Working Your Way Through Conflict

By: Nancy E. Peterman, Partner

Development officers are often the delight of any social occasion.  Trained to facilitate conversations, we are masters of putting people at ease.  As skilled as most of us are in smoothing over moments of awkwardness or tension, there is the infrequent blip on the radar screen where an encounter becomes adversarial.  Managing conflict effectively will prevent situations from getting out of control and will help to mend or build relationships.

The tone of voice, word choices, and volume all play a role in whether a conflict is escalated or diffused. Additionally, Personal Success Institute recommends remembering a mnemonic known as CHANGE to determine how one chooses to manage a specific conflict: Chill out, Handling, Avoidance, Negotiation, Getting together, Ending.

Chill out is detaching from the emotions of someone venting.  The key is to listen very carefully, but not to engage your own feelings in the conversation. Sometimes, this strategy is sufficient.  Many people just want to be heard.  To chill out also means not becoming defensive, negotiating or representing the opposition. This can be a difficult strategy to employ if one has to be right or have the last word.  However, many difficult situations have been resolved over a cup of coffee with a good ear.

Handling takes it a step further.  This requires assuming some ownership of the matter, and engineering the resolution.  A development officer may choose to handle a situation when a donor is angry because of a confrontation with someone in the office over an incorrect acknowledgement letter.   In this instance, the development officer can deal directly with the staff member at fault, and produce a corrected letter along with an apology.

Avoidance may be the right tactic when the situation is one in which the development profession should not be involved.  Circumstances in which there is no satisfactory resolution or one where authority is outside the scope of the institution are best left alone.

Negotiation may be option when both parties are open to meeting.  There was a long running feud between two fellow major gift officers, who disagreed over shared prospect assignments.  Efforts to resolve this by meeting with each separately was not productive.  Eventually, the senior development officer brought both of them into the same room, closed the door, and announced that they would stay there until they settled their current differences, and forged a path for future issues.  With the senior officer facilitating, they were able to work through their differences in a collegial fashion.

Getting together to talk face to face with each unhappy party is necessary when a group meeting would not work.  By talking with each individually, and employing active listening resolution may be reached separately.

Ending the conflict by ending the relationship is the most drastic strategy to employ, but there are times when that is the only correct course of action.  A long running feud between a major donor and a dean was crippling the fundraising for a small college.  The donor believed that as a result of his six figure gift he was entitled to demean the dean in public, to criticize her vision and leadership.  This went far beyond a professional disagreement. The dean was humiliated, the donor belligerent, and all who were witness, other donors, prospects and staff, to the frequent outbursts were embarrassed and uncomfortable.  Efforts to listen, handle, negotiate were not successful in resolving the situation. Ultimately, the vice president for development met with the donor, told him his behavior was unacceptable, and that he was no longer welcome at public functions at the university.  When the donor demanded his most recent gift be returned, the university complied with the caveat that this may have tax consequences for him, and that he should check with his advisors.