Managing Conflict

Tips to Enhance Mutual Understanding

  • Begin by working to understand the purpose and mission of the represented organizations and how the representatives carry out their role within their organizations, including their limitations.
  • Work toward identifying and confronting lingering past and current issues that continue to erect relationship barriers.
  • Focus on the issue; do not attack the person, organization, or agency.
  • Accept responsibility for past failures when it is appropriate.
  • Attempt to bring new understanding about organizational dynamics where it is lacking, and work to reach a resolution of differences.

As in any relationship, presumptions, misperceptions, and prejudgments are the central elements of discord and dysfunction. Generally, the origins of this friction can be traced to past experiences and to a lack of understanding of and appropriate regard for the other’s roles and responsibilities. These challenges can exist within the same sector, e.g., different law enforcement agencies, and certainly across sectors. With groups that have a history of conflict and distrust, specifically among local, state, and federal law enforcement and victim service providers, a systematic way must be found to overcome prejudgments, build trust, and work together as a team.

The challenges to collaboration are usually found in the group dynamics. Conflict will arise among agencies and organizations as well as among individuals. It is a predictable interpersonal human dynamic and organizational reality. Multidisciplinary groups can be very susceptible to conflict, with passionate individuals working together in intense, emergency situations.

When building a task force, it’s important to expect a level of conflict. Some of the more routine examples of conflict within a human trafficking task force include:

  • Conflict between victim service providers when there is a difference in opinion about how a victim may receive services;
  • Misunderstandings related to who does what for which victims;
  • Conflict between law enforcement agencies, particularly around jurisdictional issues and who is the lead on a particular investigation;
  • Conflict between law enforcement and victim service providers that may disagree on who is a victim and under what definition a victim may or may not meet the legal standard; and
  • What information can be shared between law enforcement and victim service providers.

Before a task force can become an interdependent team responding to human trafficking, the members have to invest in responding appropriately to each other. Conflict is not unhealthy as it tends to keep a group sharp. Failure to manage conflict, however, can destroy a group. This fact also is an endorsement of the need for formal task force leadership. Conflict does not manage itself, nor does it just eventually work itself out.

Building Trust Takes Time

Searching for additional support and resources?

For additional resources on conflict resolution, check out the Community Tool Box Training for Conflict Resolution.

OVC TTAC also offers a module on Conflict Management & Negotiation through Victim Assistance Training (VAT) Online. Module lessons include: sources of conflict, conflict management styles, and negotiation methods.

For more specialized and tailored support, OVC TTAC also offers Customized Training & Technical Assistance on task force conflict resolution, which is available upon request.

All great relationships are built on trust. It is not readily given nor should it be presumed to exist until it has been earned. The safest presumption that can be made in successfully convening a group to serve as a task force is that all members are there to have a role in achieving the mission and purpose of the task force.

Building trust is recognized by current task force leaders as a necessary part of effective collaboration that takes time. Task force meetings, joint trainings, open discussions, challenges to existing practices, productive debriefings of encountered experiences, and other interactions among task force members all provide opportunities for effective teambuilding.

Focus on the Mission and Core Purpose

With a focus on the mission, the core purpose, and how issues will impact the ability of the task force to meet that mission, well-intentioned and respectful input among members of the group can help to resolve the differences and strengthen the group relationship. The common adage “focus on the issue, not on the individual” holds true. In a task force setting, that may need to be expanded to “focus on the issue, not on the agency or organization.”

