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Inter-professional practice: conflict and collaboration

The mission of the Association of Baccalaureate Program Directors is to promote excellence in the education of bachelor of social work students. Between 1 March and 5 March, 2017, over 600 social work educators and 120 students will gather in New Orleans for its annual conference. The theme of this year’s conference is, “BPD for the Future: Social Work Educations, Allied Professionals, and Students.” This theme highlights the importance of social workers being able to work effectively with allied professionals, such as physicians, nurses, educators, attorneys, psychologists, and other mental health professionals. The conference theme also builds on the Council on Social Work Education’s 2015 policies and standards which state, “Social workers value the importance of inter-professional teamwork and communication in interventions, recognizing that beneficial outcomes may require interdisciplinary, inter-professional, and inter-organizational collaboration.” The days of clearly delineated professional roles and independent responsibilities are fading. Whether social workers and other professionals are working in health care, addictions, criminal justice, education, community organizing, child welfare, or policy development, they need to understand how to work together as a cohesive team. In response to the need for greater collaboration between professionals, colleges and universities have been offering more and more forms of inter-professional education, including inter-professional courses, dual-degree programs, and field work experiences comprised of professionals from different backgrounds.

One of the most valuable competencies for fostering inter-professional collaboration is conflict resolution. Although social work shares many values and interests with other professions, there are many instances in which practitioners from different professions experience conflict. Consider an inter-professional team in a hospice, working with a patient who requests assistance with terminating her life. End-of-life-decision making may raise heated conflicts, not only between professionals, but also between, clients and family members. Some conflicts may arise due to differences in beliefs and values. Other conflicts may arise because of differences in the roles that each professional, client, and family member play or due to miscommunications.

Conflict resolution theory and research offer social workers and their colleagues evidence-based methods of assessing the nature of conflict, and determining what type of strategies may be best in managing the conflict. Thus, for managing miscommunications, the professionals may employ active listening and clarification skills, or they may engage the assistance of a mediator who specializes in facilitating communication. For role-related conflicts, professionals may use interest-based conflict resolution, exploring where they have joint interests and common ground, and generating options that meet the needs, concerns, and interests of all stakeholders. For value-related conflicts, the parties may never be able to reach consensus. For instance, the client may value autonomy and the ability to choose withdrawal of life supports, while the spouse may value life and reject the patient’s desire to remove the life supports. In this type of conflict, a transformative approach to conflict resolution may be desirable; that is, an approach which focuses on the quality of the interaction between the parties, allowing them to engage in a constructive conversation about the issues, regardless of whether they can reach agreement.

Chess figure game play by Devanath. Public domain via Pixabay.
Chess figure game play by Devanath. Public domain via Pixabay.

Although some people assume that conflict is bad and should therefore be avoided, conflict resolution education teaches professionals to embrace conflict in a constructive manner. Conflict is a natural phenomenon within any social interaction, including interactions between practitioners from different backgrounds. Conflict may be a positive reflection of diverse cultures and points of view. Conflict may also be used to stimulate beneficial changes in policies and practices—as long as people are responding to conflict in a constructive manner. Research suggests that medical errors and malpractice are often associated with problems in communication or dysfunctional relationships between professionals. Having effective conflict resolution skills not only leads to better care and better outcomes for clients, but also more positive work relationships and environments. When people feel understood and supported by their co-workers and supervisors, they are happier and more likely to stay with their jobs.

Conflict resolution education does not aim to eliminate conflict between professionals. Rather, it teaches professionals how to manage intense emotions, how to respond to difficult problems, and how to treat people with respect despite significant differences in values, views, and interests. Not every conflict can be resolved in a perfect manner. Still, professionals can use conflict resolution strategies and skills to focus their energies on the needs and interests of the people they serve. “We may not be best of friends or think exactly alike, but we can work with each other in a respectful and collaborative manner.”

If you are an educator, what types of theories, skills, and strategies are you teaching students so they can engage effectively with co-workers and clients? If you are a student or professional, what type of conflicts do you think that educators should cover in their courses? What types of conflict resolution strategies and approaches do you think are most important in promoting effective inter-professional practice?

And if you are going to the BPD conference, I’m presenting on conflict resolution and restorative justice, as well as the new national Practice Standards on Social Work and Technology. I look forward to seeing you.

Featured image credit: Mardi Gras colors by Brett_Hondo. Public domain via Pixabay.

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