February 2000 // Volume 38 // Number 1 // Research in Brief // 1RIB5

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Differences in the Solution-Oriented Conflict Style of Selected Groups of 4-H Youth Development Volunteer Leaders

Conflict is an inevitable part of life and the 4-H Youth Development program. To determine how to best deal with conflict and design conflict resolution educational workshops a study was conducted to determine if selected groups of 4-H volunteer leaders differed in their solution-oriented conflict style. Three hundred and seventy-one participants responded to a written questionnaire designed to determine their predominant style of conflict resolution. The findings revealed that differences existed in solution-oriented conflict styles of the selected groups by program area and training. Implications indicate a need for a variety of training topics and methods when teaching conflict resolution skills.

Mary Y. Deen
4-H Youth Development and Family Specialist
Washington State University - Tri-Cities
Richland, Washington
Internet address: mdeen@tricity.wsu.edu


Conflict can be defined as an expressed struggle between at least two interdependent parties who perceive incompatible goals, scarce rewards, and interference from the other parties in achieving their goals (Hocker & Wilmot, 1985). It is as much a part of life as birth and death, inherent and natural to human interaction, and essential to the growth and development of individuals, relationships and organizations (Bergmann & Volkema, 1989; Robert, 1990; Wilson, 1981).

In the American culture, conflict is often perceived as a negative and unproductive activity. However, researchers report that conflict has the potential to be productive and is, in fact, a necessary part of positive interpersonal relationships, creative problem-solving and group cohesiveness (Bell & Blakeney, 1977; Chanin & Schneer, 1984; Deutsch, 1969; Hocker & Wilmot, 1985; Thomas, 1976; Wall, Galanes & Love, 1987; Wilson, 1981). The difference in whether a conflict has productive or destructive outcomes is the management of that conflict (Johnson & Johnson, 1995). How a person responds to and deals with conflict is dependent on their individual conflict styles (Thomas, 1976). Because conflict styles can be productive or destructive, learning to resolve conflict productively is a desirable and necessary skill for positive human growth (Robert, 1990).

Conflict resolution skills are learned behavior and can be taught (Kreidler, 1984). Research shows that children learn conflict management skills from the adults around them (Drew, 1987). Therefore, institutions and organizations that involve adults teaching youth need to rank conflict resolution training high on the training priority list (Scherer, 1992). Because most conflicts among youth occur during out-of-school time (Johnson & Johnson, 1995), organizations relying on volunteers to work with youth in out-of-school settings must provide conflict resolution training.

Purpose of the Study

In order to design and implement appropriate and meaningful educational workshops on any topic, it is essential to know the characteristics and skills of the audience the workshops are intended to impact (Sork & Caffarella, 1989). This study focuses on learning more about the conflict resolution styles of 4-H volunteer leaders in order to design conflict management workshops for that audience.

The 4-H Youth Development program is the largest youth organization in the United States and the world. Its mission is the creation of programs which assist youth and adults in reaching their full potential. The 4-H mission is accomplished by teaching youth life skills through volunteers. These life skills include problem-solving, decision-making, and conflict resolution (Hendricks, 1996). In order to design quality educational workshops in conflict resolution skills for these volunteers, it was imperative to determine their current conflict management styles. In addition, it is important to focus on the conflict style that is most likely to assist in the mission.

Putnam and Wilson's (1982) conflict styles were used as the theoretical framework for this study. These styles are:

non-confrontational: to avoid conflict or elude the issue.
solution-oriented: to resolve conflict by solving the problem.
control: to deal with conflict by arguing or using nonverbal messages to emphasize demands.

The solution-oriented style has been reported to be the most likely to teach problem-solving, decision-making, and constructive conflict-resolution skills (Putnam & Wilson, 1982). This coincides with the life skills taught by 4-H. For this reason, the solution-oriented conflict style was selected for the focus of this study.

4-H volunteers come from all walks of life. They participate in different activities in the 4-H program, deal with different subject matters, and receive differing degrees of training. With this in mind and because the solution-oriented conflict style was chosen as a focus, the purpose of this research was to determine if selected groups of 4-H volunteer leaders differed in their level of solution-oriented conflict style.


