Conflict Resolution in The Modern Volunteer Fire Service
First and foremost, it’s not easy. Addressing conflict within organizations is challenging for two main reasons: the people and the People.
1. The people (little p): The members of the community and your other stakeholders, donors, or supporters are the little p (but don’t tell them that or else you will have no choice but to resolve conflict). These people have conflicts that you will need to resolve too. Think about complaints from fire or EMS calls, negative social media/reputation feedback, or the loss of financial support from donors. Cultivating the people to be a quasi-part of your organization is huge in conflict resolution. Most people realize, when pulling from their own experiences, that things don’t always go as planned. So, when you, your members, or your organization does something the people don’t like, be humble about it. Arguing with the people always ends poorly. Find the balance to apologize and accept the blame for that which you deem appropriate, but also stand up for the volunteers dedicating their time and risking their lives. Assert that they are human and are doing the best they can with what (training and time) they have to dedicate. Commit to the people that you will work to train, improve, and provide the necessary feedback to your members. Guess what—99% of the time that is what the people are looking for when they have conflict; to be heard, taken seriously, and improve the organization. Case closed.
2. The People: The members of your organization are diverse; they come from different backgrounds, values, socio-economic status, intellectual ability, education level, life experience, family compositions, and on the list goes. Even so, they are all united. They are united in their efforts to support the organization and the community they serve. The People, yes capital P, are the lifeblood of the organization and deserve your (officers) investment. Here’s the kicker: dealing with People isn’t easy. Think about how a server or anyone in the service industry gets treated when someone has a bad experience. It’s unfair.
In this instance, you are the server. You are there to serve your organization and the People, as their leader… whether they voted you in or you were appointed. It’s here that we point out the obligatory “be an active listener”, “be caring”, and “be respectful”. If you have trouble with those things, you are not the one to solve the conflicts. However, once you address and practice those skills, the People will give you a new level of respect.
Summary: hone your people skills and your customer service skills. These go hand-in-hand with being effective in solving the problems of the People.
Try these tactics:
a. Listen attentively to each side of the conflict with impartiality.
b. Take some notes.
c. Interview each conflicted Person separately but with a witness present (another officer).
d. Before the interview is over, recap the main issues so that you can prove your understanding.
e. Identify a course of resolution. Jumping to the traditional suspensions, write-ups, and punitive actions may not be the best answer. Want to know our favorite? Bring the conflicted people into an office, close the door, recap your notes from the interviews, and invite them to solve their conflicts like adults for the betterment of the organization. Highlight how we are all here for the same purpose-- to serve.
f. Consider that in the era of having to “be fair”, being fair doesn’t necessarily mean being equal. You know that one member that responds to being “yelled at”? Use it. You know that one member that responds best to being talked to and reasoned with? Use it. It’s up to you to know your members. How about the member that would learn best if they were given a “detail” to complete such as washing and waxing the engine? Use it.