Maintaining Objectivity in Conflict

As we begin to wrap up this series on dysfunction and intractable conflict, it would be irresponsible for me to suggest that every conflict is going to be resolved adequately, even in our own lifetime.  In some conflicts, the parties have been going at each other’s throats since before you or I were born, and simply suggesting we all come to the table and talk will not erase those divides.  It would be nice, but it is unreasonable.

In our context, if we just look at the complexities between EMS culture and fire service culture in some jurisdictions, short of getting rid of everyone and starting over, I don’t know that those issues can ever be resolved.  I mentioned earlier, and some of you already know, the organization I work for used to actually be two separate fire departments and an EMS provider.  While our organizations were smaller and had some existing interdepartmental relationships already established, I would be lying to suggest that there was always smooth sailing.  Each of those entities had their own unique culture, their own shared values, and their own history.  We can’t ignore those issues, no matter how insignificant or petty we might believe the issues to be.  The more proud and established the agency, also, establishes a more difficult transition to a new tomorrow.

As time wore on and certain individuals stepped away from the fray, whether through attrition or just growing tired of constant battle, those who sought forward progress were able to gain a foothold and push up the mountain.   Changes happened, some of them painful, others long necessary and welcome, but in any case, it was change.  The adversity we all felt as a team served to bond us together.  But the fight isn’t over as now we take our combined organization past its first decade together and facing a change in chief of department in the next year.  Conflict will be present, regardless.  Success will be measured not in how we deflect it and hold it at bay, but in how we engage it and mold it to benefit the needs of our community.

Thus, the principles of fairness and that collaborative spirit is still not enough to assure success in winding our way through conflict.  Sometimes we are too close to the problems and while we have some very objective and open-minded leaders in our own department, at some point we will recognize the need for third-party assistance to help us on our way.

The challenges that face us, as always, involve communication and the consideration of our different values and culture.  We must continue to understand what we share and produce a mutually acceptable means of achieving our needs.  A good leader will be able to encourage their people to have respectful but spirited debate and be able to act as a mediator, if just to get to the heart of the issues.  But they must also be cognizant of their own personal biases and preferences, and if they are telegraphing those enough, perhaps securing a more objective individual or group to help mediate discussion.

Tomorrow we will discuss dealing with some of the technical problems of problem solving as they relate to negotiating through conflict.

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