Population and Sample

Subjects were selected subgroups of 4-H Youth Development volunteer leaders in the state of Washington. Volunteers were defined as members of the staff of Washington State University Cooperative Extension who gave time and expertise without receiving or expecting monetary pay (Hiller & Leach, 1992).

This study concentrated on three groups of 4-H leaders: food & nutrition leaders, Challenge leaders and horse leaders. The food and nutrition program focuses on learning about and how to prepare different types of food, basic fitness, nutrition, consumer skills and the proper use of natural resources that relate to food. The Challenge program focuses on adventure activities while developing self-confidence, building teamwork and cooperation and developing problem-solving and leadership skills. The horse program concentrates on the proper use of equipment for riding and caring for horses, horsemanship management and production, and horse performance skills. These groups were chosen because (a) they represented the largest program areas of 4-H in Washington state,(b) the subject matter for each type of leader (foods and nutrition, Challenge, and horse) is uniquely different from each other, and (c) the educational in-service received by each group of leaders differs.

A stratified systematic sampling was used to select leaders from the three groups.


Data for the study was collected by use of a written mailed questionnaire. The questionnaire consisted of two sections with a total of 42 questions. Section one focused on the respondents' conflict styles, while section two asked for demographic information.

Section one measured the dependent variable, conflict styles. The Putnam-Wilson Organizational Communication Conflict Instrument (OCCI) was found to be the most reliable of the instruments studied and was selected. Cronbach's alpha coefficient for reliability was .89. Validity was tested by a factor analysis. Thirty of the original 35 statements that obtained .42 or higher were selected for Form B, the version used in this study (Wilson & Waltman, 1988). In the Putnam-Wilson OCCI (section one), participants were given 30 statements about how they might react to conflict. They responded on a Likert-type scale of 1 to 5, ranging from very seldom (1) to very often (5). Each statement in section 1 (the OCCI) is categorized by the authors of the instrument as one of the conflict styles.

To determine a person's score for each of the three types of conflict styles, an average was taken of the scores for each type of style. Each person received three scores, one for each of the conflict styles. The individual's scores in each selected group (such as Challenge leaders, foods and nutrition leaders, horse leaders) were then averaged to attain a mean score for each group in each of the conflict styles.

The second section of the questionnaire consisted of 12 demographic questions that asked about personal information, level of involvement in the 4-H program and participation in conflict resolution educational workshops.

A total of 371 leaders (41%) returned usable questionnaires. These included 91 Challenge leaders, 135 horse leaders and 145 food and nutrition leaders.

Volunteer Profile

The personal information gathered was age (by range), educational level, income and marital status. As a total sample, almost half (49.3%; n = 183) were in the age range of 36-44 years. The second largest group (28.3%) was 45-54 years old. This was a well-educated group with 327 of the participants (88.2%) having some kind of formal education past high school (vocational school or college). One hundred and nine (30%) of the post-high school education group had graduated from college with an additional 74 (20%) having finished an advanced degree. Almost half, 165, (46.6%) of the volunteers had a combined family income of over $46,000, with an additional quarter (28.5%, n = 101) earning $30,000 to $46,000 per year. The majority (83.2%, n = 307) of the volunteers were married. These demographic results of age, education, income levels and marital status were consistent with results of other 4-H volunteer studies (Baker-Stevens, 1987; Culp, 1996; Hiller, 1992).

Participants were also asked about their level of volunteer involvement. As a total group (n = 371), a little less than half (44.2%, n = 164) were 4-H members as youths. Of those who were members, about half, (46.8%, n = 81), were 4-H members for six years or longer. Another 50 (28.9%) were members for 2-3 years. Of those participants who were married, over one third, (37.9% n = 119), said that their spouse was also involved in 4-H. Eighty-five percent (n = 317) had children, and almost two thirds of this group, (65.4%, n = 242), had children involved in 4-H. The majority, (79.1%,n = 291), of leaders volunteered three hours or less per week.

Finally, the volunteers were asked to respond to three questions about their participation in conflict resolution workshops. Of the total group (n = 371), 204 (55.7%) had participated in conflict resolution workshops. Almost forty percent (38.9%, n = 79) of the trained group had received over 10 hours of in-service. A quarter (26.1%, n = 53) had received 3-5 hours of conflict resolution education and 41 (20.2%) had received 6-10 hours of training. The vast majority (85%, n = 180) of this group had participated in conflict resolution education sponsored by groups other than 4-H.

