Less Stress: How You Can Respond to and Manage Visitor Conflict

Article excerpt

Stressed out by visitor conflict? Relax--the good news is that the percentage of visitors reporting conflict has remained in the same range since 1980. Even better, many visitors appear to handle the conflicts themselves. So, what's a manager got to do with it? Despite the apparent good news, visitor conflict remains a salient and evolving management issue.

Although conflict has a negative connotation, it can actually be a positive influence in recreation management. Recreation conflict can indicate systemic inefficiencies, generate superior solutions, keep the organization at a higher level of stimulation and, at the very least, prevent stagnation.

Following management guru Covey (1989), who suggests that you must first seek to understand and then be understood, managers need to understand conflict, its magnitude, and visitor responses. Once clearly understood, appropriate conflict management responses can be developed, implemented and monitored in ways such that visitors understand and support your management. Commonalities among conflict situations in five recreation areas across the recreation opportunity spectrum shed insight on conflict management.

Conflict and Its Magnitude

Conflict in the recreation field includes: goal interference attributed to another (Jacob & Schreyer 1980), a tax on the visitor's coping resources (Schneider & Hammitt, 1995) and something of a cumulative nature rather than an immediate reaction to a situation (Owens, 1985). Visitors indicate conflict when they see litter, experience fear and are stressed because of other visitor's behaviors. Managers have identified visitor conflict as a common problem for more than 20 years (Hammitt, 1988; Jakes, Gregerson, Lundgren, & Bengston, 1990). Visitor surveys indicate anywhere from five to 40 percent of visitors have something interfering with their experience. Fortunately, the potential for conflict resolution among recreation visitors is high compared to conflict between other groups (Floyd, Germain, & ter Horst, 1996).

Effective conflict management requires situational specific information. In the last decade, several agencies sought visitor conflict specifics in recreation areas across the recreation opportunity spectrum. These quests revealed interesting similarities and important management implications applicable across many areas.

Understanding Visitor Conflict Through a Stress Approach

In the last 10 years, five conflict studies revealed commonalities in both visitor responses to conflict and ideas for conflict management. Common to the studies themselves were the approach and method. In each conflict situation, it was assumed that the conflict was a stress to which the visitor responded to and coped with. The approach, based on Lazarus and Folkman's (1984) model, has five major elements: (1) person and situation factors, (2) appraisals, (3) stress, (4) coping response and (5) short and long term adaptational outcomes (Figure 1 on page 68). For instance, a person biking along a trail who encounters a dog off leash may appraise the situation as stressful because of a fear of dogs. The hiker responds with immediate fear and frustration, considers their options to avoid the dog and protect themselves, talk with their group members about it, and plans to avoid the area next time they bike. Thus, the biker leaves the area with their experience quality diminished and a plan to change their visitation.

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Situations appraised as stressful require coping responses. Two basic coping categories are recognized and used in tandem: problem-focused and emotion-focused (Lazarus & Folkman, 198ae). Problem-focused processes make changes in the environment or person to deal with the stress. In recreation, visitors change the time, area or total location of their activities, and are subsequently displaced.

Emotion-focused processes alleviate or change the emotional impact of the stress and encompass a diversity of options such as distancing, selective attention or avoidance. …