How to – get on a training about working with conflict


We’re offering, with Co-ops UK, a course called Communication and working with conflict. A bit of a gob full, but nonetheless it’s been tested and evaluated by worker co-ops in the last year or so; and elements of the programme have been used with community and campaign groups for the last 15 years.

We will work with you to (re)discover your own skills at working with contention, differences and arguments in a way which’ll help to solve them, not grow them. It doesn’t always work in solving matters, but everyone gets a lot clearer about what’s going on.

Unlike other programmes in this area we do not follow a dogmatic or branded approach. Our years of talking to and with people, has been stuffed into some easy to use and learn approaches to working with both what’s going on in your head when dealing with conflicts, and some steps to working with other people in conflict.

We like training it, we think you’ll like working with us. Sign up here.

Carl and others


essentials of conflict resolution


Matthew and I have been doing some work with a food coop; helping voluntary team leaders review and add to their conflict management tools. We’ll shortly be running our third workshop. Here’s what we work with people on –


  • To develop the understanding and application of appropriate states of mind (consensual, non-judgemental, solution focussed)
  • To develop the understanding and application of active listening and dialogue skills
  • To enable participants to know when to apply these skills; and to what degree
  • To enable participants to identify their further learning needs (if necessary)


Approach used in training

  • Using small and large group discussions, activities, role plays and debriefs.
  • Supporting material to back up learning. All participants to get material on State of Mind and Active Listening and the principles of cooperative conflict resolution.
  • No slides – learning by doing.
  • Two trainers – for support, to facilitate skills demonstrations, to maximise feedback to participants, for some variety


Outline session plan

  • Introduction – housekeeping, people, negotiating how we’ll work together
  • What is conflict resolution? Different approaches to this – focus on the models more appropriate to cooperatives – facilitative styles; person and group focussed.
  • States of mind – exercises to build internal understanding of being non-judgemental, consensually focussed, solution focussed, unbiased, people/work orientated.
  • Active Listening – listen, reflect, clarify, summarise, explore, produce ways forward, agree on them, action them. Go through these phases and make explicit why different to everyday conversations.
  • Practise sessions – rounds of work on threes or fours with peer to peer work and peer observers giving feedback, along with the trainers (if needed), on realistic role plays.
  • Review sessions – check ins on understanding of material and its application.
  • Co-designing a process to deal with small scale conflicts and knowing when to refer them to personnel.
  • Evaluation session.

All of the handouts we used, are available on our resources pages. Use and share.


A Facilitator in Conflict

Conflict. It sees to be the thread that’s connecting most of the work I’ve done this year so far.

I seem to be naturally adept at getting into conflict. Less so at getting back out of it. So facilitating conflict has always been something I’ve simultaneously been anxious about, and something I’ve been keen to develop the skills and mindset to do. The fact that conflict figures so large in the facilitation landscape of 2013 so far is almost certainly, in part, down to where I’m at as a facilitator, and not just to where the groups I’ve been working with are at. I’m changing my relationship with conflict (slowly), and that’s there in the conscious and unconscious signals I send to groups.

My experience of facilitating conflict has been very mixed – ranging from unexpected conflicts erupting mid-workshop, to consciously prompting conflicts in a group, to working with a coop on building their abilities to resolve conflict. I’ve not always been successful.

There’s at least some members of a community out there who feel I failed to deal effectively with a conflict that erupted unbidden in a workshop. And they’d be right. Ironically it was one of the few times in my facilitation journey that I’ve taken a deep breath and internally muttered “bring it on!” – feeling as ready as I’ll ever be to hold a group in conflict. My sense is that the group norms reasserted themselves and they slammed the door shut on the conflict, preferring to suppress it than deal with it. I needed to do more to confront that dynamic – to name it and to share it with the group so they were in  a better position to see what was happening and decide where they wanted to go with it (if anywhere).

Then there was the work at Facilitating Change in which the facilitation team made a concerted effort to name the dynamics that were causing conflict within the group, naming them repeatedly if the group tried to avoid them. Perhaps necessarily, or perhaps because of our lack of skilfulness this put us as facilitators in conflict with some of the group. Uncomfortable stuff, but made far more possible because of the support we were shown by group members who suffered most because of those dynamics.

