My Partner Said What?!! Recognizing Conflict and Responding Effectively (Part 1 of 2)

Peter Williams, Associate Director

Have you ever worked in good faith with a partner only to learn they said things that seem especially critical of your agency? You aren’t alone. And your reaction to this may range from basic frustration all the way to feelings of betrayal or believing that your partner is no longer an honest broker.

Pause here and take a moment. How you respond can make a huge difference in whether your partnership succeeds. Perhaps more importantly, anticipating this possibility before it ever happens can set your partnership up for greater success to begin with.

This dynamic can be complicated and is often pretty localized to particular people or organizations, as opposed to involving all your partners. Sometimes, the relationship between the agency or organization and one or more partners is “high-centered,” like being stuck awkwardly between the rut and the ridge of a dirt road.  In this case, you’re stuck on the competition-conflict of the past, unable to make progress towards a desired future of collaboration-partnership where the road is smoother.  If you’re high-centered, you can’t get any traction in your current relationship, you can’t move forward. The first step to changing this situation is to recognize it.

Someone recently asked me about working with partners who, simultaneously, are protesting some of what their agency or organization is doing. As I listened more to the context of the situation, I remembered an “ah-ha” moment in my own career. I was working for a large federal land management agency and a colleague said, “We’ve trained a huge number of people to work with us in a particular way and it’s going to take time to learn a new way of working together.” Have you heard this before? It’s a common theme.

Sometimes we work with folks or organizations who seem to depend upon a public face of opposition. Don’t let that get in your way. Instead, pursue multiple paths to build the relationship. Here are few good ones to try:

  • Let the organization take credit
  • Prepare your team for the rumor mill
  • Talk with your partners about how you’re going to talk about your work
  • Model the behavior you want to see from partners

Let’s dive into this list, which will help you move from competition and conflict to collaboration and partnership.

First, let the organization take credit for their role. This is important for any number of reasons from well-deserved pride to cementing commitment. For a long-term working relationship, you may want to share credit often and allow your partners to take credit as well. This doesn’t mean allowing the organization to marginalize or diminish credit deserved by your organization or agency. Instead, this is more about being accepting of how other organizations speak about their roles.

Second, try to get ahead of the rumor mill. What I mean by this is, talk with your agency leadership, as well as relevant local and regional staff members, about the need to share credit with your partners and that you can’t control what the partners are saying when they take that credit. Get your team comfortable with the idea that everyone will talk about their roles differently, depending upon circumstances or audiences. And remind them that what they hear was said may not be what was actually said, that there could be unsubstantiated rumors or misunderstandings, and that, if a rumor comes up, you’re ready to address it constructively and professionally. In this case, forewarned is forearmed. By setting expectations even about the possibility of rumors, you can reduce the likelihood of those rumors upsetting the work entirely. The goal here is to encourage your colleagues to remember that some of what they might hear could be a misunderstanding or a rumor and that you’re ready to deal with whatever comes up regardless.

At the same time, try to begin a conversation with your partners about how you all will talk individually about your efforts together. Diplomats have been having these kinds of conversations for ages, so we might as well borrow some of their tools. During several high-conflict situations in which I was involved, for example, the group worked on joint statements and shared talking points. This was part of the process of learning to work together and resulted in an interim product and arrangement regarding how they would talk about their efforts. 

Another path to consider is to model the type of communication you would like to see from the partners. Tell your partners how your team characterized their work at an internal meeting. Framing all the work in a more collaborative, partnership-oriented manner can help internally, as you help folks in your agency or organization get comfortable with these ideas. And it’s a two-way street because it can help build trust and rapport with your partners, encouraging them to be more comfortable with you.

So, those are four paths you can try, often combined, to re-balance your relationship and move toward successful collaboration. I have no doubt there are others worth considering. Regardless, at the end of the day, communication is key to keeping the wheels on the road, with everyone moving in the same direction.

And yet…even when pursuing all these options to keep the relationship on track, things can still go sideways or worse. Here are some tips for what to do next.

Peter Williams, PhD

Associate Director
Partnership and Community Collaboration Academy

Additional Resources:

My Partner Said What?!! Part 2

Best-Alternative-To-Negotiated-Agreement

Look in our bookshelf for more ideas under Community Collaboration and Conflict Management

A Brief Overview of Rulemaking and Judicial Review” (Congressional Research Service 2017)

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