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close this bookCommunity Participation in Problem-Solving: Managing Conflict (UN Habitat - United Nations Centre for Human Settlements )
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentGuidelines for the trainer
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentA statement of principles
View the document1. The sources of conflict
View the documentII. Styles of conflict-management
View the documentIII. Choosing a style
View the documentIV. Practising assertiveness and co-operation
View the documentV. Exercises in handling conflict
View the documentBibliography

V. Exercises in handling conflict

Dealing with feelings

In most conflict-situations, the problem between two or more people will have both a rational and an emotional component - both a "thinking" and a "feeling" aspect. For instance, in the queuing illustration discussed in the previous chapter, Andreas would have thoughts about the unfairness of someone jumping a queue and feelings about being personally slighted. The resolution of such interpersonal situations is usually only achieved when both aspects of the problem have been dealt with. In fact, in disputes between people when the emotions are "flying", the feeling level often needs to be treated first.

Imagine someone charging into your office, very upset and angry because he believes you have mistreated him. Maybe, he is a subordinate member of your project staff, and you have turned down his request for a new piece of equipment - say, a camera for recording his project activities. Merely to restate your reasons for the refusal might be no help at all in reaching calm agreement between you. First, the emotions need to be recognized and dealt with.

Imagine the conversation going something like this:

"Paulo, I think I can understand why you are upset abut this matter. I know you have been trying to acquire a camera for the project for a long time. You think it would be a great help in many of your publicity and training activities. Isn't that so?

"Yes, that's right."

" I appreciate that you feel angry with me because I haven't agreed to the budget allocation. I do, however, accept that it would be extremely useful and that you would make good use of it. The paper you wrote made good sense, and, as I said when I read it through and discussed the idea with you some months ago, if the money were available, I should support your claim fully. Now, can we think together about the priorities we need to work out, given the limited amount of money at our disposal?"

"OK. It was lust that I didn't think you were taking the request seriously. Sorry that I have barged in here, but I was feeling very strongly about it."

"No, that's fine. But let me explain the problem...."

Notice what happens here. Instead of ignoring or being ignited by the anger of the other person, you recognize the feelings and actually diffuse them by accepting them. You express your understanding of why the other person feels the way he does and, when this feelinglevel rapport is established, you are able to engage in a discussion of the reasons or the "facts" of the case.

The dramatic triangle

There is a very helpful model for analysing such interpersonal conflict-situations. It involves the DRAMATIC TRIANGLE:

The idea is that, in conflict situations, we tend to take up the victim role whenever we feel "discounted" in any way - belittled, ignored or slighted. We see the other person as either persecuting us (being critical, dominating) or rescuing us (patronizing us, being oversolicitous of our welfare), as in the following example of dialogue:

Trainer: (observing a trainee make a mistake in some operation): "No, that's wrong! Give it to me. This is how you do it."

Trainee: "I'm sorry. I don't think I will ever get the hang of it."

The trainee perceives the trainer as first critical and then, in "doing for", taking away his own agency. The effect of both responses can be to put the trainee into the victim position. If someone resents being forced into the victim role, that person can easily react from the position of the persecutor - and, so, begins a row.

Let us imagine another scenario for the "camera" episode:

Paulo: (having felt victim but now going into the attack as persecutor) "Look, what do you mean by turning down my request for a camera yet again?"

Pedro: (resenting being made Paulo's victim and returning to the attack as persecutor) " What do you mean by barging into my office like this?"

The scene is set for a chain of interchanges where the two protagonists oscillate between the victim and persecutor roles. Then, all that has been said about rational problem-solving approaches in this and previous manuals goes out the window. The aggrieved feelings just block off the channels of calm thought.

In the first camera scenario, one of the parties chose not to get into the triangle - by emotional control and by paying attention to the feelings of the other. We see someone who is able to be assertive without offending or hurting the other, thus becoming neither persecutor, by reacting with anger and criticism, nor being tempted into the rescuer role, by unreasonably giving in to Paulo's demands.

Of course, it is best if neither party gets into the "dramatic triangle" kind of conflict in the first place. The key is how we react to what we feel as a discount - the sense that someone is trying to "put us down" in some way. If we neither give nor accept discounts, feelings do not arise that can so easily escalate into a row.

