Conflict and misunderstanding are just part of life, and it’s no different in peer support. However, rather than seeing them as a negative thing or something to be avoided, we should see them as opportunities for growth.
Conflict resolution is a delicate process, one that requires skill, compassion, and patience.
So, with that in mind, we are going to take a deep dive into conflict resolution in peer support. We will look at some of the more common reasons it happens and provide some actionable steps for turning conflict into moments of growth.
Conflict Resolution In Peer Support
It’s an inevitable aspect of human interaction that, when people come together, differences in opinions, values, and perspectives will arise.
These differences, if not addressed appropriately, can disrupt the balance and productivity of the group.
This is where the significance of conflict resolution comes into play. Effective conflict resolution ensures that disagreements are addressed in a constructive manner, allowing for growth and understanding.
Moreover, it can actually strengthen bonds among group members.
However, when it comes to peer support, it’s not just about resolving conflicts. Rather, it’s about doing so based on proven, evidence-based strategies. These strategies are grounded in research and have been shown to be effective in real-world settings.
Remember, the goal is to ensure that resolutions are not only amicable but also sustainable.
The Nature of Conflicts in Peer Support Groups
Peer support groups, by definition are places of support and encouragement but that doesn’t make them immune to conflicts.
The very nature of these groups—bringing together diverse individuals with varied experiences and backgrounds—can sometimes be a breeding ground for disagreements.
So, before we get into strategy, it’s important to understand the types and root causes of these conflicts. In doing so, you will have a better idea of what strategies to use and how to be effective when applying them.
Types of Conflicts Commonly Seen
While obviously conflict can stem from anywhere, these are some of the more common ones seen in peer support groups.
At the heart of many disagreements are interpersonal conflicts. These arise from personal differences, such as clashing personalities, values, or beliefs.
For instance, two group members might have opposite views on a particular topic, which can lead to heated debates and potential rifts.
In my own experience, this is probably the most common type of conflict that you will run into.
At the same time, it also presents one of the biggest opportunities for growth.
If handled effectively, it serves as a testing ground for individuals to develop their interpersonal skills. These skills can be translated into other areas of their life, helping them build healthy and constructive relationships outside of the group.
Peer support groups often encounter situations where members face moral or ethical questions. These ethical dilemmas can stem from differing opinions on what’s right or wrong, leading to debates that, if not handled carefully, can fracture the group’s unity.
Empathy and compassion are crucial in these situations. Mainly, because right and wrong is rarely black and white. Moreover, if it seems that the peer specialist is taking sides in the matter, it can make individuals feel alienated from the group.
Especially in groups where resources—be it time, attention, or tangible assets—are limited, conflicts can arise. Deciding who gets what, when, and how can lead to disagreements, particularly if members feel their needs aren’t being met or prioritized.
Unfortunately, due to lack of funding and the high demand for mental health services, sometimes resources may be in short supply. Having patience for the frustrations of group members is important.
At the same time, professional boundaries need to be maintained to keep things focused and productive. In other words, while it’s important have patience and be understanding of their concerns,
Factors Contributing to Conflicts
While many of these situations might stem from a particular issue, there can be several contributing factors at play. Understanding what those might be can give you a better foundation to work from when applying conflict resolution strategies in peer support.
Emotions play a key role in how we react to situations, that much is obvious.
Emotional triggers, such as past traumas or deeply held beliefs, can cause strong reactions, sometimes leading to conflicts. For instance, a topic discussed in the group might remind a member of a painful past event, leading to heightened emotions and potential disagreements.
It’s really not surprising that a significant portion of conflicts can be traced back to miscommunication. I mean, how many times has this been the case in your own life?
Whether it’s a misunderstood statement, unclear guidelines, or assumptions made without clarification, communication breakdowns can quickly escalate into larger issues.
The way a group interacts, the roles individuals assume, and the power dynamics at play can all contribute to conflicts. Understanding group dynamics is extremely helpful, as it provides insights into why conflicts arise and how they can be prevented.
For example, if one member dominates discussions regularly, it might lead to resentment and conflicts among other members who feel their voices aren’t being heard. At the same time, the individual carrying the conversation may feel overburdened by this “duty”.
Recognizing these types of conflicts and their root causes is the first step towards effective resolution. By understanding the nature of these disagreements, groups can be better equipped to address them head-on.
More importantly, it helps ensure that the supportive environment remains intact and continues to thrive.
The Impact of Unresolved Conflicts
Conflict, while a natural part of human interaction, can have profound effects on the dynamics and overall health of a peer support group. When left unresolved, these disagreements can fester, leading to a range of negative outcomes.
One of the biggest consequences of unresolved conflict is a breakdown in group unity. Disagreements that aren't addressed can lead to instances of members taking sides and forming cliques. In my own experience, once this happens, it can be hard to bring people back together. Overall, this division can undermine the spirit of peer support, which is built on mutual trust and collaboration.
Persistent conflicts can take a toll on the group's overall morale. Members might start to dread attending sessions, fearing confrontations or negative interactions. This can lead to reduced participation or cause some members to leave the group altogether. As peer specialists, we should be on the look out for signs of unresolved conflict in the group.
The overall goal is to provide a safe space for sharing, learning, and growing. Unresolved conflicts in peer support groups hinder this objective. In other words, they make sessions less productive. Instead of focusing on support and personal growth, members might become preoccupied with disagreements. I am sure I don’t have to tell you, but it also just makes things kind of awkward.
