Ways to prevent controversy from escalating, and how to bring the PTO back together if it already has.

by Darylen Cote


It was supposed to be a simple agenda item. What could be more straightforward or less controversial than limiting vending machine snacks to healthier choices? Whoa! What a miscalculation. People seemed genuinely attached to the snacks available for their children. Voices rose, tempers flared, arguments ensued.

How can you prevent a destructive public argument like this one, or at least redirect it into a more productive encounter? Although there may be no pat or easy answers that will always bundle into a tidy solution, leaders can employ some skills and strategies to improve the outcomes when group members disagree.

Prevention begins with recognizing that conflicts are inevitable whenever more than one person is involved. The ways that conflicts evolve range from simple and straightforward disagreements to emotionally charged, very personal encounters like the vending machine debacle.

At best, conflict can result in a more cohesive, on-target group. At worst, the group can pull apart and the relationships that form the PTO community become permanently impaired. Planning ahead for differing points of view can set the stage for better outcomes and avoid the disasters.

Ground rules, or group agreements for how members will conduct themselves at meetings, can help head off the worst results of conflict. It is a good idea to create or revisit these group agreements very close to the beginning of your leadership term. Doing so can provide a valuable tool when members disagree.

Ground rules can include any items that help the group function, such as beginning and ending on time. Present the idea of ground rules to your group by explaining that inevitably people in groups disagree, and you are sure to have some issues to discuss during the year that will become hot topics. You want people to feel free to express themselves and to do so in ways that allow maximum participation where everyone feels safe and heard. From there, you can conduct a brief brainstorming session, asking your group to contribute ideas to help the group function in a productive, respectful way that includes everyone. Get them started with a few ideas, or let them generate the whole list, to which you can also add any rules you feel are critical. Here are a few that many groups have found useful:

  • Participation is encouraged—everyone's input is valuable.
  • Everyone has a right to be heard.
  • Only one person speaks at a time. (Some groups use an object such as a Koosh ball as a talking stick to signify who has the floor.)
  • Speak only for yourself. Use "I" statements instead of making broad generalizations.
  • No put-downs of people or their ideas. ("That's stupid" or "You don't know what you're talking about.")
  • It's OK to disagree.
  • Disagree respectfully.
  • If a discussion becomes overheated, the leader may call a time-out, or the item under discussion may be tabled until another meeting.
  • Decisions will be made by vote; majority rules. (This may in fact be in the bylaws, so consult with them to be sure you know whether there are methods already in place that must be used for decisions.)

Your group may think of other guidelines, and the list should be left open so that if a situation calls for it, rules may be added. After asking for additions or refinements of language, you may ask for general consensus or a vote to accept the list. Post the list or even review it briefly at the beginning of each meeting. This gives newcomers a ready reference for group norms, and veteran members get a reminder that we all need sometimes. Some groups have even printed the ground rules as a handout, with a few choosing to have each member sign it like a contract. Either way, managing a meeting becomes simpler when group members have agreed ahead of time how they would like to handle these issues.

Keeping the Peace

If you get blindsided by an issue such as the vending machines and have no rules in place or the discussion gets so heated that the rules are not working, it is up to you to control any damage and to resolve the issue peacefully. You become a kind of moderator or mediator. You may need to assume this role even with ground rules in place!

Understand at this point that people who disagree come to their viewpoints in a variety of ways. They tend to operate out of those perspectives without really stopping to see how another view might be equally legitimate. In fact, neither side may be taking into account the whole picture. One side is sure they have The Facts, but the other side is sure they have The Truth in their camp. How can we get them to stop long enough to understand each other and maybe expand those perspectives?

Roger Fisher and William Ury, in their classic book Getting to Yes, recommend that leaders "separate the people from the problem" and focus on "interests, not positions." To accomplish this, you may need to call a time-out in the discussion that has become a dispute, to clarify the issue.

First, you might restate the positions you hear being expressed by paraphrasing the content. For example, you might say to the person who wants healthier snacks in the machine, "Your position is that children eat what is available. You are concerned with the rising rates of obesity and specifically with what your child eats. Is that right?"

To the person who wants vending machine snack choices left alone, the issues may be very different. In northern Maine or Idaho, the very idea of eliminating an item like potato chips from vending machines might be considered an economic assault. To the person who perceives the issue this way you might say, "So you feel that if we eliminate the chips, we send a message to the children that those choices are 'wrong,' and the inevitable consequence is that the local potato processing plant that manufactures chips will go out of business. Many people have family members employed there. Have I heard you correctly?"

Allow each person to fully explain her position as you patiently check your understanding. The point is to ensure that all parties feel heard, understood, and respected. Until they do, it is unlikely that progress can occur.

Looking for a Win-Win

The next step is to look for common ground. New Hampshire-based education consultant Jacquelyn Sowers in her presentations recommends that participants generate a list of their "fondest hopes and greatest fears" around an issue.

Asking people to work in smaller groups and report out either hopes or fears ensures greater participation, and additional viewpoints may emerge that can be useful. If points of agreement can be found, you have a basis for beginning a new discussion. Often these lists will echo some part of the mission statement for your PTO.

Brainstorming solutions or alternatives is the next step in the process. Here you are looking for what Stephen Covey calls the "win-win" idea in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. You will need to maintain a positive, problem-solving attitude at this stage, rejecting no ideas no matter how fantastic.

Finally, each idea can be analyzed using an objective standard, such as your mission statement or the most recent dietary guidelines or the list of healthy snacks in the school's health textbook.

Hopefully everyone will recognize that their concerns and issues are important to the group. While the solution chosen may not satisfy every concern, the process is fair and respectful, avoiding damaged relationships.

Conflict presents PTO groups with the opportunity to grow and coalesce around common goals instead of fracturing. Everyone cannot agree all the time, yet everyone can be heard despite disagreement. You as the leader can make that happen.

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