Group Projects

A Conflict Resolution Guide for Students

Compiled by Heidi Burgess, Co-Director, University of Colorado Conflict Research Consortium

From grade school all the way through graduate school, teachers assign group projects. These projects can be fun, or they can be very frustrating, as the groups do not always work well together and some people do not seem to carry their fair share. But one of the purposes of group projects is to learn to work well in groups, since many (perhaps most) jobs involve doing group work as well. So learning how to work well in groups is very important to future success. The following guide can help students get the most benefit and least frustration out of group projects.

First step: Know who is in your group and how to contact them.

Every time I assign a group project, I hear the same lament at the end from at least one group:  "So-and-so didn't finish their part on time." OR "He never met with us." OR "We couldn't get in touch with her."  If you exchange names, email addresses and phone numbers as soon as your group is formed, that goes a long way toward preventing this problem.  Designating one person as "group facilitator" is also helpful.  The facilitator's job is to make sure everyone knows when and where to meet, sends out a reminder message the day before any meetings, and sends out a confirmation email after each meeting, clarifying in writing who is expected to do what by when.  The facilitator might also check in with group members on occassion if you are not meeting frequently--making sure they are on track and clarifying expectations if they are not.  While this doesn't avoid all problems, it goes a long way toward preventing most of them.

Second Step: Clarify the goals and tasks to be accomplished by the whole group. Discuss as a group:

  1. What the assignment is (to make sure everyone has the same understanding).
  2. When the assignment is due (or when each part is due). (Again, to make sure everyone is aware of the deadlines.)
  3. How, exactly, are you going to meet the requirements of the assignment? (For example, if the assignment is to do a research paper, what are you going to research? If it is to build something, what are you going to build?)
  4. If you are allowed considerable flexibility, it often helps to brainstorm a number of ideas and then assess the merits of each one separately. Things to consider:
    • How much do you know about this topic already?
    • How easy or hard would it be to get good information?
    • Is the topic interesting to everyone? (If it is not interesting to some, they are not likely to work as hard as they might on a topic they found interesting.)
    • Can you do a good job on this topic in the available time? With the available people? With the available resources? (Don't overestimate your abilities, but at the same time, don't sell yourselves short. Learning comes from accepting challenge.)

Third step: Once you choose a topic that meets everyone's interests:

  1. Work together to break the project up into separate tasks.
  2. Assign people and due-dates for each piece.
  3. Develop mechanisms for keeping in touch, meeting periodically, and sharing progress (and/or stumbling blocks).

Fourth Step: As the work proceeds:

  1. Keep in touch with each other frequently, reporting progress.
  2. If someone is having trouble completing his or her part, work with him or her to try to figure out how to solve the problem. Be supportive and helpful, but don't offer to do other people's work.
  3. At the same time, make it clear that the group is depending on everyone doing their part — it is not okay for one person to show up at the last minute without his or her part done.

Fifth Step: Finishing Up

Be sure to leave enough time at the end to put all the pieces together and to make sure everything is done. I often urge students to have the draft assembled a week ahead of time and designate one person to be the editor, whose job it is to make sure everything hangs together, all the footnotes are done properly and consistently, etc. This is obviously a pretty big job, so this person should have a smaller part of the original research and writing tasks to be fair.

If you have a presentation at the end, go through the same process — decide who is going to do what, and give everyone enough time to prepare and practice (preferably together) ahead of time. If you can practice together, make constructive suggestions about how team members can do better; but take care to not humiliate or belittle another's presentation. This will just make the other person embarrassed and/or angry and is likely to be counterproductive if your goal is getting a good grade.

Throughout this process, conflict can be avoided (and resolved if it develops) by following certain conflict avoidance guidelines.

Separate the people from the problem.

This means separating relationship issues (or "people problems") from substantive issues, and dealing with them independently. People problems, Fisher, Ury and Patton (1991) observe, tend to involve problems of perception (also called "framingproblems), emotion, and communication.

