Conflict between members

From My Wiki

Everybody in your co-op will have different needs, abilities and ideas and it is inevitable that at times conflict will arise. You will be investing a lot of emotional energy in the project. Resources and money may be tight. Living together throws up its own challenges. You will probably have different priorities about how money and time should be spent and different ideas of how much personal time and space you need.

Below is an introduction to thinking about, pre-empting and dealing with conflict. More detailed help can be found elsewhere. For example, Co-operatives UK have produced a set of five booklets which can be read online at

Understanding conflict and ways of dealing with it

When people use the word conflict they often mean arguments and aggression or at least bad feeling. However, it can also be seen in a more neutral way as a situation where different people’s needs and expectations, or ways of working and communicating, seem to be incompatible. Sometimes the incompatibility is easy to identify, for example people wanting to listen to different radio stations, at other times it is harder to pin down, like having different approaches to risk taking or different ideas about what kind of behaviour is acceptable. A co-operative approach that values both maintaining strong relationships and finding good solutions to get around the apparent incompatibility works best in most situations. Sometimes people think we can avoid conflict by keeping quiet about things that are bothering us, hoping it will blow over or fearing our concerns will be considered petty. In this situation, the conflict is still there and avoiding the issue is one out of a range of strategies which we can use to deal with it. The small conflicts we brush aside often repeat, as the patterns of behaviour or underlying reasons for the conflict go unaddressed.  By the time a group recognises and addresses a conflict, the problems are often larger and more complicated.  At this point even talking to one another is difficult and the resulting animosity can obscure why the conflicts initially arose. We want to change our culture so coops and individuals feel confident enough to identify and engage with conflict before it becomes a hostile situation.

Conflict can be constructive; it can bring out new ideas and directions and, if handled well, can create better understanding and care.  Conflict can be a symptom of our fears, frustrations and concerns, all valid feelings that need to be given space to be dealt with effectively.  It can also trigger, and be triggered by, bigger changes in group structure and membership. This can all be positive if handled with care.  

Co-operative approaches to dealing with conflict

Co-operative approaches to addressing conflict are commonly used in consensus decision making in groups. They can also be applied to conflict between individuals. They rely on people expressing their own needs and feelings, respecting those of the other person and together looking for ways of moving forward that keep everyone happy. This is based on the idea that behind the apparent incompatibility of our wishes (Fred wants Salma to do her washing up, she doesn’t want to) we have underlying common ground that can help us understand each other (Fred and Salma want to get on with work, for Fred this means having an uncluttered office, for Salma it means eating at her desk and not being interrupted in the middle of something she is working on). From this deeper understanding of common ground we can build solutions (Salma’s dirty washing up hides in the kitchen cupboard until the end of the day, when she will deal with it).

At times of heated emotion, it can be hard to find co-operative solutions, especially when the issue at stake is closer to people’s hearts than the washing up! Below are some ideas for how to pre-empt these situations and how to deal with conflict once the emotional temperature has risen.

Pre-empting conflict

Thinking through potential areas of conflict early on, and processes for dealing with it, helps conflict to be prevented and dealt with productively.

Pre-emptive conversations require a level of self-awareness and experience that most people don’t have. Often conflict arises when we assume a certain behaviour is ‘normal’ (washing up our dishes straight away, for example) and it isn’t until someone does something differently that we realise there are other approaches.

Something to think about from the start is how you can create culture which makes co-operative decision making possible: for many people this involves unlearning old habits around hierarchy, competition or individualism and you shouldn’t underestimate the amount of work this takes.

