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Principles for Retaining Volunteers Part 10: Resolving Conflict Among Volunteers

By Daniel C. Olsen, Senior Consultant, Special Districts Association of Oregon


People have different perspectives. They are bound to disagree. However, when disagreement escalates to an antagonistic level it can damage the working relationships among volunteers. Volunteers may choose to leave your organization. To help retain volunteer members, you will need to resolve conflicts which may occur.

To resolve conflict requires negotiation. This will require dealing with the issues and relationships of the individuals involved.

A method I have found to be amazingly effective in resolving conflict comes from the Harvard Negotiation Project. It is about using principled negotiation to reach a mutually beneficial outcome.


It is important to mention that oftentimes, people enter into negotiations with negative mindsets. These can block a successful outcome and become obstacles to building relationships. The most often used weapons to escalate the conflict are:

  • Blaming
  • Making excuses
  • Defending their position and
  • Denial

 Principled negotiation involves four important points:

  1. Separate the people from the problem
  2. Focus on Interests rather than positions
  3. Invent options and
  4. Agree on objective criteria to evaluate viable solutions

POINT NUMBER 1: Separate people from problem

It is important to confront the problem…not the person. Negotiations are about resolving conflict and building relationships. In building relationships, you need to consider:

  • the perception of the other person
  • emotions that can be involved and
  • effective communications

In working to define the problem, it is helpful to use a white board, or flip chart, to write out what the problem is. This allows everyone to see what the problem is and actively participate in defining it. It also provides the opportunity for all parties to “step back” and look at the problem rather than to go “nose-to-nose.”

POINT NUMBER 2: Focus on the interests

Once the problem has been defined, focus on the interests of the parties involved. Listen to what the other party has to say. Ask questions to help clarify their interests. Discuss these interests with the desire to better understand. You will find that interests are based on needs. The most powerful needs are human needs.

  • Security
  • economic well being
  • sense of belong
  • recognition
  • control over one’s life

Make a list of the interest of all parties involved in the conflict. Be specific. By making a list, you acknowledge their individual interests. Take time to focus on the interests of all parties. Do not make assumptions or take things for granted.

To illustrate this point, consider the story of two parties interested in purchasing a crop of lemons. The lemons were of high quality and desired by both parties. The competition for the lemon crop became very divisive. The bidding escalated. The tempers of both parties did the same. The interesting lesson from this story was that while both parties wanted the lemon crop, each had a different interest. One individual wanted the lemon crop for the juice. The other wanted the lemon peels.

POINT NUMBER 3: Invent viable solutions for mutual gain.

This can be challenging, because a belief they may be hanging onto prevents them from seeing something different This is where you need to be creative. This is where all parties brainstorm together.

You invent possibilities. Be creative. It is important not to judge or evaluate the ideas you produce. List them all on the board.

Avoid premature judgement, searching for the single answer, or assuming a “fixed pie” ...where there are limiting boundaries.

Avoid critical judgement. Think “what if…”  You may combine several ideas, develop more from what you produce or refine an idea. Broaden the options that come up. Think what is possible for mutual gain. Invent ways of making decisions easy for the other party. At this stage you are seeking to develop a variety of possibilities.

During the brainstorming session, it is advantageous to have someone function as a scribe. Have someone, who is not a participant, putting the ideas on a white board or flip chart in full view of everyone. This allows all participants to think and generate ideas.

It is also good to have ground rules such as not being judgmental about what is said. Confidentiality is also important. This will assist in building trust.

POINT NUMBER 4: Insist on Using Objective Criteria

Objective criteria need to be independent of each side’s will. The criteria for evaluating the possible solutions should be fair to all parties. And it needs to be legitimate and practical.

It is important to be open to reasonable persuasion based on merit but not on pressure.

As you develop the criteria keep in mind that it is a joint search for objective criteria. Be open to reason as to which standards are most appropriate and how should they be applied to the possible solutions...

Never yield to pressure only to principle. Pressure can be a bribe, a threat, a manipulative appeal to trust or refusal to budge. All these are detrimental to a successful outcome.

Insist on using objective criteria to evaluate the options and select the best solution for all parties.


Remember the four points in the method

1.     Separate the people from the problem

2.     Focus on interests rather than positions

3.     Develop options and

4.     Agree on objective criteria to evaluate possible solutions

There will be disagreements among volunteers. It is important to resolve the conflict before it becomes disruptive. Before it damages relationships.

I have personally witnessed the effectiveness of this method. It has immense value in so many different situations.

If you would like to read more about this, I suggest the Book Getting to YES by Roger Fisher, William Ury and Bruce Patton of the Harvard Negotiation Project.