Reflections, stories & ideas on non-profit leadership.

Difficult board conversations

Is there an issue with a board member, or even your executive director, that you have avoided addressing? Perhaps you have a board chair that is failing to exercise any control over meetings, or a board member that dominates every discussion. On one hand you are afraid to broach the issue because the relationship is important. On the other, if you do not try to resolve things, the relationship may be in peril. In the context of non-profit governance, the existence of unresolved conflict can often lead to board member resignations by those close to the conflict and even those on the sidelines.

This long post is not really in the category of “how to deal with a problem director”. Its starting point is the idea that when conflict is present it needs to be understood before it can be successfully addressed. It offers some ideas on how to prepare for and initiate a “difficult conversation”.
This is a conversation that builds understanding and sets a course towards resolution. If the conversation has been ongoing but is not getting anywhere, there is a also a way one can turn it around. It offers help both in preparing and scripting the invitation to talk about an issue.

Because non-profit boards often operate like a group of individual advisors one might think that they would not be the most fertile ground for conflict. But directors can be greatly invested in the organization as volunteers. Dissension can occur, and not just over ideas.

The advice offered here about how to deal with conflict is not original.  It comes from the arena of thinking and practice on dispute resolution, not governance. Regardless of the context, most of us are reticent to broach issues where relationships are at stake for fear that the conversation will go badly. Courage is needed, even with added help.

Some sources

Many years ago I had the chance to be trained as a volunteer mediator as part of a project on resolving neighbourhood disputes, ones where you do not want any real police involvement, let alone lawyers and judges. This sparked an long and sustained interest in the practice of negotiation and mediation. I eventually got involved in offering courses to people who wanted to be more skillful in managing conflict in workplace situations. The insights around how to have better difficult conversations have their roots in this territory.

I have written before on the topic of board conflict.1)See Managing Conflict: A Guide for Volunteer Boards, and Conflict and Dispute Resolution -Sample Policy, under Resources This post takes a different tack. It is about how we tend to think, and what we typically do, where conflict exists, that is  not very helpful. My principal insight on the subject comes from the work of Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen of the Harvard Negotiation Project. In 1999 they published a book entitled Difficult Conversations. 2)Stone, Patton and Heen, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, Penguin, Second Edition, 2010 It was a business best seller at the time. My copy is dog-eared because I have turned to it often.

Other books on the topic include Kerry Patterson el al’s Crucial Conversations and Susan Scott’s Fierce Conversations.3)Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler, Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes Are High, McGraw Hill, 2002; Susan Scott, Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success in Work and Life One Conversation at a Time, Berkley Books, 2002 These works all have longer more evocative subtitles, but they offer fairly similar advice. What they tell us is this: the secret to successful difficult conversations is to first work on ourselves, then on preparing what we are going to say in the first few minutes of the conversation.

Tricky situations

So a difficult conversation has a particular meaning here. It is about confronting interpersonal situations, often triggered by an event or recent actions, where we perceive a conflict.  The differences we experience are between someone else’s behaviour and our own. Luckily these situations are in the minority of all the important conversations we have in life, and a tiny fraction of those that are needed in the context of non-profit governance.

Not all uncomfortable board situations are equally complex. Much as been written on conflict resulting from directors not really understanding their roles and what can be done about it. There are other situations that require admitting an error or an inappropriate comment, accompanied by an genuine apology. Asking a board member to resign for missing too many meetings or addressing a breach of board confidentially, involves the application of the agreed upon rules or a pointed reminder. And sometimes, the honest expression of frustration without pointing a finger or identifying a solution is enough to stimulate some group problem solving. These are not pleasant situations but they can be addressed without much distress.

Why so difficult?

So what is special about some situations where another person’s views and actions seem to differ so much from ones we hold or would take of we were in their shoes? Partly it is that the differences are a mystery. Behaviour and understanding are obviously entangled, but why? The events have evoked, in us at least, an emotional reaction not just an intellectual one. The presence of strong feelings is a big part of the difficulty.

One conversation; two people?

It would be terrific to be able to resolve our differences in just one conversation. In reality one is probably not enough. It can however, be enough to get understanding onto a good track. And, as you will see, the conversation is not even half of the work. The important piece is our preparation.