Things to try to correct perception or framing problems:

  1. Try to see the situation from the other person's perspective. You do not have to agree with their perceptions of the situation. But it is important to understand what they think and feel, and why they think and feel as they do.
  2. Don't deduce the other person's intentions from your own fears. It is common to assume that your opponent plans to do just what you fear they will do. This sort of suspicious attitude makes it difficult to accurately perceive the other person's real intentions; whatever they do, you will assume the worst.
  3. Third, avoid blaming the other person for the problem. Blame, even if it is deserved, will only make him or her defensive. Even worse, he or she may attack you in response. Blame is generally counterproductive.
  4. Discuss each other's perceptions. Explicit discussion of each side's perceptions will help both sides to better understand each other (see the first point). And discussion will help each side to avoid projecting their fears onto one another (see the third point). Also, such discussion may reveal shared perceptions. Acknowledging shared perceptions can strengthen the parties' relationship, and facilitate productive negotiations.
  5. Seek opportunities to act inconsistently with the other person's misperceptions. That is, try to disappoint your opponent's worst beliefs and expectations about you. Just as it is important for you to have an accurate perception of your opponent, it is also important for them to have an accurate perception of you. Disappointing your opponent's negative or inaccurate beliefs will help to change those beliefs. (Note: these five items were drawn from Tanya Glaser's summary of Fisher, Ury and Patton's Getting to Yes, pp. 22-40.)

Dealing with Strong Emotions

Emotional problems include distrustfear, anger, and humiliation. These emotions are very strong, and can derail any working relationship.

The first step in dealing with emotions is to acknowledge them, and try to understand their source. By saying something like "you seem to be very angry about what happened" you can encourage the other person to explain why they are angry and give you some ideas about how you might be able to fix the situation.

On the other hand, if you ignore or dismiss another's feelings as unreasonable, you are likely to provoke an even more intense emotional response.

Allow the other side to express their emotions without reacting emotionally yourself (unless strong emotions are expected in your culture). If they are not, it is usually best to allow the other person to express their emotions, and then use empathic or active listening to try to understand both the content and the emotion of the message they tried to express.

Symbolic gestures such as apologies or an expression of sympathy can help to defuse strong emotions.

Using Effective Communication

Several communication strategies can avoid misunderstandings and/or correct them once they occur. These include:

  1. Focus on the person speaking when they are speaking. Don't listen with one ear, while planning your come back at the same time
  2. When it is your time to respond, think quietly for a minute until you know what you want to say and how you want to say it. Don't just blurt out a response without thinking.
  3. Use active (or emphathic) listening, discussed above, which allows you to confirm that you understood both the substantive content and the feelings behind the words.
  4. Use I-messages, which allow you to express your feelings without directly attacking the other person (which would likely evoke a defensive and/or hostile response).

Focus on Interests, Not Positions

Good agreements focus on the parties' interests, rather than their positions. As Fisher, Ury. and Patton explain, "Your position is something you have decided upon. Your interests are what caused you to so decide."[p. 42] Defining a problem in terms of positions means that at least one party will "lose" the dispute. When a problem is defined in terms of the parties' underlying interests it is often possible to find a solution which satisfies both parties' interests. (See the Getting to Yes summary for more information.)

So if your workgroup gets into a conflict over who is to do what by when, try not to argue about who is right and who is wrong. (This is a position.) Rather, look at the reasons why people feel the way they do. Why does one person feel that his deadline is unfair or impossible to meet? Is there something that can be done to make his workload more manageable without unfairly taxing the other team members? Try to discover what needs and interests are underneath a person's demands or positions to see what they real problem is about. Very often, it is a problem that can be solved to mutual advantage if it is dealt with openly.

Look for Creative Solutions to Problems

People often assume that the problem with their team is that there is something wrong with one of the other team members. If you separate the people from the problem (as discussed above) and then look for creative solutions to the substantive problems, win-win solutions can often be found. Try working together as a team to brainstorm solutions to the problem (rather than assuming it is just one person's problem). This will enable the person having trouble to feel supported, and is likely to generate ideas that no one alone might have come up with.

Brainstorm a lot of ideas — even wild and crazy ones — before you assess their merits. Don't dismiss anything initially — you can do that later once a better idea comes up. Once you have a number of options to choose from, then discuss the merits and problems of each approach and choose the one that looks best.