Tips on Conflict Resolution

  • Look to task force leadership to confront and manage conflict. Many leaders are trained in basic conflict resolution techniques. The process of conflict resolution can raise tensions, so it is important that the discussions are carefully facilitated and not avoided.
  • Ask a neutral member of the team who has conflict resolution skills to act as facilitator.
  • Consider bringing in outside conflict resolution mediation professionals when needed to facilitate these difficult conversations. Several task forces have done this, and it may only require one meeting between a limited number of involved persons and a facilitator.
  • Seek advice from another task force that already resolved a similar conflict.
  • Always emphasize accountability and commitment to task force values.
  • Discuss the issue by trying to understand what happened before drawing conclusions. When there is enough clear information about what happened, hold those responsible for repairing any damage.
  • Success is usually based on personal relationships and personalities and a willingness to communicate openly and overcome obstacles. The best organizations grow from a respectful and purposeful confrontation of differences, not the avoidance of them.
  • Establish a conflict resolution process in your operational protocol.


Assume good intent. Typically, if someone seems unreasonable, it is often due to a misunderstanding of another member’s mandates or limitations. One victim service provider task force member was surprised at the pressure the case agent put on the case manager and the victim to meet and get a solidified statement. When the case agent explained the legal timetable associated with impaneling a grand jury, the case agent and case manager (with the victim’s input) were able to work together to establish a schedule that worked. The unreasonable expectation seemed much more reasonable when the process was understood. Likewise, one law enforcement task force member became increasingly frustrated at the lack of availability of a case manager after hours. Once the case manager explained that she was paid hourly and had to receive permission to flex her hours, the two worked together to plan a weekly schedule and the seemingly unreasonable behavior of the case manager was understood and seemed reasonable.

Conduct post-case reviews. Some task forces conduct “post-case reviews” within 1 month of a case closure. Closure may be defined by the conviction of a trafficker, an investigation that is turned down for prosecution, or the decision of a victim not to assist with the investigation. It is important to review all types of cases, not just those that result in a criminal trial, so as to identify areas of effective collaboration with victim service providers and among task force members, as well as areas in need of further energy and improvement. Each member involved in the case should be included in this review, which can serve not only as an opportunity to learn more about the process, but also as a mechanism for clarifying and improving case protocols and procedures.

Some common results and responses from task forces include:

  • “I was surprised that the victim was subpoenaed to testify when he had

    Task Force Example: Ask a Neutral Team Member
    to Mediate a Discussion

    One task force that faced conflict between a local law enforcement representative and a victim service provider relied on a member who worked well with both individuals to mediate a discussion.

    This mediator called for a meeting between the organizations’ leaders and simply created an environment for them to discuss their differences frankly. That management of a serious conflict preserved the involvement of both organizations and perhaps assured the successful continuation of the task force.

    been cooperating all along. Can you explain that process?”
  • “What was the reasoning behind charging XXX rather than human trafficking?”
  • “I wish I had known that the victim was hospitalized. Was there a confidentiality issue there that you can explain?”
  • “We were really spinning our wheels in the beginning stages of this case. I wonder if it would be helpful next time for the case agent and case manager to speak each morning to review upcoming appointments, victim needs, and case progression?”
  • “We brought in DOL way too late. How can we invite them on to the task force and involve them earlier in case strategy?”

Finally, a post-case review might serve as an opportunity to recognize how much a task force grew in its ability to collaborate and be reason for celebration.

Smart Tip: Trust is established over time through the shared experience of working together on one trafficking case at a time, and by communicating or debriefing about the experiences of that case, regardless of whether there was a successful outcome.

Find nonthreatening ways to facilitate conflict resolution. In one task force, the team leader routinely received phone calls, during the first year of the group’s formation, from members with complaints about each other and about other organizations’ performances. After a period of weaving those complaints into the meeting discussions in a nonthreatening way that focused on the problem, the leader observed that the members began bringing up their concerns on their own in a similar manner. The group’s discussions became more productive, and trust among the membership increased.

Develop a process for addressing conflicting opinions about who is a victim. Task forces should develop a standing procedure to specifically address a common and recurring issue of conflicting opinions concerning the status of an individual as meeting the definition of “victim.”

Visit Faces of Human Trafficking to view related materials. View the Transcript.