Nonprofit governance conflicts often involve a number of people. In my opinion, difficult conversations are best conducted in a meeting between two people, the person initiating the conversation and the person they seek to have it with. I would not exclude group situations such as differences between a board and its executive director but special care here is needed. Because success in untangling the conflict requires reflection and preparation, it may be better if a single director, and not necessarily the board chair, initiate the conversation and take the lead on following through.

 A Few Basic Principles

Undertaking a difficult conversation requires forethought, planning and mindful execution and, as already said, courage. Stone, Patton and Heen suggest that in meeting these challenges one must:

  • Be clear about the purpose of the conversation. Better understanding of each other can be a purpose, as well working together to solve a problem. Getting your point of view across or convincing someone of the correctness of your perspective should not be one’s first aim.
  • Appreciate that each person sees the world differently and understanding the differences is important even if the parties do not agree. We cannot really change minds, if that is the goal, without first understanding minds.
  • Recognize what is at stake, and not at stake, for ourselves, the other person and our organization. The issue may be important but the conversation or our ability to resolve things does not define any of us.
  • Not make assumptions about the other person’s intentions or assume they understand ours.  Communication is imperfect; we add our own interpretations to what we have heard, sometimes incorrectly inferring the intentions behind the words. Our words have an impact on the other person, and theirs have an impact on us. We should try to separate impact from intent. If we are not sure we can, then we may want to say, my intention is…”
  • Acknowledge how everyone has contributed to the problem. Talking about who is to blame is seldom helpful in moving forward. If we have not contributed to the problem, even in a smallest way, then we have given up helping on solving the problem. Is it really up to the other person to change or is there room for some collaboration? We can identify our contribution, even if it is small, by asking ourselves: “if we could rewrite the past what could we have done differently so that we would not be where we are today?” Often times our contribution is not having addressed the problem earlier or been more direct.
  • Recognize that strong feelings (theirs, ours or both) mean we care. Caring is good. It means hearts are involved, not just minds. However, if the presence of feelings is not acknowledged they will seep into the conversation frequently in a not very productive way.

You can do it

Luckily there is help in putting these principles into practice. Stone, Patton and Heen frame their steps around three ideas, the “what happened conversation, the identity conversation and the feelings conversation”. My recipe is not really any different. Here it is, followed by three non-profit board examples:

  1. Prepare a script for starting the conversation. Yes, write down the sentences. Rehearse them. Bring the notes with you and keep them handy. These words may be helpful in crafting an e-mail invitation to meet with the other person but do not attempt to reduce the difficultly for yourself by hoping for an electronically mediated resolution.
  2. Set aside some real time, perhaps make an appointment with the person you want to talk WITH, rather than TO. Do not try a “hit and run” approach (e.g. “can I see you after the board meeting for a minute”). Also, do not ambush the person, alert them in advance of the subject of the conversation.
  3. Do not begin the conversation by describing the problem from your perspective. Begin it instead by describing the situation you both are in.Try identifying it as if you were a uninvolved observer.
  4. Acknowledge the importance of understanding your different perspectives. (the first objective or purpose)
  5. Share your feelings and invite theirs. Pick an evocative feelings word for yourself (e.g. worried, disappointed, hopeful, passionate, upset, afraid) to convey the importance of the conversation to you. Avoid the term “concerned”; its not personal enough.
  6. Convey the purpose or goal of the conversation (the first objective, again)
  7. Invite the other person to be a partner in figuring out what to do
  8. Seek to uncover the options for action. There ought to be more than one. What will, as we get into the subject, the other person commit to do? What part will I play?

It is really important, as step 3 suggests, not be in hurry to offer our own analysis and solutions. We tend to do this in the hope that the other person will just agree and then we do not have to do any work to understand their perspective or see if they have any ideas.

Turning a conversation

If we find ourselves in a difficult conversation that is already underway, and it is not going well, often it can be turned around. This requires an clear invitation to change course, and then the addition of the third ingredient from above.

The way we have been dealing with this is not getting us very far. Feeling are running high. I propose we step back and start on a different foot…..

Prepare, prepare, prepare

Preparation is not just essential, it is key!  You will want to try writing out several versions of your opening comments. Refer to the steps above. Having someone help you with it could be useful.

