Embracing Community Conflict

Addressing Community Conflict … And Living to Tell About It

When in doubt, reach out: collaborate.

The answer is in the room.

Invite the group to help resolve issues of the group.


Schools have become the battleground for polarized views on COVID, race, books, and more. When in conflict, we have only so many choices: giving in, fighting back, finding a third way, or quitting the game. Our superintendents’ network took up this challenge recently, comparing notes and learning from each other.

Purpose / Hope

The hope is that we can work through community conflict—without polarizing—to move toward a common goal.


Positional power (on many of today’s hot topics) appears to be dead. No longer is there any real respect for a “just trust us” solution.

New challenges require new knowledge, new perspectives, teamwork, and balancing losses against gains.

New solutions come from conversation and collaboration, adaptation and experimentation.

System capacity

The difference between a problem and an opportunity is the amount of skill or resources available. As each conflict takes more time, we need more leaders who have the skill and time to work with others to find solutions. Continuous learning becomes essential. We need more leaders, a deeper bench, who can embrace these challenges with skill and success.

An Example: Changing Start Times

Issaquah School District took on the issue of later start times for high school students. Issaquah’s secondary schools were starting at 7:25 am and catching the bus much earlier.

  • They explored the research. Secondary students did better when school started later.
  • They considered core values. Was this something that makes sense for kids?
  • They explored options. Rescheduling buses to 8:30 am would cost millions. And they received lots of push-back.
  • They considered more options. Everyone wanted the same time slot but there were not enough buses to make that work.
  • Finally, they agreed no one starts before 8 am or stays later than 4 pm. Everyone gave up a little.

Lessons learned:  Do your research. Consult core values. Listen. Communicate rationale.

Consider these Ideas to Create Successful Community Engagement

Crisis communication protocol

Most districts have counseling crisis teams in place to respond to student trauma. Now districts are extending that idea to other causes of crisis communications, including racial incidents. This allows districts to respond quickly and build on learning from previous crises. Each crisis gets addressed quicker. The system gets smarter.

Be invitational

Create a pool of key communicators that truly represents a cross-section of your community. In a conflict reach out to the entire group with a thought exchange or survey. Use that information to report back to your community. Our opinions are shaped, to some extent, by what we think our neighbors are saying. This can help balance views from single-issue special-interest groups.

Create personal and psychological safety

Town meetings via Zoom or Facebook offer ways to hear from a wide variety of diverse voices. Questions can be requested in advance, responded to live, and recorded for those who view later.


The best ideas come from combining diverse perspectives. Invite widely to provide opportunities for the full range of community opinions. Reach out specifically to marginalized groups to make sure they feel welcome. Seat people intentionally to create opportunities for each person to hear the full range of perspectives. For example, seat one or two each of students, parents, community members, teachers, and principals at a table. Then do go-rounds to hear from each person in the group.

Ask good questions

Roger Martin, negotiations guru, created a breakthrough moment. When negotiations were deadlocked, he applied the following question to each of several options: “What would have to be true, for this to be our best option?” That question shifted thinking from positions to possibilities.

Strength in diverse perspectives

Lake Washington Schools held fifteen focus groups to hear specifically from diverse voices in their community. They kept asking, “How could we make our racial equity work better?”

Whole Scale® Approaches:

Use these questions to bring groups together:

    • What needs to be different to accomplish our purpose?
    • Who needs to be in the room?
    • What conversations need to take place to achieve our purpose?

Listen – Share – Listen again

Spokane Schools used this process as part of their strategic planning. They let participants know in advance that this would be an interactive conversation. First, they truly wanted to hear from the community. Second, they wanted the community to know what was already underway. Then, they went back to the community to listen again, so they could zero in on what was most needed next.

Bottom Line

  • When in doubt, reach out: collaborate.
  • The answer is in the room.
  • Invite the group to help resolve issues of the group.






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Larry Nyland speaking

Larry Nyland – Leadership Coach and Consultant.
Seattle Schools superintendent 2014-2018

To talk about growing extraordinary "high capacity" leadership for your team …
Contact: Larry@Larrynyland.com | 425-418-4398 | LarryNyland.com