More recently I worked with a group on their strategy and vision. An essential part of this was bringing out the conflicts within the group – conflicting interpretations of their core aims, conflicting values, conflicting approaches to running a campaign, clashing personalities and interpersonal dynamics. Simply doing strategy was never an option – so once again naming and addressing some of these issues allowed some forward movement.

Then last week I co-facilitated 2 conflict resolution workshops with Carl, a very experienced mediator who makes it all seem so easy! Working alongside him was heartening. He makes it clear that effective conflict resolution is possible and that in many ways it’s just an extension of the skills and states of mind of a good facilitator.

One of the other factors influencing me to feel more confident in conflict has been working alongside Emily. Her process oriented psychology approach has fascinating insights into groups and conflict, and I’m learning loads. We were lucky enough to have a process work student at Facilitating Change and her input showed, once again, how powerful the technique can be when groups are in conflict.

I’m sure that’s not it for conflict in 2013. I won’t say I’m looking forward to facilitating more conflict. I certainly won’t say I’m doing it well. But on balance I’m optimistic.

But enough of me – tell us about your experiences of facilitating, and being facilitated, whilst in conflict. Horror stories? Great successes? Over to you….


Handling Inappropriate Blocks in a Consensus Process

Here’s the second in our series of 3 articles by Tree Bressen.

Handling Inappropriate Blocks in a Consensus Process

When a block arises the situation is typically frustrating and scary for everyone involved. While the received wisdom says that blocking should only happen extremely rarely (doyenne Caroline Estes says that in 45 years of facilitating hundreds of groups she’s only seen a correct block less than a dozen times), less skilled groups often struggle with more frequent blocks than this. Blocking based on personal preference or values rather than group well-being and values is the most common mistake in attempts at consensus process and causes so much frustration that it gives the whole process a bad rap. If you are participating in a group and someone blocks inappropriately, what are you to do? Here are suggestions for how to address this situation, presented in chronological order.

(1) Nurture solid friendships in your group. The more y’all like each other, the stronger your web of relationships will be for dealing with challenges that come up.

(2) Train all the group members in consensus so that everyone understands when it is and is not appropriate to block. Blocks are not to get your way. Blocks are not because you would have to move out of the community (or not be able to afford to move in) if this happened. Blocks are not because a proposal doesn’t fit your values or how you want to live. Blocks are not to prevent the group from taking a risk. The reason that blocking power exists in the consensus process is to prevent the group from crossing its own stated values or from doing something truly disastrous. All these other things are appropriate and important to raise as concerns, and to modify a proposal in response to–you just can’t block a decision over them, or else the whole process breaks down.

People also need to be informed about the option to Stand Aside, and when to invoke it. Groups must treat Stand Asides seriously so that people will have an outlet to express major concern at the decision point without resorting to blocking.

(3) Clarify the group’s common values to provide criteria for blocking that transcend personal preferences. If the common values are not yet explicit, the next best option is to rely on a general sense of what is in the group’s best interest.

(4) Establish a clear procedure for handling blocks. I recommend creating an expectation that dissenters are responsible for helping seek solutions to the issue under consideration. For example, at N Street Cohousing in Davis, California, anyone who blocks is required to sit down every two weeks for up to three months with representatives of the consensus position in an effort to work out an acceptable alternative. Resident Kevin Wolf says, “If after the six meetings, consensus hasn’t been reached, the community will vote with a 75% supermajority winning. In 18 years of having this process, we have yet to get past two blocked consensus meetings before consensus is reached. We have never voted.

The Quakers are often thought of as the most seasoned practitioners of consensus. Pacific Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice book (2001) says that the facilitator can overrule a block if it comes from someone(s) who objects too frequently. Here is the quote:

“Meetings may occasionally act even over the objections of one or more Friends. Due weight should be given to the insights of any Friend, long experienced in Friends meetings, whose judgment and service have been proven over considerable time. A ‘stop’ in such a member’s mind should be heeded. If, on the other hand, the one who is withholding support is known for persistently objecting, then the Clerk [facilitator] may call for a period of silent worship and, if so led, announce that the weight of the Meeting seems decidedly to favor the action, and the proposal is approved. The same principle applies even on occasions when there is more than one objector.”