Results: Group Differences in Solution-Oriented Conflict Styles

Five hypotheses were developed investigating the possible differences in the solution-oriented styles of the selected groups. Those leaders who volunteered their time in different subject matters (Challenge, foods and nutrition, and horse) were compared to each other as well as the Trained group and the Non-Trained group (Table 1).

Mean scores of solution-oriented conflict styles of selected groups of 4-H volunteers
Group NameN/nMeanSD
Totaln = 3713.71.5
Challengen = 913.77a.46
Foods and Nutritionn = 563.62b.48
Horsen = 743.76a.54
Trainedn = 2043.81.46
Non-Trainedn = 1673.58.52
Means are based on a scale of 1 - 5.
a, b - Means with different superscripts were significantly different at the .05 level.

The Challenge, foods and nutrition, and horse leaders all had high scores for the solution-oriented conflict style. The Challenge leaders had the highest score 3.77 on a scale of 1 - 5. The horse leaders followed with a score of 3.76 and the foods and nutrition leaders with a score of 3.62. An analysis of variance (ANOVA) showed that there was a significant (.05 level) difference between the groups. A follow-up test, Least Squared Difference (LSD), was performed to determine the differences between the groups. The LSD showed a significant difference between the solution-oriented conflict style of the foods and nutrition leaders and the horse leaders, and between the foods and nutrition leaders and the Challenge leaders. There was no significant difference between the solution-oriented conflict styles of the Challenge leaders and the horse leaders.

Over half of the total group (55.7%, n = 204) had participated in conflict resolution training. Almost forty percent (38.9%, n = 79) of that group had received over 10 hours of training. The group that had participated in conflict resolution training had a solution-oriented conflict style mean score of 3.8 on scale of 1 - 5. The group that had not participated in conflict resolution training had a solution-oriented conflict style mean score of 3.6. The independent samples t-test indicated a highly significant difference between the two groups at a .05 significance level.

It was also hypothesized that there might be a difference in the conflict styles of the volunteers who had received training (n = 204) between the program areas. The ANOVA showed there was no significant differences among the groups on their solution-oriented conflict style.

When the 162 volunteers who had not participated in any type of conflict resolution or conflict management training were compared within program areas, the results again indicated that there was no difference among the groups on their solution-oriented conflict resolution styles.

The final hypothesis compared volunteers who had participated in some type of conflict resolution training by length of training. Thirty of the group had received two hours or less of training. Fifty participants had participated in 3-5 hours of training. Forty-one of the trained group had been in 6-10 hours of training, while 71 (39%) had participated in over 10 hours of conflict resolution training. When the groups were compared using an ANOVA there was no significant difference found in their solution-oriented conflict style.


One of the purposes of this study was to gain information to design quality and meaningful educational workshops on the subject of constructive conflict resolution methods. The information gained implies considerations when planning and implementing learning experiences to promote the positive powers of conflict with 4-H volunteers.

First, it appears that trainings and/or learning experiences in the 4-H program relating to conflict resolution need to be planned for various levels of competence in conflict management. While many leaders appeared to have high levels of skills, others had very low levels. At least beginning and advanced levels of training should be offered.

The beginning classes need to focus on:

  • becoming comfortable with conflict
  • understanding the causes and functions of conflict
  • learning about one's own style of managing conflict

More advanced training need to include educational experiences that concentrate on:

  • expanding negotiation skills
  • dealing with disruptive persons
  • learning third party intervention skills

Positive conflict resolution is a skill learned only through practice (Drew, 1987). Because of this both levels of trainings need to be taught experientially. Experiential learning occurs when there are changes in judgments, feelings, knowledge or skills that result from involvement in an activity or event. A learner needs four different opportunities in order to learn experientially:

  1. - Concrete experiences
  2. - Reflective observations
  3. - Abstract conceptualization
  4. - Active experimentation (Kolb & Frey, 1975)

These four opportunities can be facilitated for the learner by the experiential learning process of "Do, Reflect, Apply". During the "do" stage, the participants need to be actively involved in an experience. One method is role playing a typical conflict situation volunteers might encounter in their role as a 4-H leader. An another example would be to demonstrate several outcomes to a conflict situation that had actually occurred with the volunteers. Adults need to share life experiences as a learning method (Merriam & Yang, 1996) and this would give them that opportunity.

