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Extension agents learn conflict resolution skills
BILOXI -- Extension agents spend most of their time working with youth and providing research-based advice in peaceful settings, but they are increasingly finding themselves in the middle of heated debates as rural issues collide with Mississippi's expanding populations.
Larry Oldham is a soil specialist with Mississippi State University's Extension Service who has seen more than his share of contentious meetings. Those experiences prompted him to help organize a recent training session to help agents lead environmental discussions.
"Extension agents are most comfortable providing technical information. Local issues that invoke passionate opinions are much harder to handle," Oldham said. "Special training will give agents the knowledge to bring diverse groups together to systematically assess a situation and then move the group forward in a positive manner."
Ron Hustedde, extension professor in community and leadership development with the University of Kentucky, led the training session May 17-19 in Biloxi.
"There are various techniques successful facilitators can use to help groups communicate on controversial topics," Hustedde said. "Their goals are full participation, mutual understanding, inclusive solutions and shared responsibility to help groups come to a resolution. Success in the end is not because the facilitator is so smart, but because the process is so good."
Hustedde said facilitators help the group agree on ground rules for the discussion and stick to those rules. They also create a climate of respect for all involved. Then, they work hard to see that no individuals dominate a meeting so that the group effort prevails.
"The real goal is not a win-win situation, but finding a solution that each side can live with," he said. "Resolutions to conflict allow for a new intimacy, and sometimes new leadership will emerge."
Hustedde told the Extension agents to help the group address the interests underlying the positions that polarize opposing sides. They also should work to avoid some of the most common pitfalls such as expressing bias in group leadership, focusing on dominant or silent individuals, or leading groups to a false consensus.
"Serving as facilitators in community meetings is a powerful role for Extension agents, but we need to choose our disputes carefully," he said. "Our role is not to solve every problem, but to demonstrate how groups can come together and discuss difficult topics in a productive manner."
Hustedde said as neutral facilitators, Extension agents may serve as counselors, conveners and team builders. They often provide procedural assistance for groups. Extension agents will seek to provide research-based information on disputed issues.
John Lee, MSU Extension area environmental nutrient management agent based in Mendenhall, said he believes the training will help him bring diverse groups together in productive discussions. In his job, Lee works with beef, dairy and poultry producers, as well as the companies that depend on them and the public living nearby.
"There are a lot of livestock and environment issues that create conflict such as waste management and odor problems," Lee said. "I'm often involved in meetings on water quality, soil management, environmental stewardship and waste management. My role is to be neutral, not biased for one side or another, and to provide research-based information when available. Each side needs to trust that I will not have an opposing agenda."