Managing mistrust and conflict

The context in which most community and disability service work occurs frequently exacerbates the potential for misunderstanding and tensions within the worker–client relationship.

  • Clients may not have requested the service and are considered involuntary, e.g. young people on Juvenile Justice orders, people on Mental Health orders, probation orders and Drug Court orders.
  • Clients with multiple disabilities, as well as their families, may have experienced a history of frustrations and rejections both in their personal lives and in their relations with various helping agencies. These previous experiences may have affected their expectations of workers, and their role.
  • Clients may be experiencing major crises in their lives; this heightened emotional state can cause them to misinterpret actions.
  • In some areas of work, the clients may have significant communication barriers as well as cultural differences, which can contribute to suspicion.

You need to demonstrate patience, understanding, and respect for others' cultural, religious or other preferences. In this way, you can minimise any barriers arising from the clients' and co-workers' actions or beliefs, and ensure that they do not contribute to breakdowns in communication, resulting in mistrust or conflict.

Identify conflict

Conflict may be unavoidable, due to the nature and purpose of some communications; however, by identifying early signs of conflict it is possible to avoid communications becoming emotionally charged or destructive.

Signs of conflict can be verbal, non-verbal, or indicated through body language:

Verbal disagreementNon-verbal indicatorsBody language
This may include:
  • a raised voice
  • a sharp tone
  • snide remarks
  • asides (comments intended for one person to hear, but directed toward others)
  • direct explanation

This may include:

  • non-participation
  • distraction
  • withdrawal
  • continual lateness
  • non-attendance

This may include:

  • closed posture (crossed arms, etc.)
  • colour of face (pallor)
  • angry expression
  • positioning (e.g., moving away)

Levels of conflict

The Levels of conflict diagram describes the escalation of conflict from early signs of discomfort through to incidents, misunderstandings, tension and crisis.

Levels of conflict diagram

Last modified: Monday, 9 September 2013, 3:58 PM