Article Text

Download PDFPDF
Training paediatric healthcare staff in recognising, understanding and managing conflict with patients and families: findings from a survey on immediate and 6-month impact
  1. Liz Forbat1,
  2. Jean Simons2,
  3. Charlotte Sayer3,
  4. Megan Davies3,
  5. Sarah Barclay4
  1. 1Australian Catholic University and Calvary Health Care, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia
  2. 2Lullaby Trust, London, UK
  3. 3Evelina London Children's Hospital, St Thomas’ Hospital, London, UK
  4. 4Medical Mediation Foundation, London, UK
  1. Correspondence to Sarah Barclay, Medical Mediation Foundation, 36 Westbere Road, London NW23SR, UK; sarah.barclay{at}


Background Conflict is a recognised component of healthcare. Disagreements about treatment protocols, treatment aims and poor communication are recognised warning signs. Conflict management strategies can be used to prevent escalation, but are not a routine component of clinical training.

Objective To report the findings from a novel training intervention, aimed at enabling paediatric staff to identify and understand the warning signs of conflict, and to implement conflict resolution strategies.

Design and setting Self-report measures were taken at baseline, immediately after the training and at 6 months. Questionnaires recorded quantitative and qualitative feedback on the experience of training, and the ability to recognise and de-escalate conflict. The training was provided in a tertiary teaching paediatric hospital in England over 18 months, commencing in June 2013.

Intervention A 4-h training course on identifying, understanding and managing conflict was provided to staff.

Results Baseline data were collected from all 711 staff trained, and 6-month follow-up data were collected for 313 of those staff (44%). The training was successful in equipping staff to recognise and de-escalate conflict. Six months after the training, 57% of respondents had experienced conflict, of whom 91% reported that the training had enabled them to de-escalate the conflict. Learning was retained at 6 months with staff more able than at baseline recognising conflict triggers (Fischer's exact test, p=0.001) and managing conflict situations (Pearson's χ2 test, p=0.001).

Conclusions This training has the potential to reduce substantially the human and economic costs of conflicts for healthcare providers, healthcare staff, patients and relatives.

  • conflict
  • Health services research
  • paediatrics
  • training

Statistics from

Request Permissions

If you wish to reuse any or all of this article please use the link below which will take you to the Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink service. You will be able to get a quick price and instant permission to reuse the content in many different ways.

What is already known on this topic

  • Conflict between staff and patients/families in paediatric hospitals can be a frequent and severe phenomenon.

  • Direct and indirect costs associated with conflict include litigation, lower morale and reduced trust between staff and patients/families.

  • Empathy, communication and collaboration are recognised features in managing conflict.

What this study adds

  • A 4 h tailored training programme increases staff ability to recognise conflict triggers and de-escalate conflicts.

  • Staff reported that 6 months after the training, the focus on empathy and communication skills had led to changes in their practice.


Conflict is a recognised component of healthcare provision. Direct and indirect costs associated with conflict include litigation, reduced productivity, staff turnover and team morale.1 For patients, conflict results in compromised decision-making2 and undermining trust in clinicians.3 ,4

Conflict consumes considerable amounts of staff time, particularly nurses and doctors.5 Communication difficulties are identified as a significant contributor to conflict,5 ,6 as are cross-cultural difficulties7 and religious beliefs.8 Underpinning each of these causes can be different understandings of the clinical situation,9 different interpretations of futility10 and likely prognosis.11 In recent work documenting the incidence and severity of conflict in paediatric settings, the three most frequently cited causes of conflict between staff and patients/family members were: communication breakdown, disagreements about treatment and unrealistic expectations.5

Conflict models offer ways of conceptualising strategies which may facilitate resolution. The Thomas–Killman' two-dimensional model proposes that there is a need to balance assertiveness and cooperation,12 which includes further facets of collaboration, competition, accommodation, avoidance and compromise. Although developed in the context of business and management-related conflict, this model holds value in articulating core features of conflict management. The development of empathy, enabling the other party to maintain self-respect and self-esteem have been proposed as core elements of managing conflict.13 Growing recognition of how conflicts develop and worsen facilitates awareness of when to intervene to minimise further escalation.3

While mediation may be a solution14 ,15 changing practice, focusing on staff understanding and team-management of conflict, may be more fruitful for managing emerging conflicts and early intervention. Training comprises a core mechanism for changing how clinicians respond to the potential for conflict, particularly when the information can be used soon after the training.16 Yet paediatric trainees do not receive adequate conflict management training.17 Kaufman18 outlines a curriculum for teaching medical staff about identifying and responding to conflict, which takes account of time constraints, the need for behavioural change, contextual power structures, assumed skills and the legal parameters of managing conflict. The paper concludes by stating a need for educational programmes to be tailored to meet these features.