In the case of the camera, Paulo felt his idea had been unreasonably rejected. This might have been avoided if he had been closely involved in the first place in the dialogue that established the budget priorities. We are back to the point that group problem-solving might be a slow process but that it can prevent such grievances and misunderstandings - and increase commitment to the decisions that are made


To be active agents in the participatory process - to be "subjects" in a community rather than "objects" - we need to be able to assert ourselves in such a way that we give neither hurt nor offense to others. As community leaders, we need to develop sensitivities to the needs and concerns of others - and to encourage these sensitivities in those with whom we work. Only then shall we be able to co-operate with others from a position of strength.

One of these strengths will be an ability to practice collaborative methods of conflict management - and to choose another method when collaboration is neither desirable nor possible.

What follows are some role-plays and simulations that are designed to highlight the concepts and problems treated in this manual - and to provide groups of community workers and leaders with material for practicing the skills of conflict management.

These are only suggested scenarios. You might find it productive to create your own dramatic events and critical incidents, by drawing on your own work-experience.

TASK 7 Role-play: "Interrupted business"


To sensitize participants to what happens in interpersonal conflict-situations and to give them the opportunity of experimenting with conflict- resolving styles.


The problem involves a dispute that occurs between a Building Liaison Officer, Rajah, and a homeowner, Kumar. It Is the officer's task to ensure that no activities occur in a sites-and- services scheme which are in violation of the City Council's housing regulations. In fact, the house- owner is violating these regulations by conducting a small business on his non-commercial plot. He is selling self-made oil lamps and other products from recycled tins. The matter has been reported to the Building Liaison Officer. He goes to investigate and discovers Kumar selling his products.


1. Divide your group into two subgroups.

2. Each subgroup undertakes to explore the situation of one of the characters.

3. The task of each is to build a model - of any objects lying around - which represents the thoughts and feelings of its character. The model should express how the character feels about the problem he faces and the encounter that is to follow. What pressures? What hopes? What does he think of the other person? How will he tackle the conversation?

This task should take about 20 minutes. The model-building should take place in separate rooms, since the models are not shown to the other subgroup until after the role-play.

4. One person is selected from each subgroup to engage in a role-play of the conversation.

5. When the role-play is finished, the models are described and discussed, in relation to what they reveal about the motivations and Intentions of each party as he moved into the conflict encounter.


The building of the model should have helped to establish a dearer identity for each of the two characters, Rajah and Kumar, and also enabled the participants to "get under the skin" of one of them. How the role-play would proceed cannot be predicted - it would depend on the personality and skills of each party - but the follow-up discussion could profitably focus on such points as:

1. What styles of conflict management were used by each person? How successfully?
2. How effectively was the emotional component dealt with?
3. If a resolution came, how was it achieved?
4. If the conversation ended in stalemate or a heightened conflict, why was this?

TASK 8 Simulation: "Parties and pressure groups"


To raise awareness of the problems involved in intergroup conflict situations and to provide practice in the skills of leadership and negotiation.


Gem Settlement lies on the edge of the capital city of a "typical" developing country. Gem was formed when some 250 families "invaded" private land in 1981. It now contains over 850 families.

The country is a parliamentary democracy. The National Party currently forms the government, having won a substantial majority over their main rivals (the Democratic Party) in the elections, so forcing them from power. New elections are to be held next year, and the Democrats have already begun to mobilize support in the irregular settlements.

A year ago, a donor agency expressed an interest in part- financing a squatter-settlement upgrading programme. Gem was one of the settlements selected. Responsibility for the project has been given to the local government. It has drawn up a plan for land regularization and the introduction of water-supply and drainage systems - both points having been stipulated by the donor agency as a condition for involvement.

Adequate finance has been provided, but the water-supply supply and drainage installations require the active participation of the residents who are expected to provide labour. Therefore, a policy decision has already been taken to generate widespread community participation in the scheme. However, no decisions have been taken as to the exact nature of the participation and how it should be organized. It is realized, though, that such participation can only be determined according to local conditions.

A baseline survey undertaken in Gem has revealed the following important factors:

An agency calling itself "Legal Title to Plotholders" (LTTP), which was established under the Democratic Government and has been inactive for some time, is now energetically trying to encourage participation in a land-regularization programme in Gem. So far, it has enjoyed lisle success, largely because of the high cost of the programme to residents and the internal inefficiences of the organization.

