Conflict in community engagement [embrace it]

Let's face it, when undertaking community engagement, conflict is something that is going to be encountered at some stage.

While it might be tempting to avoid conflict at all costs, it should be embraced; when managed effectively it can contribute significantly to the public awareness of the project and produce great project outcomes. The key is to manage the conflict, foster trust and build relationships. Remember, not everyone will agree with the final outcome, but good community engagement gives the community an understanding of the process and the reasons behind the final decision.

"The key is to manage the conflict, foster trust and build relationships."

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There are a number of reasons why conflict may arise; a lack of information about the project, or misinformation circulating in the community or social media, community members have different values, some people simply do not like change, there may be a real or perceived impact on one's property, resource, view etc or there may be historic unresolved conflict or lack of trust.

Managing this conflict may not always be simple, but it is vital if a project is to succeed. Conflict resolution can be done both online and offline, or a combination of both. Regardless of your method, an important first step is to ensure that there is sufficient information available about the project and any misinformation is quickly addressed. Intervention by an official person (project manager, community engagement co-ordinator or appointed political leader etc) should occur early, particularly for online forums.

This will ensure that the community feel included and do not feel as though decision makers are hiding something - it builds trust.

When it comes to facilitating discussion and managing the conflict, the stakeholders can be guided by helping them to:

  • Develop a common understanding of the root causes of the problem
  • Frame the problem in the context of the community
  • Develop shared goals and objectives that will address the problem
  • Put together and implement projects that will achieve the objectives
  • Explore alternatives and compromises
  • Evaluate the effectiveness of the projects and engagement process

And remember, more members of the community are going to become aware of a project if it is controversial, and in turn, more community involvement is likely.

All publicity is good publicity!

When conflict is managed effectively, it can lead to projects that have a high level of community engagement and a final outcome that benefits a wide spectrum of the community. It can help build trust between an organisation and the community for future projects and enables community members to gain an understanding of the views of other stakeholders.