Conflict Management Skills When Dealing with an Angry Public

Search for a mutually beneficial agreement when dealing with conflict management

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conflict management

When negotiators get along well, creative problem solving is easy. When they become upset, however, they seem to forget everything they know about finding joint gain, to the point of giving up tangible wins simply to inflict losses on the other party. This is especially true in high-profile negotiations that turn nasty. This is where conflict management skills come in handy.

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How Conflict Management Works in the Public Sphere

Confronted with negative publicity, executives become so focused on controlling public relations and managing the crisis that they lose sight of the fact that they are even in a negotiation. Here is some advice for negotiators dealing with an angry audience.

Many public relations experts would argue that negotiations have no place in a crisis. Reveal as little as possible, they say, deny liability, and avoid all forums that could legitimize your adversaries views. This advice ignores the fact that what an angry public wants most is to be heard.

Experts in conflict management point out that if the only communication that does occur consists of both sides asserting their positions and demanding that the other side take certain actions, little progress will be made. Instead, try construing exchanges with angry parties as negotiations in which the primary goal is to search for tradeoffs that will lead to a mutually beneficial agreement. Even when an agreement seems impossible, parties often can work together to create value.

 Acknowledging the Other Side’s Interests at the Bargaining Table

Acknowledging the other side’s concerns can be difficult, especially when lawyers worried about liability are involved. But organizations that take the time to acknowledge the concerns of others will often be able to avoid making large concessions when negotiating.

For instance, a company that wants to build a controversial factory might meet with angry residents to acknowledge their concerns about possible adverse impacts. The company might also commit to ensuring that all relevant federal, state, and local regulations will be met if the factory is built.
Those who have been hurt by a corporation in the past (by an oil spill, for example) might begin their public campaign by demanding an apology.

In many parts of the world, indigenous people involved in current disputes about the use of their land have opened negotiations by demanding apologies for generations of hardship. Typically, corporate executives and government officials react by denying personal responsibility for past events. A better strategy might be to express empathy for the group’s past struggles via a public statement that stops short of an apology.

It is often possible to acknowledge the public’s concerns without accepting responsibility and generating exposure to liability.

What is your favorite conflict management method? Share your tips with our readers in the comments below.

The New Conflict Management

Claim your FREE copy: The New Conflict Management

In our FREE special report from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School - The New Conflict Management: Effective Conflict Resolution Strategies to Avoid Litigation – renowned negotiation experts uncover unconventional approaches to conflict management that can turn adversaries into partners.


Originally published in Negotiation, November 2009.

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No Responses to “Conflict Management Skills When Dealing with an Angry Public”

  • Pon U.

    Conflict management can only be successful if the issue is understood. More often than not people want moral recognition not legal position. My advise is be on the front foot and leave the lawyers out of it.

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  • Richard P.

    Having spent decades in the public relations and public affairs profession I am in complete agreement with the advise you provide on the conflict management skills needed when dealing with an angry public. I am also a believer in the act of the apology, which often times runs up against legal counsel, but more often decreases the anger on the part of the aggrieved. During my time as chief of public affairs at a large destination hospital, I dealt with community opposition to the construction of a multi-level cancer center on our campus that was adjacent to a residential community. It was a contentious public issue but eventually I was able to win over the opponents because of regular, honest and respectful communications and negotiations. For example, I hosted bi-weekly neighbor and abutter meetings where our contractors were present to highlight the construction plan and listen to issues and concerns of abutters. Based on neighborhood feedback I promised that any house or car that was covered by direct from ground excavation would be power washed at our expense and frequently as needed. I promised that our public safety officers would ad an extra layer of security to neighboring streets by patrolling them 24/7. I negotiated the start and end time of construction and agreed to spend considerably more on landscaping all around the new center that provided a beautiful backdrop to the backyards that were adjacent to the cancer center and the list goes on. Regular and honest communications to our local citizens and and real listening listening to their concerns and acting on them where appropriate made this project acceptable.

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