Four years ago, another agency, called "Rehabilitation", attempted to remove 88 families from a low-lying area in Gem which was subject to frequent flooding. The plan was thwarted when strong opposition was mobilized by a local doctor. The agency's idea was dropped when the change of government occured.

There are now two factions in the settlement with the following characteristics:

John Apple's group

John Apple is an almost illiterate ex-union organizer with a reputation for land captures and forceful - sometimes violent - action. He has some 520 families in his group who give him support. However, this support is waning, because of his recent inactivity, his blatant corruption and because of the alternative offered by the doctor.

He is not reluctant to maintain his influence by force if necessary but he does attract a degree of respect and loyalty, because it was he who distributed the lots at the outset. In fact, he continues to sell lots illegally. For this reason, he is opposed to a wholesale legalization programme.

Although John Apple is not overtly political, he gave his nominal support to the Democrats with whom he still maintains cordial relations and he is an enemy of the doctor whom he condemns as a "Nationalist lackey". His current community action consists of two things the creation of a football field in the low-lying area where the families who support the doctor live and the introduction of water standpipes. His supporters are not formally organized, though he has a group of henchmen whom he uses to gain support for his ideas.

Doctor Mango's group

"Doe" is a professional. He lives in Gem, where he also has his medical practice. His support base is made up of the 100 or so families he defended from eviction earlier and it is steadily growing.

He is strongly political and an activist for the National Party. He has denounced John Apple for his "Mafioso tactics".

His priorities are water supply and a primary school. Doc created a formal committee with affiliation to the National Party. Residents in the area participate, but the doctor, although respected, suffers from the image that he is "not one of us", since he is certainly much better off than the majority of the people.


1. Form three groups to take part in a role-play:

- Representatives of the donor agency;
- John Apple's group;
- Doctor Mango's group.

2. The three groups operate from separate offices.

3. Negotiations are opened by the donor-agency representatives.

4. Each group adopts the behaviour implied by the background information already given. The groups will or will not negotiate with one another and will adopt tactics which are designed to reach their individual goals.

5. Appoint observers to pay attention to the styles of conflict management that are employed and to note particular successes and failures in the attempts to reach resolutions.


Such a simulation can produce many and complex opportunities for group interactions, but the following questions should be explored:

1. How successfully did the donor-agency representatives go about opening up dialogue with the existing pressure groups in the area?

2. Which of the conflict-management styles were identified? How appropriate were they to the occasion? How successfully were they employed?

3. What were the main barriers to communication and conflict resolution?

TASK 9 Simulation: "Priorities"


To sensitize participants to intergroup and interpersonal conflict-situations and to give participants an opportunity to experiment with conflict-management techniques.


Representatives of different interest groups living in the squatter settlement called Taipou are meeting to discuss the construction of a dispensary in their settlement. Before the meeting, there has already been some disagreement about the most suitable place to build it. In fact, no serious attention has been paid so far to the merits of the scheme.

Taipou is located In a moderately prosperous town along a main road with regular, though not heavy, traffic. The settlement is situated five kilometres from the centre of town, beyond an industrial area. On the other side of the settlement, across a river, there is only undeveloped land. Most people have small vegetable gardens on their plots.

Along the main road are a police station and the Party's branch office. There are also two churches of different denominations: both are active in undertaking socio-economic projects in the settlement. There is a six-classroom primary school in an old dilapidated building that barely meets the present needs: the school is run by an active, albeit poorly funded, ParentsTeachers' Association. The police station and the school are the only buildings connected to water.

When the market was built five years ago, the project was undertaken as the result of an agreement between various interest groups. Each group provided labour and materials. At that time, there were differences of opinion as to whether each group gave its fair share of effort, but, despite considerable delays, the project was finally completed. The general view is that the market has served the people well.

There are about 1000 people living in Taipou of various geographical origin. Most people of similar origin live in the same neighbourhood, although there is some degree of mixing. Four such neighbourhoods, identified as A, B. C and D on the map, have recently become Party Branches.

Before the meeting concerning the dispensary is convened, it is common knowledge that the Parents-Teachers' Association would give priority to having the old school upgraded, while three of the chairpersons of the four Branches would be interested in having the dispensary. In fact, they have already approached one of the church leaders for help in raising money for the project. They have also invited an official of the Ministry of Health to discuss the possibility of governmental support. The Parents- Teachers' Association has also tried to get governmental support, but the Ministry of Education has told them that no financial help could be made available in the for seeable future.

