Whether or not you work in nonprofit, conflict is a part of everyday life. When it comes to Board Members or donors, it is easy for that conflict to become especially fraught. It can be challenging to walk the line between expressing and adhering to your organizational values while simultaneously trying to keep an important stakeholder happy. Here are a few suggestions for strategies to strike that ever important balance.
First: Listen to the entire story. We humans are notoriously bad at assessing and expressing ourselves. What a stakeholder is telling you right off the bat is the cause of their worry is not always really what’s at the root of your conflict. Remain calm and listen to everything the person has to say. If you’re struggling to make sense of what you’re hearing, or your stakeholder gets stuck in the story, asking leading questions such as “Can you tell me more about that?”, “What do you mean when you say X?”, and “Can you provide me some context for Y?” These questions will do the important double duty of getting you more of the information you need to assess the situation and buying you time to think about the most appropriate response.
Second: Repeat what you are hearing. You don’t need to apologize, or even to defend yourself, in order to placate an upset stakeholder. Sometimes, all that it takes it making that person feel heard. Phrases like “What I’m hearing you say is…” and “I understand that you’re frustrated with…” validate the feelings of the person you’re addressing without further fanning the flames by discussing where blame should be placed.
Third: Offer a next step or solution. Sometimes there isn’t going to be an easy answer, but hopefully there will at least be a next step. If you need time to think about the point of conflict before you can make a constructive suggestion, the next step might be as simple as checking in again in a few days. Alternatively, if the conflict is around a miscommunication or something that is more quickly and easily resolvable, you might have thought of a great solution on the spot. Either way, communicating openly about what is going to happen next will go a long way toward keeping the peace with that board member or donor. However, be careful to be realistic and not over-promise on solutions, so that you don’t set yourself up for stakeholder disappointment and continued conflict down the road.
Difficult conversations may be a part of life, but they don’t have to be painful. Be communicative, and be open, and most of the time you will get those things in return.