to help; she recommends a couple of helpful tools (see sidebar below).

Illustration by Ellice Weaver.

Illustration by Ellice Weaver.

When your best isn't enough

Another former big-city planner, Regina Nelson*, moved to a public-sector job in a smaller city under new leadership with a mandate for change. She thrived professionally, rising quickly to a high-level position and using every bit of authority she had.

"I saw injustice and felt a responsibility to do something about it," she says. Encouraged to seek funding for projects, she forged ahead, working with a colleague to meet the pent-up demand for parks and other public amenities: applying for and managing grants, navigating procurement, and writing contracts. At first, they didn't know what they didn't know. "A construction manager we hired would ask us questions, and we had no clue, we had to research everything."

Much of this work would have ordinarily been done by another department, but those colleagues weren't much help: the department chose not to pursue the projects Nelson and her colleague felt were urgent for the communities they served. And while the community generally supported the projects, "there were so many unaddressed conversations that should have happened before," she says. "I would apologize for the prior neglect on my own. But I wasn't the mayor."

By the time she left the job in 2021, after almost five years, her relationship with the mayor, initially a mentor and a champion, had deteriorated. Exercising the autonomy she'd felt was part of her position made her a target. Still, Nelson has sympathy for the mayor, who was able to do some good in an old-school culture long dominated by machine politics, a micromanaging governor, and optics. "It was a very challenging situation, so I don't want to drag [the mayor] down," she says. "But leading by example would have been a better approach."


PLANNING IS POLITICAL. Nelson realized how dependent planning is on a well-functioning local government, even in smaller jurisdictions. "You go into this profession to make things better, but I, at least, didn't get any experience in school about how the sausage is made." At a charette during her time in this job, Nelson says she was approached by a woman who believed the city government was plotting a conspiracy. "I assured her that people didn't communicate with each other well enough to pull that off," she says. "If we could have gotten to conspiracy-level teamwork, we could have done anything!"

Role-playing, something White has used in the classroom, can help in these situations. "The stakes are low, you can use humor," she says. "Even if it feels cringey in the moment, the hope is that people find value later." As a planner myself, I've found that to be true. A decade ago when I was a student, I had a class in which we were assigned roles for a project moving through the discretionary approval process. I realized that, at least in New York City, the council member held the reins, a valuable lesson during my eight years as a planner there.

EVERYTHING STARTS AT THE TOP. Here, the outcome might have been almost inevitable. Harriet Tregoning was the planning director in Washington, D.C., from 2007 to 2014, a period of growth after years of decline. "You need good leadership [at the top of an administration] to have successful planning," she says, regardless of a city's size or structure. "A planning director who's a strong leader is nice, but probably not sufficient." A new leader on the scene will probably take time to build a coalition.

"You need alliances to implement plans, and to do planning that engages more than a single neighborhood or development site," says Tregoning. She's taken a pass on opportunities that didn't meet those criteria. Other planners might want to consider doing the same.

Illustration by Ellice Weaver.

Illustration by Ellice Weaver.

Sometimes the planner takes the fall

Kyle Samuels* was an early-career planner when he started an internship in a Midwestern, lakefront community with a small year-round population that spikes in the summer and relies heavily on tourism. While many visitors and most seasonal residents are affluent, full-time residents have lower incomes on average, and many are affected by the hot regional real estate market. In 2019, the city brought on a young and energetic new city manager to help steer growth and move much-needed housing and infrastructure projects. Samuels arrived shortly afterward. In March 2020, the sole planner/zoning administrator left, and Samuels went from being an intern to a full-time employee.

The job entailed a wide range of responsibilities. He interpreted and enforced zoning rules, reviewed site plans and permit documents, supported the planning commission and other boards such as the downtown development authority, and more. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic changed almost everything. Once-seasonal residents, now able to work from anywhere, flocked in from more urban settings, along with plenty of newcomers, raising the already strong demand for infrastructure and services.