This paper describes an innovative training course designed for staff in a paediatric hospital to recognise, manage effectively and de-escalate conflicts.


The training content was developed by SB and JS, based on understandings of conflict causes, impacts3 and severity5 in paediatric settings. The training mirrored Gerardi's1 work on assessing the conflict, identifying some of the symptoms, underlying causes and unhelpful assumptions which may exacerbate or cause conflict, and Back's2 description of useful communication tools such as active listening, empathising and self-disclosure. The training:

  • (1) Provided information on what triggers conflict between parents and health professionals and how to spot the warning signs,

  • (2) Included simulation exercises designed to encourage staff to empathise with patients and families by ‘stepping into their shoes’,

  • (3) Taught skills to help staff de-escalate conflicts with families.

The 4-h training sessions were run in multidisciplinary groups of up to 15 people, over the course of 18 months.

Training sessions began with an opportunity for participants to discuss in pairs a conflict they had experienced with a parent or patient, focusing on the impact of the conflict and on the thoughts and emotions they experienced at the time. The training sessions also involved simulation exercises, asking participants to play the part of a parent or health professional, or begin a conversation with a parent who is exhibiting the warning signs of potential or escalating conflict such as distress or anger.

Participants and measures

Participant eligibility was determined by individuals being employed by the hospital (a tertiary paediatric hospital in England), at any grade or in any role. Nursing staff and non-consultant doctors were rostered to attend the training by their managers who encouraged participation of their teams and ensured that they were allowed time off from their clinical duties to attend. Training dates were also circulated via the Trust email so that any member of staff could apply for a training place. All staff who expressed an interest in the training were accommodated to attend.

A bespoke questionnaire was designed to determine the immediate and long-term impact of the training. The questionnaire was administered at three time points: immediately before the training, immediately after and 6 months later. The first two were administered by paper copy. The third was sent via an electronic survey to staff email addresses. Staff who were still working in the hospital were followed up in person by CS or MD. All questionnaires sought information on whether staff were able to recognise the triggers of conflict between families and health professionals, and whether they had the strategies to manage conflict. Qualitative prompts asked participants to reflect on their main learning (‘tell us one thing you learnt from this training which you have found helpful in communicating with patients and their families’), and to record ‘any other comments you would like to make about the training and/or its impact on your practice’. Demographic information regarding staff role was also collected.

The 6-month follow-up survey collected data on: (A) whether the training had equipped staff to more readily recognise and de-escalate conflicts with patients and families, (B) describe one thing they had learnt from the training which they had found helpful in communicating with patients and their families, (C) whether they had experienced a conflict with a family since doing the training and if so, whether the training had helped them to (1) recognise the triggers and warning signs (2) to de-escalate or resolve the conflict.

Responses were recorded on either a 5-point Likert scale, or as a simple yes/no binary. Analysis was primarily conducted using descriptive statistics, to enable reporting of percentages, mean, mode and median scores. Respondent identifiers were not used, prohibiting treating responses as paired data. Pearson's χ2 and Fischer's exact tests were used to examine a priori hypotheses (significance set at p=0.05) regarding the impact of the training on ability to recognise signs and triggers from pre training to 6-month follow-up and on differences between nursing and medical professionals. Data were organised as frequency counts and percentages of people who answer in each Likert category at each time point, to report observed and expected frequencies.

Qualitative data collected from free-text prompts were analysed drawing on thematic analysis, adopting a five-stage process of familiarisation, identifying a thematic framework, indexing the data, synthesising across respondents and data interpretation to form key themes.19 Analysis was informed by a position of theoretical freedom, rather than a priori hypotheses regarding the likely content or themes arising from the data.20 Analysis was conducted by an experienced qualitative researcher, with discussion of emergent themes with the wider team.

