Can we talk – civilly?

You serve on the board of your organization to support its mission. But too often, your good work takes a back seat to tension, conflict and open hostility.
Can we talk – civilly? - Articles


If this isn't the case for your board, you have my sincere congratulations. Yours is one of the many boards who have learned to address conflicts, resolving them when possible and accepting them when necessary. Your board has 'agreed to disagree' and knows that progress doesn't always mean 100% consensus.

Frankly I don't work with a lot of happy boards. I'm usually called in when the strife is approaching toxic levels. Board members walk in to the meeting with fear and trepidation on their faces, and leave feeling shell-shocked. An exaggeration? Sadly, no.

There are usually legitimate reasons for board conflict: confusion about roles and responsibilities, unclear expectations, and miscommunications play a role. But before we can start exploring those issues, many a group I've worked with has had to re-learn the basic skills of civil communication.

  • Every voice deserves to be heard
  • Every voice will be respected
  • We will take turns
  • We will not interrupt or speak over others
  • We will refrain from shouting and cursing
  • We will only discuss the past when we agree it is relevant to our discussion
  • We will talk about issues, not personalities

This may seem like a pretty obvious list, but your board might benefit from one like it. We call them ground rules, and here's how to use them.

First, develop your own set of ground rules that every member agrees with. Maybe you want to have people turn off cell phones, or you'd like to agree to time limits. Keep it short and simple. Write the rules on a flip chart or board where everyone can see them during the meeting.

Next - this is the tricky part - enforce them. When someone interrupts, remind him of the ground rules that he agreed to. When someone rolls her eyes or snorts at a speaker, remind her of the ground rules she agreed to.

This will feel awkward at first, but after a while it will feel natural. Because it is natural. You and your fellow board members know how to be civil, even pleasant, outside the meeting. And once you bring your normally civil self to the meeting, you'll find it easier to tackle the real reasons your board is in conflict. Not only that, you'll leave meetings with a sense of accomplishment. And who knows, you might even enjoy the meeting!