Here are a few key points:

  • Set out your aims clearly. All housing co-ops should be aiming to provide secure housing for their members at affordable rents, but does your co-op have any other fundamental aims? These might be expanding the co-op to provide more accommodation, supporting campaigns or particular social groups, home educating children or establishing a worker co-op. One co-op might require active engagement on any or all of these, for another it may choose to make them optional extras.
  • Good decision making requires openness and trust – it’s hard to take someone’s needs into account if they don’t tell you what they are. One way of fostering this is regular social time outside of work – from a shared meal every day to a day trip every few months. Another technique is to hold regular meetings, where people give each other feedback and share feelings about the co-op.
  • Running your meetings well can avoid re-visiting decisions or resentful feelings. Allow enough time, run them at a convenient time and in a comfortable venue, learn good facilitation skills and encourage everyone’s active participation.
  • Clear, consensually agreed secondary rules help everyone in the co-op understand expectations on them. These also need to be open to change as the needs of the group change.
  • Explicit and defined probationary period for new members

When conflict happens

It is usually best to deal with conflict as soon as it becomes apparent, before feelings of resentment and anger have had time to settle in.

1. Preparation

Start by getting clear in your own mind about what you want to say. What do you think is the problem? Is it a difference of opinion or priorities, a behaviour pattern or an individual incident which has upset you? Find a way to express it that separates the behaviour from the person and uses concrete examples where possible. For example, it might not be very helpful to tell someone they are lazy and irresponsible, but you can point out that they haven’t done their share of housework for the month.

Identify how you feel about the situation and look for ways of expressing yourself which recognise that those feelings aren’t necessarily anyone else’s fault. For example, you might be disappointed that someone has different ideas about which suppliers are ethical or you might feel hurt that someone doesn’t smile and say hello when you come downstairs  in the morning. If you can explain those feelings of disappointment or hurt without implying that someone is making you feel like that, you might have a greater chance of them accepting what you say.

2. Having the conversation

Ask the person concerned for a conversation and agree a time and a place which works for both of you. Explain your thoughts and feelings and give them space to respond. They might have their frustrations with you too, so try to create an atmosphere in which you can both accept the other’s feelings without blame and defensiveness. For example, if what you see as playful banter regularly offends someone, you can explain you didn’t intend any harm, but also to accept how they feel about it, instead of getting upset with them for having understood it differently to your intention.

3. Next steps

Airing and exploring your feelings might be enough to build better relations, but it is often useful to work out possible changes in behaviour. This could be done straight away or you could come back to the conversation after a cooling off period. Be as concrete as possible about what promises you are making to each other.

For example, if you say “I want you to respect me more”, there are all sorts of possible interpretations of whether that is happening or not. If you say “I want you to ask my opinion before you redesign the kitchen  and to look at me when you talk to me,” it might all feel a little artificial, but at least everyone has a clear idea of what is expected of them.

If someone changes the behaviour as requested, but you feel that the fundamental problem is still there, you can always bring up the issue again. Human relationships of all kinds are always going to be work in progress and any changes you make can be seen as trying things out rather than coming to a definitive answer. You might even want to agree a time to review how things are going, so the onus isn’t on one individual to name and bring up the problem all over again.


When things do get more serious, you might want to think of options like mediation, either by people in the co-op or by trusted and possibly professional outsiders. Mediation does not require any ‘higher body’ to take sides in an argument. The mediator helps the disputing people sort out their differences and agree resolution.

Mediation is not always suitable e.g. where someone has committed a grave offence like physical violence, theft or racist or sexist bullying, but it can be used to soothe the wounds after formal procedures have taken place.

For advice on how to go about mediation: seek help from your local mediation service, from Seeds for Change or (if you are in a Radical Routes co-op) from the Radical Routes Co-op Support Group. also offers lots of information for mediation and is developing specialist resources and training for workers’ co-ops.

Co-op Support Group

For Radical Routes co-ops specifically, Co-op Support Group supports new groups through membership processes and tracks how member coops are doing, with the aim of identifying those that are experiencing difficulties or are in need of support. This helps to maintain engagement and ensure conflicts are addressed before they become damaging, helping co-ops remain pleasant and welcoming groups to be part of.

Co-op Support Group runs a confidential listening space at gatherings where anyone can talk and request help or advice. This can be the outlet needed to let go of an issue or to help clarify if further action is required. The decision to take any further action is left to the people using the space, not by CSG. We are working towards offering a confidential contact system for anyone unable to attend gatherings in the future.