The study was conducted in one tertiary paediatric teaching hospital in England. Data collection commenced in June 2013 and ceased on 30 May 2015, with the training provided from June 2013 until November 2014. This study was deemed by the hospital's Research and Development team to be service evaluation and consequently was not reviewed by a health service research ethics committee.


Seven hundred and eleven staff were trained and completed baseline data, 313 of whom completed questionnaires at 6-month follow-up. Table 1 provides details of respondents' staff role and the number of completed surveys at each time point.

Table 1

Study participants

Staff rated the quality of the training very highly, with 98.5% rating it excellent or good, and 99.8% rating it very relevant or relevant as indicated in table 2.

Table 2

Quality and relevance of training

Participants were asked about their ability to recognise triggers for conflict and use of skills to manage conflicts. Table 3 summarises the binary yes/no responses and illustrates an improvement from baseline to immediate-post training assessment. Table 4 illustrates the observed and expected frequencies across the Likert scale for recognising triggers. Fisher's exact test indicated a significant difference between the scores 4 and 5 in the pretraining responses compared with the 6-month follow-up data (43.7% vs 57.8 and 6.7% vs 29.1%, p=0.001). Figure 1 illustrates changes in staff ability to recognise triggers from baseline to 6-month follow-up

Table 3

Learning about identifying and managing conflict

Table 4

Ability to recognise triggers

Figure 1

Ability to recognise triggers.

Table 5 demonstrates the observed and expected frequencies across the Likert scale for pre and 6-month follow-up data. Pearson's χ2 test indicated a significant difference between the scores 4 and 5 in the pretraining responses and the 6-month follow-up responses (20.1% vs 58.5 and 3.1% vs 17.9% respectively, p=0.001). Figure 2 illustrates changes in staff ability to deal with conflict from baseline to 6-month follow-up.

Table 5

Ability to deal with conflict

Figure 2

Ability to deal with conflict.

At 6-month follow-up, participants were asked if the training had equipped them to recognise and de-escalate conflicts with patients/families. The majority (n=283, 90%) reported that the training had had this impact.

Six months after the training 178 staff respondents (57%) had experienced conflict. Of those 178, 169 (95%) said that the training had enabled them to recognise the triggers for the conflict. One hundred and sixty-two (91%) reported that they had also been able to de-escalate the conflict as a consequence of the training.

Data from baseline and 6-month follow-up were analysed to determine if there were differences between nurses' and doctors' responses to the training, in reporting scores of 4 or 5 (able or very able) to recognise and deal with conflict. Neither analysis approached significance at baseline or follow-up (recognise conflict, p=0.459; deal with conflict, p=0.725). Consequently, the training appeared to have comparable impact across staff groups.

Analysis of the qualitative data identified five core themes, and a further six minor themes. The five core themes were: communication and listening, recognising warning signs/triggers, improvements in practice, empathy and perspective taking. Participants identified that being aware of early warning signs and triggers was key learning from the training, impacting practice:The training has been a key factor in the fact that I have not experienced any conflicts in the last few months. Early recognition of triggers has helped me avoid conflict developing. (Clinical nurse specialist)The training was so useful! Our department faces conflict daily. The training came into use three times the day after the course. All three were potentially explosive situations which I felt very able to manage. I think little updates/refreshers to the training would be most valuable. (Paediatric dental specialist)

Many staff reported specific strategies from the training which they were using routinely, reinforcing the positive impact of the practical nature of the training. One such strategy derived from the training, but not explicitly suggested to participants, was to manage the environment in which difficult conversations took place, for example, moving a parent from the ward to a room to enable a more private conversation. In response to the prompt ‘One thing I learnt was…’ staff offered the following responses:The ability to remove a parent from a tense environment to a side room where she/he may be able to express himself/herself in confidence and without interruption and to be listened to actively. (Staff nurse)Effective listening, and not hesitating to apologise and not give false hope. (Staff nurse)Not confronting them, but allowing the patient/relative to vent their frustrations and focus your efforts on understanding the cause of their frustrations rather than denying or opposing their views. (Non-consultant doctor)

