Presence of Mind

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Good Groups Gone Bad: Destructive Intragroup Conflict

Preventing interpersonal conflicts from destroying your group

In my last blog post I wrote about the dynamics of destructive conflict common to all types of conflicts whether they’re between two people (interpersonal or dyadic conflict), involve three or more group members (intragroup conflict), or occur between groups (intergroup conflict). But these conflict types also have unique features of their own. In this blog, I talk about a particular type of destructive intragroup conflict, speaking from my experience as a group dynamics professor/author/consultant but also (sadly) from personal experience. What I say here applies to a variety of groups, including family and roommate groups, friendship groups, church groups, and workgroups.

Groups experiencing destructive intragroup conflict are derailed by internal conflict. Poorly managed conflicts between group members disrupt the group’s cohesion and erode members’ commitment to the group and to one another. A group that was once a source (or potential source) of meaning, belonging, productivity, or fun, becomes a burden; the group’s potential is hijacked by poorly managed conflict.

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Destructive intragroup conflicts often spring from interpersonal conflicts between members. What starts as a conflict between a few group members becomes a larger and more complex group conflict with most members enmeshed in one way or the other, and others distancing from the group. The conflicts spreads as people talk trash about their fellow disputant(s) and try to get group members to side with them. People prone to “victimhood” and aggressive people seeking revenge (by harming another’s reputation) are especially likely to do this but disputants also do this defensively to counter reputation-damaging versions being heard by fellow members from other disputant(s). Gossip fuels and prolongs the conflict by promoting exaggerated perceptions and the taking of sides.

Once group members take sides and bond against their new “enemies” group unity is fractured. Disputants may no longer trust or respect those who didn’t take their side. People are angry with disputants for selfishly letting their conflict hurt the group and wary of them. People avoid and fear those on the other side. Group gatherings and meetings become strained, and avoided. The cohesion of the group is compromised. Depending on the type of group, it may break up, or some members may leave or detach.

Here are a few ways you can avert destructive intragroup conflict arising from interpersonal conflicts:

1. If you’re mad at a fellow group member, resist the temptation to immediately drag other group members into it. It’s one thing to talk to other group members for problem-solving advice or support, and quite another to bias people against them or expect people to take your side. Try to resolve the conflict constructively with the person you have an issue with or let it go. Seek professional help from a therapist or trained mediator if needed.

2. When another group member talks to you about an issue they have with another group member, proceed carefully. Don’t fuel their anger by adding your own negative information. Before getting righteously indignant on their behalf, remember that conflicting members are prone to exaggeration and drama and to downplaying their contribution to the conflict. Their truth may not be the whole truth. Say gentle “soothy” things like “I can tell you’re really upset, I hope you two can work things out,” or try to gently reframe the situation to calm them down. Resist the temptation to bond with them by trashing the other person.


3. Avoid sharing gossip about other members’ conflicts with one another, and telling disputants what other disputants said about them to you in confidence. Although gossip can temporarily alleviate boredom and make you the center of attention, it comes with a price. Gossiping tends to fuel intragroup conflict by promoting exaggerated negative perceptions of disputants. Gossip often gets back to those being gossiped about, which further erodes trust and member relationships. If you do talk with others about the conflict, make it about how the group might help conflicting members work out their differences.

 4. Understand that assuming a mediator role is risky. Skilled mediators help disputants become aware of each other’s interests, feelings, and needs. They are good listeners, maintain an objective stance, and establish and maintain ground rules that protect people during the mediation. They help the parties come up with an agreement that honors or at least does not violate the essential interests of the parties. But unskilled mediators often make it easier for the conflicting individuals not to deal with one another and their conflict. Disputants may even use the unskilled mediator to carry their hostile messages to the other. They may also become angry at the mediator for not siding with them.

Intragroup conflicts also arise during group decision-making when group members disagree about what to do and how to do it, and have value, belief, or goal differences over which they struggle. This is sometimes called “group storming.” These conflicts are often relatively short-lived if the group has good leadership and norms supporting constructive controversy and cooperative problem solving. But this group storming can become destructive if members behave competitively and defensively, and disagreements leave members feeling abandoned, rejected, or hurt for their differences, or if competing factions within the group develop. This, however, is a topic for another day, and another blog.

Art by Kane Lynch kanelynch.com

References

Burn, S.M. (2004). Groups: Theory and Practice. Cengage.

Levine, J. M., & Moreland, R. L.  (Eds.) (2006). Small groups.  Philadelphia:  Psychology Press.

Volkema, R. J., & Bergmann, T. J. (1989). Interpersonal conflict at work: An analysis of behavioral responses. Human Relations 42: 757-770.

Wheelan, S. A. (1994). Group processes: A developmental perspective. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Shawn Meghan Burn, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo.

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