In a communitarian context, operating in this way would likely offend egalitarian sensibilities and put too much burden on the facilitator-if the facilitator overrules someone’s block, that person (or their friends) are likely to get upset at whoever happened to be facilitating that day. At the national cohousing conference in summer 2006, Annie Russell of Wonderland Hill suggested referring unresolved blocks to a community’s steering council instead, who could then render a ruling on the validity of the block.

There are various other expectations in use to decide what constitutes an appropriate block. Laird Schaub of Sandhill Farm in Missouri applies the standard of, “Can you convince at least one other person in the group [presumably not one’s spouse] that the block is legitimate?CT Butler (author of the Formal Consensus method) says that the group must agree a block is principled, or else it doesn’t count. And so on. Your group needs to get some clarity on what your standards and procedures will be before a particular block comes up; otherwise you run the risk of actual or perceived biased action based on the personalities or content involved. Cohousing groups have voting fallbacks written into their bylaws to satisfy lenders; you need to know under what circumstances and how you will invoke such a fallback.

(5) Work with the substance of the concern.

  • Assume goodwill.
  • Often a dissenter will be inarticulate, and need support. Don’t isolate that person–instead, find them one or more allies.
  • Do major reflective listening. Make an effort to fully understand the blocker’s concerns and then check to be sure that their point of view has been grasped by the rest of the group.
  • Ask questions to draw them out.
  • Listen for the “piece of the truth” the dissenter is holding.
  • Engage the people with concerns in solving the problem–ask them what would work for them that would also address the other needs that are present.
  • Look for common ground, search out how their concern can be integrated.

(6) If it seems that someone is blocking based on personal preference, others in the group need to speak up. Consider starting gently, by having one person approach the blocker outside of meeting. If that doesn’t work, multiple people will need to speak up to get through the resistance and avoid having one person take all the heat. Talk with the person respectfully, honestly, and as kindly as you can. If the group has made a substantial effort to understand the blocker’s point of view, yet the person still insists that she or he is not being heard, someone might say, “I’d like to know how you would tell the difference between not being heard vs. being heard and disagreed with.” Or, “I think we do hear you and are just disagreeing with you. But I could be wrong. Can you tell me what I can do to help you have a sense of being heard?” Again, usually what is needed is some really excellent reflective listening. Occasionally someone needs to be reminded of the Stand Aside option and what it’s there for.

(7) Invoke whatever procedures were agreed to in Step 4, and/or a voting fallback. While traditionally consensus groups have not had voting fallbacks, Rob Sandelin of Sharingwood Cohousing (Snohomish, Washington) points out that they prevent a tyranny of the minority. If someone knows they can potentially be outvoted, they are more likely to act cooperatively with the group.

The Quakers say that one should only block after a sleepless night and the shedding of tears, and at most a few times in lifetime. However, sometimes it really is appropriate. While this article has addressed how to reduce blocks, there is a whole other piece on the importance of nurturing dissent and the open, honest expression of concerns. Living in community, and in consensus, is about finding the balance.

Enjoyed this post? You might like to read:

Tree Bressen is a skilled group facilitator serving a wide variety of organizations.  Her gifts include elegant process design, holding space for tough conversations, and using good process to achieve excellent product.  Her original training comes from the graduate school of communal living, working with groups using full consensus decision-making.  She founded the collaborative that produced the Group Works cards, a distillation of core wisdom in the field of facilitation.  Practicing on a gift economy basis since 2004, she also maintains a website with extensive free resources.



Just a quick heads up about deep:black’s new blog. deep:black are a fellow co-op whose work overlaps ours. In their own words:

“deep:black works using the arts to create dialogue, develop communication and build connection across difference and diversity.”

If that sounds like your kind of thing, take a look at their workshop programme.

Activist Mediation Training

19-29 February’s proving popular. This also just in:

Want to learn mediation skills

Interested in helping support activist groups engage with disagreements and conflict, to make them more effective?