Learning how to develop an empathic approach by ‘stepping into the shoes’ of patients and families was reported by many respondents as having a profound impact on their approach to engaging with them:[The training] made me try to put myself in the shoes of patients and their relatives, and to think about things from their perspective much more. (Consultant)To see it from the families' perspective more. Even if I may not fully agree with the argument/issue I now empathise more with the stressful situations the families are in. (Staff nurse)


This tailored training, delivered to staff in a paediatric hospital, resulted in a significant improvement in the ability to identify and manage conflict with patients and relatives. Unresolved conflict over goals of care that escalate may require external interventions such as independent mediation or court intervention.21 ,22 This training therefore has the potential to reduce the need for such costly and stressful involvement of third parties.

Evidence-based methods of addressing conflict are required, since conflict regarding treatment and goals of care is a marker for increased risk of complicated bereavement for families23 and is an independent predictor of burn-out in staff.24 Previous research has demonstrated the impact of conflict management training on reducing employee stress25 and consequently points to the potential for positively impacting morale.26 The impact on the quality of care has yet to be established. Indeed, conflict can be construed positively as a way of energising and prompting initiation of new conversations to manage hostility.27 The findings support other calls for training on conflict management to be built into healthcare infrastructure.28

Although simulation training has been criticised,29 the blended approach to this training, including role play, appears to have had a substantial positive impact on attendees' self-reported ability to recognise and then manage conflict situations with patients and families. The use of self-report measures is a recognised methodological weakness.30 ,31 The lack of control or comparison group, for example using other communication skills development approaches32 or compassion,33 which are known to reduce patient distress,34 compromises claims about this intervention being superior to other communication interventions. Since participant identifiers were not used in any of the survey cycles, paired analysis was not possible. This limits the ability to track individual transformation over the training and follow-up timeline. The lack of paired data also precluded fine-grained analysis of which staff groups' responses reflected greatest levels of reported change; this is particularly salient since conflict is not experienced uniformly across staff groups.5

The training was offered only on a one-off basis, and further evaluation should be conducted on the additive value of a refresher course. Further evaluation could include additional measures to record impact on staff performance, such as impact on number of conflicts experienced, changes in family/patient satisfaction with care (to allow for comparison with staff reports of being able to de-escalate 91% of conflicts), alongside measures to report any impact the training had on intrastaff conflict.

The study focused on conflict between staff and patient and families, and consequently did not examine intrastaff conflict. Some of the training may have had a positive impact on this, but it was not measured. Loss to follow-up at 6 months may be partially explained by some staff (notably doctors in training) no longer working at the hospital and therefore being less engaged in the ongoing evaluation. Respondents returning questionnaires at 6 months may be a skewed sample of those most satisfied or highly impacted by the training, despite identical reminders from two members of the team.


With an established need for interventions which help manage conflict5 this training provides an evidence-based approach to training healthcare staff. The training has the potential to reduce the human and economic costs of conflict, by furnishing staff with the appropriate skills and knowledge to identify and then de-escalate potential and actual conflicts.



  • Twitter Follow Liz Forbat at @lizforbat

  • Contributors SB, JS and LF designed the work. CS and MD acquired the data. LF, CS, MD and SB interpreted the data. LF and SB drafted the work and revised it critically for intellectual content. LF, JS, CS, MD and SB approved the final version of the manuscript. LF, JS MD, CS and SB agree to be accountable for all aspects of the work ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.

  • Funding The study was funded by the Guy's and St Thomas' Charity (Grant: EFT120609).

  • Competing interests SB received a grant from the Guy's and St Thomas' Charity, during the conduct of the study; and she is the director of the Medical Mediation Foundation—an organisation which provides conflict management training and mediation in situations where there is disagreement/conflict between patients and healthcare professionals. However, the manuscript focuses on conflict incidence not mediation as a solution.

  • Ethics approval Not required.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; internally peer reviewed.

  • Data sharing statement Any requests for raw data should be directed to the corresponding author.

Linked Articles

  • Atoms
    Martin Ward Platt