For example, one task force experienced a situation where a foreign national over-stayed her/his visa and claimed they were a victim of domestic servitude. This individual was simultaneously brought to the attention of local law enforcement and the task force’s immigration attorney. The attorney believed the individual was a victim. The task force contacted their ICE/HSI partner; HSI knew the person and had moved to deport before the person claimed to be a trafficking victim. Based on HSI’s prior investigation and the odd way the victim related the story to law enforcement (i.e, self-identifying as a trafficking victim), both HSI and law enforcement believed the person was trying to circumvent the T visa process. The attorney, law enforcement official, and ICE (those directly involved in the “victim or not victim” discussion) met to discuss the case. They could not reach agreement on the individual, so as a group they decided to refer the individual to another human trafficking/immigration attorney whom the task force knew and trusted. This decision best served the interests of the individual and the collaboration of the task force, and ultimately resulted in submission of a T visa.

This process (outlined in the blue box Emergency/Special Case Review example below) is extremely helpful in ensuring that all parties have all the available information regarding evidence of each aspect of the crime. Of course, victim service providers and/or attorneys must have written consent to share information at this meeting. Task force members identify evidence under “process,” “means,” and “end” aspects of the definition of human trafficking and then identify next steps. There are cases where not everyone is able to share all evidence they possess, so it should be acknowledged and decided what to do instead in those situations. Task force members must also understand that organizations and offices may continue to hold different opinions and develop procedures that respect the different roles of each organization. A service provider does not have the same evidentiary standards as a prosecutor, and not all cases will be brought to trial no matter how much the victim suffered. These practicalities should be understood and respected by all members of the task force.

Oftentimes, task forces have information-sharing protocols that do not endorse a single definition of victim because a one-size fits all definition can actually be counterproductive. Each task force member has differing duties and functions, and the meaning should be driven by the context in which the word is used. For example, law enforcement might not be able to count a particular individual as a victim per a specific legal standard, but a victim service provider may still wish and need to do so in order to properly capture their efforts for funding purposes. Both definitions are in good faith and correct in context, even though they are not exactly the same in scope. Mutual respect between parties recognizes such differences in role and function, and it can be a good topic for dialogue at a large task force meeting.

Emergency/Special Case Review Example from the International Institute of Buffalo

The emergency meeting is designed to facilitate discussion toward addressing concerns about an investigation, prosecution, or victim issue. Other task force participants, as identified by the lead law enforcement official (LEO) and prosecutor, in conjunction with the U.S. Attorney’s Office (USAO) representative to address the concerns in the case, will attend these reviews. These special case reviews will be called on an as-needed basis.

The USAO representative of the steering committee will make the determination of the need for such meetings. The meeting will include the lead investigative agency, prosecutor, and any other agency involved in the criminal investigation. Members of the task force are encouraged to have open lines of communication in order to meet task force requirements. The USAO representative of the steering committee will chair the meeting.

1. Requesting Party

Any task force participant involved in a case investigated or served through the task force may call a special or emergency meeting for the purpose of case review at any point in the case process.

2. Meeting Procedure

  • Contact USAO steering committee member.
  • Provide verbal justification for emergency review.
  • Specify who needs to attend.
  • Schedule and review case as soon as practicable.

3. Information to be Presented

In addition to information presented in a regularly scheduled steering committee case review meeting, the person calling the emergency meeting should be prepared to present information regarding why an emergency meeting was required, along with any exigent circumstances present in the case.

4. Final Review

At the conclusion of a task force case, the lead LEO, NGO, and prosecutor will meet to critique the case from the start of the investigation to its conclusion. NGO participation in final case reviews will be specific to services they provide to victims of human trafficking.

The case critique will serve as a training tool and establish best practices to be shared with other members of the task force, as well as to identify and correct shortfalls. The USAO task force member will track and promulgate best practices for both LEO and NGO participation. The sharing of any information by members of the task force will comply with existing agency policies and will be subject to pertinent agency legal restrictions, as well as applicable state and federal laws.


For additional information and tools, visit the Resource page for Section 3.4 Addressing Common Operational Challenges.