Stakeholder engagement: understanding and managing conflict

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Purpose: To provide insights into the kinds of conflicts that can occur in stakeholder engagement and their causes, as well as how to analyse and manage conflicts.

Description: Conflict is common in stakeholder engagement and can occur among individuals, groups or organisations. Managing conflict requires particular skills. A well-managed conflict can be functional, leading to “new ways of thinking, innovative solutions and enhanced impact of research” (Durham et al., 2014, p. 80). Poorly managed conflict can become dysfunctional causing dialogue and relationships to break down.

Characterising conflict

Durham et al. (2014) present two typologies for characterizing conflict and one for the causes of conflicts.

Typology 1 for characterising conflicts (p. 81):

  • “Open conflicts, where it is everyone’s knowledge.
  • Hidden conflicts, where it is only known by certain people.
  • Latent conflicts, when the conflict arises when something occurs that changes the status quo.”

Typology 2 for characterizing conflicts (p. 81):

  • “Well defined, if they have clearly defined boundaries and constraints with clear solutions to the problem.
  • Fuzzy or ill defined, if they have unclear objectives, variables are unquantifiable, values held by the parties involved are not clearly defined, and it is difficult to envisage a feasible solution.”

Typology of causes of conflicts (p. 81):

  • “Cognitive conflicts result from differing assessments of data or facts that result in involved parties reaching different conclusions. Insufficient data and facts may have been made available, and such conflicts can often be resolved through additional clarification of facts, or further studies to obtain more reliable data.
  • Conflicts of objectives or interests often apply to benefits sharing, resource allocation or redistribution, and financing costs. These conflicts are often solved through conflict management techniques.
  • Normative conflicts result from a divergence of views about values, types of behaviour and norms. Root causes of these conflicts are usually ethical or moral principles that are not negotiable.
  • Conflicts of relationships stem from the personality or behaviour of stakeholder representatives and can often be resolved through negotiation or mediation via a third party.
  • Conflicts over objectives, needs or interest arise when one party believes that their interests, needs or objectives are at odds with those held by other parties.
  • Conflicts over processes occur when parties adopt different approaches to address the same problem.
  • Structural conflicts often arise due to the way in which society is structured in terms of cultural, social, legal and economic arrangements, and the relative position and power of stakeholders within the social structure.”

Conflicts are dynamic and it can be useful to see them as having five stages: “initiation, escalation, controlled maintenance, abatement, and finally resolution or termination” (p. 81).

Conflict analysis

There are several ways of analysing conflicts and “generally speaking conflict analysis should:

  • Collect and understand a broad range of views regarding the sources of conflict.
  • Separate opinion from fact, as balancing emotions and reason is a vital element of resolving conflicts. It is not because facts are more important than perceptions or emotions, but because stakeholders deal with each in a different way.
  • Examine the wider context (e.g. social, economic, and political).
  • Be reviewed and refined throughout the entire process.
  • Be undertaken in a participatory manner, as exchanges of information will enable stakeholders to focus upon the problems that are causing the conflict.” (p. 84).

Conflict management

There are several conflict management tools. One presented by Durham et al. (2014 in Annex 2) and briefly described here is Analysing stakeholder rights, responsibilities, returns and relationships (the 4R’s). This has four steps (Annex 2, p. 8 and 11):

“1. Explaining purpose and defining the 4R’s

  • Explain the purpose of the activity to the stakeholders.
  • Define the meaning of the 4 R’s: Rights are defined as access or control; Responsibilities are roles and power relations; Returns are the benefits and costs realised by stakeholders based upon their rights and responsibilities; Relationships are how the stakeholders interact or relate to one another.
  • Invite stakeholders to list all stakeholders that are identified as being involved in the conflict.
  • Based on this information construct a 4 R’s analysis table …
  • Request the stakeholders to complete the table for each of the stakeholders involved in the conflict.

2. Stakeholders construct conflict matrices

  • Ask stakeholders to review and clarify the terminology of the 4 R’s.
  • Invite stakeholders to describe existing rights, responsibilities and returns for each group of stakeholders and score each one on a scale of 0 to 5 (0=None and 5=High). It is important to clarify that scoring for responsibilities must reflect the reality of policy and legal requirements, not the responsibilities that are actually displayed (i.e. some stakeholders may voluntarily adopt certain responsibilities that have no policy or legal foundation).
  • The task is complete once information has been completed in all of the columns in the analysis table and all stakeholders have been ranked according to respective weighting of rights, responsibilities and returns.”

“3. Initiate Discussion

  • Within the group discuss what was learnt from conducting this exercise.
  • Assess how stakeholders differ in their rights, responsibilities and returns, and how these differences may impact each stakeholder’s power or influence in the conflict.
  • Consider whether there is any scope for any changes to be made that could reduce the level of conflict.

4. Analyse relationships between stakeholders

  • The second phase of the discussion should focus on analysing the relationships amongst stakeholders.
  • Invite participants to discuss relationships in order to ascertain whether they are negative and conflicting or positive and cooperative.
  • Consider whether these relationships are intermittent or long-term and well established.
  • In order to assist the discussion it may be useful to create a diagram that helps visualise relationships... .
  • Encourage participants to discuss what this activity has highlighted, in particular how rights, responsibilities and returns affect relationships.
  • Within the group analyse the complexities of relationships and ascertain whether there are any shared histories.
  • Ask participants to identify potential alliances that may help strengthen their position.
  • If required, attempt to identify a potential trusted intermediary that could be used to assist in conflict management.”


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Posted: September 2020
Last modified: September 2020