During the "reflect" stage participants need to be given the opportunity to reflect on what happened and conceptualize other possibilities. Regardless of the learning activity or the outcome of the activity, a reflection time facilitated by the trainer must take place or learning will not be complete. According to Hammel (1986, p. 25), "experience itself does not guarantee growth. Growth occurs when people recognize, articulate and reflect on the feelings that are a result of experience."

In the final stage of "apply" the learners access how what they have experienced in the learning activity can be applied in their own lives during conflicts. The participants need the opportunity to concretely report how they might use the new skills learned. This might be done through role plays, action plans or a structured discussion period. Sharing time in future trainings needs to be dedicated to reporting back how the new skills have been utilized and what other skills need to be learned or practiced.

Another teaching technique that would have several positive ramifications would be to have those volunteers already at a high level of solution-orientated conflict to serve as trainers. This technique of peer-to-peer teaching validates the importance of the subject being taught because peers are acting as role models and sharing personal life experiences and skills. It also makes the learning experiences authentic as the facilitators have experienced what they are teaching. A third benefit is that it adds to the level of experience and skills of the volunteers serving as trainers. This in turn can ease the work load of the youth development professional and give recognition to the volunteers who are teaching for their expertise and experiences.

Secondly, the evidence of this study implies that formal training may not be the only way for adults to learn conflict resolution skills. Of the respondents who had received conflict resolution training, there did not appear to be a difference in skill level between the group of respondents who had received less than 10 hours of training in conflict resolution and those who had received more than 10 hours. This would indicate that the volunteers were learning the skills through other venues.

Gleeson (1992) recommends using the individual learner as a basis for planning learning experiences and incorporating the learner's life experiences with formal learning situations for the best results in learning. If adults do learn conflict resolution techniques from life experiences as the evidence suggests, then discussions and debriefing of conflict situations as they occur or immediately afterwards could be useful. This indicates that professional youth development staff (county agents) as well as the volunteers need to have the skills to defuse conflicts, problem solve and debrief the situation "on the spot". These facilitation skills are of utmost importance for professionals and volunteers to learn and actively practice.

The suggested trainings, conflict resolution and facilitation skills, need to be a part of all volunteer development workshops from beginning to advanced. Activities need to be designed and woven into all aspects of the training from the basics of youth development to enrollment procedures to rules for activities and events. There is potential conflict in all situations where humans interact. During the workshops possible conflicts could be brainstormed for that particular situation and participants could be lead in a facilitated discussion on how to resolve the conflicts in a positive, solution-oriented manner.

Limitations and Recommendations for Further Study

This study was conducted through the use of a written, mail-in questionnaire. Persons who respond to questionnaires often do so because of their interest and comfort with the topic and tend to have a higher level of education (Jack Nelson, Professor of Education, University of Idaho; personal communication; June 28, 1994). It is highly probable that the persons who responded were comfortable with the topic of conflict and satisfied with their methods of dealing with conflict. This may have skewed the results to a more positive view of conflict resolution than is realistic.

It may also account for the high level of education shown by the respondent group and their high level of solution-oriented conflict style. Formal education may have exposed them to conflict resolution techniques either through classes or positive role models. By randomly selecting from the group to be studied and then applying research techniques such as observations and interviews, different results may be attained.

The 4-H Youth Development program differs greatly from state-to-state in policies and procedures. It cannot be assumed that the results of this study could be transferred to 4-H volunteers in other states. However, this research may be used as a springboard for other researchers to study subgroups within the 4-H volunteer pool and to check the perceived stereotypes that may exist about certain subgroups. To date, this researcher was unable to find any other study conducted with 4-H volunteers that looked at subgroups within the organization. It would be interesting to know if differences do occur between subgroups on other topics such as motivation, ethical behavior or ability to work effectively with youth.

Finally, it would be of interest to compare the conflict resolution styles of 4-H volunteers with volunteers from other youth organizations. If one organization's volunteers were significantly more solution-oriented than another group of volunteers, much might be learned about that organization or their volunteers that could assist other organizations.


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