Want to deal with conflicts in your personal life that interfere with
your activism?

Mediation training for activists in London on 19-20 February, from 11am – 5pm.

The aims of these days are:

  • To train people in conflict resolution skills that they can use in their own lives and activist work
  • For people interested in volunteering with us to receive training and to meet with us to discuss taking it further.

You are expected to attend both days (please talk to us if you are
interested but this is not possible for you).

Day 1 – How we deal with conflict, Conflict resolution tools, Basic
mediation skills practice.

Day 2 – Mediation skills and process practice.

Details of the training days

Booking essential: Please email Please introduce yourself, explain what activism you are involved with, and what you hope to use your conflict engagement skills for. There will only be 12 places.
Venue: In central london. Wheelchair accessible.
Cost: We are asking for a £10 donation to fund expenses and help set up a travel fund to help with our mediation work. If money would prevent you from attending, then get in touch.
Creche: We are not providing creche facilities, but if childcare
issues are preventing you attending, please get in touch and we’ll try
and sort something out.
Lunch: Not provided. Bring your own or buy nearby.
Transport and Accommodation: Get in touch if you have any issues or can offer a lift.

For further information have a look at our website

Dreaming of Transition: sharing assumptions

There’s a joke amongst facilitators that groups of facilitators are the hardest to work with.

Last week’s Transition Network’s Dreaming Circle saw 24 facilitators drawn from diverse cultures and facilitation approaches come together to talk groups. It was an immensely creative space, but inevitably there were things that could have worked better. Apologies in advance for concentrating on the “could do betters”. It’s where I do most of my learning.

Here’s a couple of things that stood out for me….

The common thread is making assumptions. Every group does it, and it’s a stumbling block to good process in groups. We make assumptions about what the group believes. We make assumptions on the process the group will use. We make assumptions on what the group wants to achieve. We make assumptions about what the group knows or understands. Usually these are based on what we as individuals believe, know, understand, want to achieve, and the processes we are familiar with. Making some of these things explicit early in the life of a group can save a lot of pain later.

What it means to facilitate:

In the Dreaming Circle group we didn’t do that explicit work. At one point on the second day there was open conflict involving facilitators wanting to move a process on, a participant not yet ready to move on, and others in the group unhappy at how the conflict was being expressed, and the patterns it might set if left unchallenged. In the debrief of the incident one key contributing factor was different parties’ understanding of what it means to facilitate.

Our facilitators (from Transition Network) were, consciously or unconsciously working to a model that required them to take responsibility to move the process along. This clashed with another take on their role (drawn from process work) – simply to name what was going on in the group, but not to attempt to do anything about it. That was for the group to decide. The issue wasn’t whether one model was right or wrong but that these assumptions had never been articulated and shared with the group. A useful reminder to all of us to ask a group, nice and early, how they see our role as facilitators.

Do you speak facilitator?

Every group of people has a certain amount of their own language – in other words, jargon. Facilitators aren’t exempt. What I feel that we should be exempt from, however is assuming that everyone shares our jargon or at least understands it in the same way. There were regular requests for clarification of terms such as ‘pattern language‘, and ‘constellation’.

It felt like this was one area in which the group was less successful in learning and modifying its behaviour, at least in the 2 days I was there. After so many requests we really ought to have been taking greater care to check out the assumptions in the language we used. It’s hard – when you speak these words so often, and when they’re part of your identity as ‘facilitator’, but it needed to be done.

A concern that I have about this ingrained jargon is that we might carry it with us when we work with groups who are not facilitators, and embed it into our training materials, embedding the assumption that it’s universally understood with it.

“What assumptions am I making?” is a powerful question. And the Dreaming Circle has reminded me to ask it all the more often Inevitably I’ve made some in this post, so feel free to point them out.

Conflict resolution for capacity builders

Rhizome is a regular contributor to the meetings of the NGO Forum, an informal meeting of capacity building and network staff from campaigning organisation that have, or aspire to, a local group network.

As a result of our involvement with the NGO Forum, we’re planning a conflict resolution course designed specifically for the needs of staff and volunteers who have a role in supporting local groups or other networks of activists. If you think that might be of interest to you or your organisation or network read on and get in touch. Don’t worry if you’re not currently involved with the Forum, it’s not pre-requisite.

