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Board Management

Communication Skills for Navigating Board Conflict

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Boards need to have open—and sometimes contentious—conversations, without allowing disagreement to devolve into animosity. Board and staff leaders need to develop the right skills to help boards have civil, productive discussions even in divisive times.

In this era of heated debates, heightened mistrust, and political polarization, the art of disagreeing effectively seems to have been lost, but it is absolutely necessary for boards to function effectively. To navigate conflict and come out stronger after difficult conversations, board and staff leaders need a few key skills.

“Disagreement is healthy,” says Mary Byers, CAE, an association governance consultant and host of the Associations Today podcast. “It’s how [people] handle the disagreement that’s crucial.”

Board disagreement that isn’t resolved properly can hamper board effectiveness moving forward. “Conflict does not age gracefully, and the longer it’s left unchecked, the harder it is to resolve,” Byers says. “The minute you see there is conflict is the minute you need to address it.”

The key to disagreeing in board interactions is to do so respectfully and with your association’s mission in mind, says Arlene A. Pietranton, Ph.D., FASAE, CAE, CEO of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

“We encourage diversity of thinking and perspective and candid challenging of information and alternative views,” Pietranton says of her work with the ASHA board. “There is an explicit expectation it is done in a respectful way. There is a healthy way to have those differing perspectives. That helps ensure there is broader thinking to make decisions.”

Board disagreement that isn’t resolved properly can hamper board effectiveness moving forward. “Conflict does not age gracefully, and the longer it’s left unchecked, the harder it is to resolve,” says consultant Mary Byers. “The minute you see there is conflict is the minute you need to address it.”

Set Rules Ahead of Time

The healthiest way to have a controversial discussion without lingering conflict is to set the stage beforehand.

“I don’t think most boards have rules of engagement,” Byers says. “If a new board is seated, the rules of engagement should be part of the orientation, and the full board should review those annually. [These should include] guiding principles, what the expectations are, and if there is conflict, how do you expect it to be addressed?”

ASHA has a guide for civil discourse that’s used across the organization, from staff to members to the board.

“It’s for all members, it’s on our website, and as part of the orientation as new board members are brought on. We discuss the board operations and the expectations and the culture and dynamic of how our board functions,” Pietranton says. Her advice: “Be upfront about the ground rules and expectations. Be proactive instead of waiting until a problem may arise.”

In addition to ground rules, an acknowledgement of context can help manage—or even prevent—conflict. “We are operating in an environment of heightened stress, and because of that, it makes sense for each of us to think before we speak and be careful how we communicate with other people,” Byers says. “Recognize that people are facing the same stresses, and focus on similarities, instead of our differences.”

Likewise, Pietranton advises focusing on the board’s shared work. “At a professional society, we may each have different experiences, and see different challenges,” she says. “But we are members of a shared profession, so we have some things in common. What are the things we each value? Hopefully, we share the mission. Starting from a position of helping us all remember what we have in common, those shared interests, is important.”

Address Conflict As Soon As Possible

If two board members are having conflict at a meeting and are not abiding by the rules of civility in the heat of the moment, others can step in to lower the temperature. Pietranton notes that the CEO and staff are trained in making board meetings run smoothly. There’s also the board chair.

“The board chair may need to step in and talk to someone who is not being civil,” Byers says. “You can handle it in the moment and call for a break. That is one way to let people calm down and catch their breath.”

How you manage a conflict as it’s happening may also depend on whether it’s a new or longstanding disagreement, Byers says. “Has it been brewing, or is this a one-time occurrence? If it is something that has been happening, and it is keeping the board from being a high-performing board, there should be an opportunity for everyone to speak and let everyone share what they feel from their perspective,” she says. “That can help rebuild the safe environment.”

When people are speaking about a conflict, Byers recommends using specific language. “There is a little recipe that I use,” she says, describing the formula as I feel [blank] when [blank] because [blank].

“So, if we were to fill in those blanks, they might say, ‘I feel frustrated when I’m interrupted because I feel I’m not being heard,’” she says. The formula avoids accusation and focuses on the heart of the problem.

When people do surface concerns, Pietranton adds, it’s crucial to really listen. “I remind folks to listen with a real open mind,” she says. “Don’t just listen and wait your turn to make your point.”

Rasheeda Childress

Rasheeda Childress is a former editor at Associations Now.

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