Luckily, two of the three DC authors, Stone and Heen, provide help beyond their book. They created a consulting group, Triad, specializing in conflict communications. On their website you can find some instructions and preparation worksheets. I think these “help yourself” resources are terrific. The instructions draw on their model and, although the their worksheets might seem a bit challenging to complete, they encourage us to invest time uncovering our own assumptions about the situation.

There is another online resource I have long liked. It is Judy Ringer’s blog post: We Have to Talk: A Step-By-Step Checklist for Difficult Conversations. Judy is a American confllct trainer based in New Hampshire. You might want to compare her checklist with my “recipe”.

Crafting the invitation 

Now I will turn my attention to three non-profit board examples. The focus is on the opening sentences, the invitation, my step 3. One wants to convey the seriousness of the situation but not put the other person on the defensive. The examples may seem a bit generic in detail but that is the way they need to be. We are setting the tone and direction, not going deep quickly.

1. Conversation with the chair of the board about his/her role, especially in board meetings, undertaken either by another board member or the executive director. ( I have tried in this example to highlight the key pieces; you can do the same in your preparation)

I would like to talk to you about the role of the chair of the board. I know we both want the board to be a strong group (describe the situation). We may however see the role of the chair differently. I want to understand your take on it, and what you believe is important.  I also want you to understand what I think is important (acknowledge different perspectives). I fear that the board is not very engaged (observation without blame). I am very worried (your emotion) about keeping existing board members, ensuring that they feel valued not just for showing up, and getting the whole board thinking about some of the bigger issues facing our association. I am unsure what you are feeling and wonder if you worried too (invite expression of their feeling)? I believe there are things we can do to improve how the board is working both in planning our meetings and how board members participate (problem solving stance).

2.  Executive director conversation with the whole board.

I want to talk about our board meetings and the fact that I seem to do most of the talking and you do most of the listening. I know some of you seem comfortable with this approach but others may wonder why you are here meeting after meeting. I have probably been guilty of only raising matters that are more operational in character or where I believe I know best what to do. I am very keen to see if we can tackle some bigger issues, or at least better understand the context and changes that face us in our field of work. I am wondering if we can break out of our normal pattern and try some new approaches to our meetings, at least some of the time. I have some ideas. I would really like to hear what each of you think about this. I am sure you too have some ideas. (Wait at least 30 seconds to see see if anyone responds)

3. Conversation with a director who dominates board meeting conversations. This one could be initiated by the chair, the executive director or another board member.

I want to talk to you about your role as a board member. At the last board meeting and some before that you have been quite vocal. I want to better understand what you think about how the board is working and kind of issues we deal with? I sense you have a lot to say because you are worried about the organization. I hope I am right. I am worried too, but about the ability of other board members to be heard and feel their contribution is valued.  I wonder, if you think, as I do, that having a strong board is important? If so, how do you think we could move in that direction? Perhaps we can put our heads together to come up with some ideas.

Over to you

My examples are certainly not perfect but hopefully they convey the idea of how to initiate a difficult conversation more successfully.  Remember, the preparation is not just about crafting the invitation to talk, it is about tuning into ourselves and becoming more curious about the need to understanding the other person before solving the problem.

I welcome comments and other board conflict examples. Indeed if you have an example that you are willing to share I will endeavour to respond with a suggestion of what I think the “invitation” to have the conversation might look like.







References   [ + ]

1. See Managing Conflict: A Guide for Volunteer Boards, and Conflict and Dispute Resolution -Sample Policy, under Resources
2. Stone, Patton and Heen, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, Penguin, Second Edition, 2010
3. Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler, Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes Are High, McGraw Hill, 2002; Susan Scott, Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success in Work and Life One Conversation at a Time, Berkley Books, 2002
Grant MacDonald

Written by Grant MacDonald

Grant MacDonald is a former Associate Professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. For more than two decades, Grant has provided workshops, courses and print resources to a variety of small and medium sized non-profit organizations. Helping volunteer boards and executive directors to govern with purpose, passion, intellect and humour continues to engage and challenge him.

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  1. Steve Law

    Some great thoughts and advice here. I would add that conflicts are often present when people feel they are not being “heard” or understood. And the best practice around this is often creating space so that people have an opportunity to feel “heard”. And if we are in the conflict – we also need to feel “heard”. It can be a tricky balance, but a very important one! Thanks for this Grant.

    Stephen Law
    Conflict Mediator
    Emerge International


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