Conflict Resolution Strategies For Peer Support
When it comes to peer support, it’s not just about resolving conflicts. Rather, it’s about doing so in a manner that’s grounded in evidence and proven methodologies. With that in mind, let’s looks at some conflict resolution strategies that have been shown to be effective.
Emotional intelligence has gained popularity in recent years as a key to conflict resolution. It involves recognizing, understanding, and managing our own emotions. At the same time, it’s also recognizing, understanding, and influencing the emotions of others.
In a situation where a group member becomes highly emotional, peer specialists can use emotional intelligence to recognize the underlying feelings.
In turn, this makes it easier to empathize with the individual, and help de-escalate the situation.
In peer support, we can use this skill not only to help resolve conflicts but to minimize their occurrence. The ability to recognize emotions can give us clues as to when an individual may be uncomfortable and need a little space.
Active listening involves fully concentrating, understanding, responding, and remembering what the other person is saying. It’s not just about hearing the words but understanding the emotions and intentions behind them.
Since conflict resolution requires a full understanding of the situation, it’s really no surprise that active listening is a key step.
There have been numerous studies that demonstrate it’s effectiveness. One in particular emphasizes the importance of active listening in creating positive relationships and achieving conflict resolution.
In a peer support group, imagine that a member expresses frustration about not being heard.
Rather than immediately offering solutions or getting defensive, we can by practice active listening by reflecting back what they heard.
Moreover, by asking clarifying questions, open-ended questions, and validating the speaker’s emotions we are setting the stage for understanding and empathy. Which ultimately, is a big step towards conflict resolution.
Open communication involves expressing thoughts, ideas, and feelings transparently while also being receptive to the feedback and perspectives of others. As peer specialists, we should always strive to create an environment where open communication is welcomed and appreciated.
If these kind of norms are set early on in a peer support group, conflict resolution becomes that much easier. It provides the space for both parties to express themselves freely, without fear of judgment or retaliation.
More importantly, it ensures that both sides feel heard and understood.
Problem solving is a fundamental piece of conflict resolution. Moreover, it’s one of the fundamental skills needed as a peer support specialists. This approach involves identifying the root cause of the conflict, brainstorming potential solutions, evaluating these solutions, and then going with the best one.
Let’s say that members of a peer support group disagree on how to allocate resources. In this case, they can list out all potential solutions, weigh the pros and cons of each, and then decide on the most equitable distribution method.
While problem solving is a technique in and of itself, active listening and open communication are still part of the process.
Sometimes a conflict will require bringing in a neutral third party to help resolve the issue. This is referred to as mediation. In these cases, the mediator helps facilitate a discussion between individuals to bring them to a mutually acceptable resolution.
As a peer specialist, you may find yourself in the role of mediator quite often. Using the combined skills talked about in this article, you can effectively guide conflicting sides towards resolution.
However, it’s also important to be aware of your limitations. There may be situations were reaching out to a colleague or supervisor is the best option.
Conflict Resolution in Peer Support: Final Thoughts
As peer specialists, our ability to listen, understand, and resolve conflict is essential. While it may not be the most glamourous part of our responsibilities, conflict resolution is essential. This is because It’s more than just a way to solve problems.
One of the most powerful teaching tools we have is our own behavior. When we use our abilities to listen, understand, and stay calm during the process, we serve as an example of healthy interpersonal skills.
In other words, while we are helping resolve conflicts in our peer support groups, we are teaching those skills at the same time.
In the end, it’s not about avoiding conflicts but transforming them into opportunities for deeper understanding and growth.
Continuous learning is a big part of peer support. The following resources can provide further insight and guidance into the topic of conflict resolution.
- “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High” by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler – A guide to handling difficult conversations with poise and confidence.
- “Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In” by Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton – A classic on principled negotiation techniques.
- “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable” by Patrick Lencioni – Explores team dynamics and offers solutions to common team challenges.
- “The Role of Active Listening in Conflict Resolution” – An in-depth look at how active listening can transform conflicts into opportunities for understanding.
- “Emotional Intelligence and Its Impact on Conflict Management” – Discusses the pivotal role emotional intelligence plays in navigating disagreements.
- “Conflict Resolution Skills” offered by Coursera – A comprehensive course that covers the fundamentals of conflict resolution, from understanding the underlying causes of conflicts to mastering resolution techniques.
What are the most common causes of conflicts within peer support groups?
Conflicts within peer support groups often arise due to differing opinions, values, and expectations. Misunderstandings and miscommunications can also lead to disputes. Additionally, the presence of strong emotions and stress can escalate disagreements, making resolution challenging.
How can peer support specialists be trained effectively in conflict resolution?
Peer support specialists can be trained effectively in conflict resolution through structured training programs that focus on developing essential skills such as active listening, empathy, and effective communication. Workshops and role-play scenarios can help in practicing and reinforcing these skills.
What role do active listening and effective communication play in resolving conflicts in peer support settings?
Active listening involves giving full attention, reflecting, paraphrasing, and clarifying, which helps in validating each party’s feelings and perspectives. Effective communication ensures that messages are conveyed clearly and concisely, reducing misunderstandings.
Can conflicts within peer support settings be beneficial, and if so, how?
Yes, conflicts can be beneficial if handled correctly. The can be turned into moments of growth for all parties involved. Moreover, they become testing grounds for healthy and constructive interpersonal skills.
Elijah Meason is a Certified Peer Support Worker in the State of New Mexico. He is a SMART Recovery facilitator and is working toward getting his Masters degree in social work. He is currently working at a dual diagnosis treatment center helping individuals overcome mental health and addiction challenges.