I received an incredible opportunity to attend a portion of the annual meeting for the Oregon Chapter of The Wildlife Society. One event that particularly stood out to me was a workshop about building interpersonal and group communication skills for resolving conflict in natural resources. From my experience, natural resource conflict usually arises between industries, conservation, and regulatory bodies. Whether it be commercial fishing, ranching, logging, or farming, there is almost always and equal and opposite conservation voice, advocating for the revision of industry practices and policy and a government agency constrained by time, resources, and politics.
So how do high level policy makers leverage the interests of all stakeholders? While one side heavily supports multiple sectors of Oregon’s diverse economic profile, the other side may be categorically opposed to practices used to mitigate occupational hazards; for example, ranchers lethally removing grey wolves that threaten cattle. How do we mitigate what one group says is morally reprehensible and what the other group says is necessary for economic viability?
In conflict resolution, the strategy that you decide to use depends on the varying levels of importance that policy substance and maintaining relationships have at any given moment (Figure 1). Each strategy is appropriate in different situations, and representative of the time and resources available for the process. While collaboration is typically the goal for long-term, complex, and integrative problems, a competing strategy may be the most appropriate when an emergency is impending and a quick solution is critical.
Figure 1. Situation dependent conflict resolution strategies (adapted from www.mwi.org).
Evaluating and deciding which strategy to use requires a great deal of introspection and flexibility. It require a significant amount of self-awareness to determine if a policy detail is more important than one aspect of a relationship. In reflecting on which strategy I most often use, I typically fluctuate between compromising and competing. This has mainly been due to my short term involvement in different projects, where sustaining and building relationships are much less relevant to solving the acute problem at hand.
This workshop also gave me an opportunity to reflect on the fact that while I typically use the strategy that is most compatible with my personality, it is important to be flexible and utilize the strategy most compatible with the situation and groups I am interacting with. I’ve always been under the impression that collaboration was the best way to handle any problem, however, I did learn that avoiding conflict or accommodating another person’s viewpoint are equally acceptable and valid strategies.
This workshop left me with several lingering questions that will likely only be answered with extensive time and experience;
- When collaboration is the best strategy, what do we do when groups are too polarized to value relationships?
- Is it ever possible to fully compromise and how do we mitigate if one side feels like they’ve given up more than the other?
- How do we effectively balance conflict resolution within agreeing and between opposing groups?
There may not be a right answer to any of these questions, but it is important to evaluate and possess enough self-awareness to contemplate the solutions and promote the development and growth of my own interpersonal communication skills.