The roles

School principal

He is very concerned about the shape the primary school buildings are in. As the chairperson of the Parents-Teachers' Association he is fully aware that the parents want the building to be repaired and improved. Since the Ministry of Education has not been able to provide money, the Parents- Teachers' Association has been considering other ways to achieve its goals. The principal has asked the church leaders in Taipou to contribute towards the improvement of the school buildings.

Church leader

He is heading one of the two churches that have existed in Taipou for a number of years. The other leader is absent and cannot attend the meeting. However, the two leaders have consulted and both are not particularly committed to contributing for either the school or the dispensary. This is not because the leaders are not interested In the development of the community, but both churches are already heavily involved In their own community projects. Both are also surprised that the churches have been asked for assistance when the projects could get support from official sources.

Chairperson of Branch A

He is very interested in having a dispensary in Taipou and he would like to have it in his neighbourhood. When the market was built five years ago, he exerted considerable pressure to get It situated near his place, and the people in the neighbourhood have been very grateful for this initiative. He is expected to advocate the building of the nursery next to the market. in fact, this is a possibility, because there Is a piece of vacant land adjoining the market. This was originally meant for a market extension, but this was never built because of financial constraints. He has a great deal of respect for the Chairperson of Branch C who originated the idea of the dispensary but he normally pursues his own interests as much as possible.

Chairperson of Branch B

He sees in the meeting an opportunity to bring some improvements in his area. He is interested in having a dispensary rather than having the school repaired. First, the school is not in his area, so any improvements will not bring him any credit among the people in his branch. Secondly, he does not think the buildings are in such a bad shape: classes are being held normally, and the roof is not going to fall on the pupils' heads. Moreover, he has great respect for the chairperson of Branch C who is the originator of the dispensary project. He has already expressed the view that this project would be in the interests of all.

Chairperson of Branch C

It was his idea to build a dispensary in Taipou. He was inspired by a visit to another large squatter settlement where the people had succeeded in building a simple clinic with the participation of the whole community. The Ministry of Health had committed itself to providing a nurse and some basic equipment if the building project was completed. He believes that the same thing could be done in Taipou.

He has, however, made his concern known that the dispensary will be built on the site next to the market, simply because the ground is readily available. It would again favour that part of Taipou, while the lower part of the settlement has received no such development so far.

He is likely to support the construction of a dispensary only if a site near his Branch is chosen. He has already said that, since his people have to walk so far to the market, it would not be fair if they have to go so far to the dispensary as well.

He has a good contact in the Ministry of Health, whom he has invited to the meeting. He has also approached the church leaders in the community to ask for their support in raising money for the project. Their direct response to him has been non-committal.

Chairperson of Branch D

He has expressed some scepticism about the idea of a dispensary. The health centre in the town is already providing a reasonable service. Although it is five kilometres away, public transport is available. He has questioned how the dispensary would be staffed and financed. Yet he has been active in drawing attention to the plight of the school - its need for repairs and the provision of classrooms.

The Official from the Ministry of Health

He has been invited to attend the meeting by his friend, the Chairman of

Branch C. He is aware that a dispute has already arisen about the most appropriate site. However, the position of the Ministry is to be concerned about whether the community can reach its own decision on the matter, finance the project and carry it out. Only then will the Ministry consider support for the project, in the form of staffing and equipment.


1. All participants study the background information on Taipou and the established positions of the people who will be attending the meeting (10 minutes).

2. Participants are selected to take on the roles and they are given time to consider how they will approach and engage in the forthcoming meeting (15 minutes).

3. Observers are appointed and given time to reflect on the points they will look out for, when the meeting takes place (15 minutes).

4. The meeting begins with the election of a chairperson.

5. The declared objective of the meeting is "to discuss the construction of a dispensary, in Taipou" (a minimum of 30 minutes should be allowed for the conduct of the meeting).

6. When the meeting is successfully concluded - or time runs out - discuss the outcome and the processes that have been witnessed

Some Points for Discussion

1. In terms of effective problem-solving approaches, how realistic were the solutions reached?

For instance, if the meeting agreed to tackle both the dispensary, and the school projects, was sufficient attention paid to the demands these would entail - in terms of both time, and money?

2. What restraining forces were identified that impeded the smooth path to reaching agreement?

3. What conflict-management styles were identified?

How appropriate were they and how successfully were they employed?