Samuels rose to the occasion, working long hours with little help, administrative or otherwise, in a place he'd loved since childhood. He and his boss brought a by-the-book ethos to a city hall that had long operated informally. "The city charter had not been updated, and a decade's worth of changes to ordinances had not been codified," he says. Plans and applications had been signed off with little review, and there was little follow-up on conditional approvals.

The more professional approach was publicly welcomed in city council meetings. But if developers thought the pro-growth tenor of city hall would benefit them, some were disappointed by the renewed attention to statutory and regulatory requirements. Pandemic-related fear and uncertainty also took a toll on residents and businesses. And Samuels was often the lightning rod for interactions, in the office and on-site, that could get very tense. Developers and longtime residents unhappy with the direction complained to the city manager, the city council, and their neighbors, some accusing Samuels of not responding to their questions and applications.

He wasn't the only target of this backlash — after the 2021 local elections, the incumbent mayor, chosen by the council, was pushed out. The new mayor, who had disregarded zoning requirements on his own property, focused his new coalition on the accusations against Samuels, who received little support from the city manager.

Despite excellent performance reviews, a recent pay raise unanimously approved by the council (including the new mayor), and meticulous records detailing his responsiveness, Samuels, without union representation or the funds to engage an attorney, was dismissed in a closed city council session in August 2022. In the wake of coverage by the local press, the city provided a severance payment equivalent to a few months' salary.

A planning commissioner who worked with Samuels throughout his tenure and then with a contract planner brought on after Samuels's departure has thought a lot about how a better process might have prevented this outcome. "Code enforcement is a point of conflict in any community, especially a small one where everybody knows each other, and especially when it relates to the community's chief economic engine," he says. But the situation was exacerbated by the apparent contrast between the predecessor's hands-off approach to issues such as county and state permitting requirements and Samuels's efforts to enforce codes and coordinate with other jurisdictions.

"The job of a solo planner can expand to enormous proportions, and its responsibilities require consultation with many professionals to render correct decisions," says the commissioner. The obligation for both the planner and applicants to coordinate wasn't clearly defined. The contract planner worked with the city team to clarify those obligations and regulate ex parte communications.


YOU MIGHT BE THE COLLATERAL DAMAGE. Even when lessons are learned, they might come too late. The city's nine-month period without a full-time planner (a new one was hired this past May) might have focused minds in city hall, the commissioner says. "Targeted contract support is now provided to manage the workload for high-effort tasks. A lot depends on these process improvements continuing so the new planner has time to implement enforcement procedures."

He also observes that consultant planners can operate in a more arm's-length manner with a community, which might make it harder to bring personal animus into the situation. He's hopeful that the successor will have an easier time, based on lessons that Samuels learned the hard way. Happily, Samuels landed on his feet, eventually finding another planning job in a jurisdiction ready to embrace change.

READ BETWEEN THE LINES. "I trusted too much in the laws on the books" to structure his work, says Samuels. He assumed that the laws — and the city manager — would protect him when challenged. The city manager's unwillingness to intervene earlier or ruffle political feathers was disappointed him, although those more experienced with local political dynamics might find it unsurprising.

"Sometimes, there's just nothing you can do," White says. "If your idea of how things should happen is very different from the prevailing culture, that could be bad fit for you."

THE OXYGEN MASK CLICHÉ IS TRUE. "Everything planners do is conflict-laden," says White. "But you need to protect yourself without getting dragged down."

Bronson has some advice. "Take a deep breath. Take up a meditation practice. Find nonwork outlets that allow you to reengage with the other, neglected selves that live inside you, such as hobbies, volunteer work, exercise, or other nourishing activities. Disconnect when out of the office and don't read emails when on vacation unless your role absolutely demands it," he says. "If you are unable to detach, rest, and recharge, then you are on a path that may well end in burnout. All it takes is one negative email read on vacation to sour a time that should have otherwise been yours to enjoy.

"And remember why you became a planner to begin with. Your planning practice is bigger than any one role you have during the course of a decades-long career, and if you need to shift to something else within the planning world to find professional peace and happiness, the profession is broad enough that it can probably accommodate that in one form or another."

Linda McIntyre, AICP, is a professional planner and a regular contributor to Planning.