MPA Perspective: Managing Conflict With and Among User Groups: Winning Strategies for MPA Managers

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Editor's note: Lynne Hinkey, co-author of this perspective piece, is a trainer at the Coastal Services Center of the (US) National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). She has taught courses on conflict management across the US and has been involved in an array of public processes surrounding marine management issues, including MPAs. Heidi Recksiek, her co-author, coordinates MPA-related training and technical assistance services for the (US) National MPA Center, managed by NOAA.

Here they offer advice for MPA managers on how to manage conflict in planning and management efforts. The advice is based upon feedback they have received from managers and their own experiences in public processes.

By Lynne Hinkey and Heidi Recksiek, (US) National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

MPA managers grapple with conflicts that occur during the establishment and day-to-day management of an MPA. Challenges can include making decisions in the face of competing interests among user groups (or between management and such groups) and navigating interpersonal dynamics among stakeholders. Although conflict traditionally has a negative connotation, it is a natural and sometimes desirable social process. While conflicts pose the risk of driving individuals and groups apart, they also present an opportunity to create new, better, and more creative solutions for dealing with problems. In many situations, managers are wise to face conflict with and among user groups and to work for a solution, for this can lead to resolutions that enhance management and please - or appease - varied stakeholders.

There are strategies that can help managers prepare for and effectively respond to conflict. Listed below are a number of approaches and techniques that may help managers to manage their personal response to conflicts, and to foster agency and user-group actions that will produce win-win solutions.

1. Consider the basic steps in problem-solving, and look for options.

The basic steps in problem-solving with multiple parties can be generalized as:

  1. Identify the problem;
  2. Develop a complete understanding of the issue together;
  3. Generate as many options for solutions as possible; and
  4. Select and implement the option that best meets the needs of all

Generating several potential answers to a problem can help managers to avoid or break deadlocks that occur among parties set on conflicting resolutions. If a manager is trying to address the issue of diver impacts in a sensitive coral area, for example, the solution of simply banning divers altogether is likely to encounter significant opposition. But it may be possible to secure support for other options such as having temporary closures to allow the reef to recover; alternating days for different dive boats to visit the area; rotating separate closures; or increasing diver education and monitoring of divers.

2. Agree on something.

Often, disagreeing parties can agree on basic goals. Agreeing on something, however small, can establish a tone of cooperation and problem-solving to tackle other issues. It may be assumed that managers and users opposed to restrictive regulations both want to sustain marine resources in the long term, but actually stating this common interest can remind both parties of the importance of working together for a solution.

3. Separate the people from the problems.

Conflict should not be about personal attacks and assigning blame. Instead, it should work to fix a problem by addressing concerns and/or changing negative behaviors. A manager, for example, should not focus on criticizing the views of an individual fisherman opposed to a new area closure. Rather the manager can provide information that articulates the need for and goals of the closure, and ask fishermen to provide ideas on how to minimize negative impacts.

4. Admit to your mistakes.

Admitting mistakes, when appropriate, may be one of the most important aspects of conflict management for managers. By taking this step, managers can help move processes forward to addressing resource-management issues and solving problems. A manager who admits a particular policy has not worked as intended can gain the support of impacted stakeholder groups, thus fostering a cooperative effort to craft a better policy. For example, some stakeholders may not trust "the government" because of their perception that management agencies do not admit when a policy is not working. Acknowledging mistakes and moving to correct them can rebuild trust and encourage positive future interaction.

5. Have specific solutions.

When agreement is reached, solutions must be specific enough to be carried out. Managers need a specific course of action, and they need to know who is responsible for those actions. Without an implementation plan and specific steps, managers and user groups can find themselves having the "same" meeting again and again. For example, if it is agreed that an MPA will be established on a trial basis so that its impacts on the environment and on fishermen can be examined, there must be a specific plan for scientific monitoring of habitats and species, for socioeconomic research looking at impacts to the fishing community, and for reporting back to the concerned community.

For more information:

Heidi Recksiek, MPA Training and Technical Assistance Coordinator, 2234 South Hobson Avenue, Charleston, SC 29405-2413, USA. Tel: +1 843 740 1194; E-mail: heidi.recksiek [at] noaa.gov.

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