Back in July Carl ran an introductory session at a Forum meeting. Since then there’s been a conversation going on in the Forum about  a longer training. The NGO Forum is an informal meeting of capacity building and network staff from campaigning organisation that have, or aspire to a local group network.

We’ve come up with a proposal for a format that balances the need to explore conflict resolution, mediation, and negotiation skills at a deep enough level to have a real impact on your work, with budget and time restraints. We’re asking for feedback to ensure we meet the genuine needs of capacity builders. All comments are very welcome:

2 day residential course at Braziers Park, Oxfordshire

Day 1:

  • arrive 10.30 for an 11am start
  • main session: 11am to 5pm
  • evening session 7 to 9pm
  • overnight stay

Day 2:

  • 9 am start
  • 4pm close and depart

Where? Braziers Park is a community of people, and residential college founded in 1950 as an educational trust, and is a continuing experiment in the advantages and problems of living in a group. It’s approximately 1 hour from London to the nearest station, Goring & Streatley, which is between Reading and Oxford. The station is a taxi or cycle ride away from the venue.

When? We’ve provisionally booked a mid-February event – Tuesday 15th and Wednesday 16th February 2011

How much? Our provisional costing of such an event, including the costs of all meals and overnight accommodation is £255 +VAT per person. Costs can be reduced slightly if people are willing to share rooms. It’s also possible to stay the night before (including breakfast) for those travelling a greater distance, for an additional fee. These figures assume a minimum of 8 participants. If the course is well-subscribed we’ll look at subsidising smaller organisations, offering free places to network volunteers or refunding a proportion of the cost.

Interested or any questions? contact us or leave a comment below, preferably by 8th October. If we get enough expressions of interest, we’ll confirm the course.

intro to conflict resolution

I ran a short training session with the NGO Capacity Builders Skillshare Forum the other day. Posed with the issue of how to condense what could be a several days long training into 1hr 45mins, I decided to focus on four themes –

  1. State of mind
  2. Core listening and interactive skills
  3. Roles
  4. Application

State of mind covered two broad concepts – multiple perspective and issues of impartiality and judgement. Using a simple example of imagining the colour blue, we looked at how words form different impressions and/or images in our minds; and extended this concept to think through how our own thoughts about what we hear may be different to what the intended meaning was and the consequences for working with others and their disputes. I also worked with the group to understand that it’s useful to differentiate between what you perceive, what others are perceiving (and the obvious need to check this out) and what an observer might notice.

Looking at impartiality and issues of judgement, we acknowledged that our sub-conscious processes militated against an ability to be completely non-judgemental or impartial. But recognised that an awareness of what we’re thinking and how we’re acting can ameliorate this and its effect on people we’re working with. In short we can aspire to becoming non-judgemental in the role of mediator, but should retain the humility of understanding that we can’t be.

Core listening skills covered the elements that I share with all developing mediators and facilitators. For the purposes of the session I put them into blocks-

  • Listen, reflect, clarify
  • Summarise and signpost
  • Explore possibilities
  • Agree and review

We looked at each of these, but focused on the first block; as my experience is that this block is the one that is the most absent from our socialised way of communicating and therefore needs more active work in learning. And it throws up how people’s desire to share their solution or idea can undermine their attempts to be ‘impartial’.

Roles and application looked at how a worker in an organisation attempting to resolve disputes could characterise their role in this. I shared the idea that there are three ways of looking at this –

  1. 3rd party ‘neutral’
  2. critical friend
  3. personally/professionally involved

The likelihood of their being asked to be a 3rd party neutral was slim, but in their jobs it was apparent from the examples they gave that the skills could be applied to different circumstances – internal team disputes, disputes among local groups and acting as peer mediators for other organisations in the network. We then spent some time discussing how the skills could be applied to these different situations.

We concluded by thinking through how we could deliver a deeper two day programme in conflict resolution skills that would develop the core skills and look at how they can be applied to people’s needs in their roles in NGOs and campaign groups.

Let us know if you’d be interested – the cost will be (hopefully) below £100.