Navigating Conflict

To be ready to lead in higher education, you must understand how to deal with conflict, writes Elizabeth Suárez.

May 4, 2016

How many of us wake up in the morning ready to confront conflict? My guess is not many. Unfortunately, we live in a world where conflict surrounds us on a daily basis. And if we are choosing to lead in higher education, we can count on conflict from various directions.

Take, for instance, Mary Robinson, a tenured chemistry professor at a large research institution. Mary is known as amicable, collaborative and helpful. Her students and institution regard her highly. Last month, the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences asked her to chair the promotions and tenure committee. Although Mary might have limited time due to her research and teaching, she realizes this is an important service for the college and an opportunity for her future.

Since the announcement, Mary has felt some level of isolation from her colleagues during department staff meetings and other gatherings. Several side conversations and political discussions regarding the department have taken place without her participation -- which never occurred before her appointment as the P&T committee chair. After further analysis of the situation, a colleague confirms that several senior faculty members are unhappy with Mary’s appointment and thus do not feel comfortable involving her in their department conversations.

Whatever the reason or the academic season, Mary should take action. Taking an active leadership role should not come at the expense of connections in her department. How should she begin to deal with her peers who act out their discomfort by excluding her from key discussions? Complicating the situation further, the conversations she has been involved in have not been antagonistic.

Many times, conflicts like the one described are more difficult to address than those that are more overtly hostile. Why? The answer is simple: most people can survive them.

As an alternative dispute resolution professional, I have seen firsthand how people prefer to avoid conflict rather than address it, especially when they are dealing with a nonconfrontational situation. Many times such conflicts come with a large dose of passive-aggressiveness. Additionally, when people like Mary and her peers engage in a conflict resolution discussion, they opt to do it without any preparation or real understanding of what to expect. Conflict resolution is a key leadership skill. Therefore, leaders who find themselves in conflict, no matter the type, should consider a quick three-step approach: 1) Prepare, 2) Practice and 3) Communicate.

Prepare. Preparation is the most important step when getting ready to deal with conflict. Without proper planning, any person runs the risk of sabotaging the resolution process. At this stage, we normally are only focused on our own perspective and rarely take the time to figure out the needs and wants of the others involved. This practice, however, is key to understanding the conflict.

In a nonconfrontational environment like Mary’s, the opposing person, or group of people, may not admit to any difficulties if asked. Therefore, what can she do, and what might you do in a similar situation, to avoid this type of roadblock?

You can simply change perspective by arguing and defending the other side. Imagine acting as their defense attorney in order to figure out their needs and wants. That will give you a better understanding of how your behavior and actions might be fueling their potential hostility and dislike toward your performance and accomplishments.

Some questions to ask to assist in this task might include the following:

  • Why is the other party not addressing me voluntarily?
  • What are the responses I’m receiving from my peers when I inquire about their projects or ask for assistance with the P&T committee?
  • Are the responses limited and different from the ones I would receive before the conflict emerged?

If Mary were having any difficulties answering these types of questions, I would encourage her to seek input from trusted people in her department. She should also seek advice from mentors on and off the campus. They can provide an objective perspective of the situation.

As the preparation continues to evolve, I would encourage Mary to establish a road map, which outlines how the discussion could potentially flow between the parties. She should then consider how she might help address the needs identified by her colleague. That calls for identifying compromising items, while embracing some uncomfortable thinking. Although Mary might feel like the victim in the situation, in reality all parties are victimized during a conflict. That might be hard to accept, but others’ reactions are fully correlated to one’s own behavior.

Another important consideration for the preparation-stage road map is managing the passive-aggressive behavior that is often present in nonconfrontational conflicts. First and foremost, it is not Mary’s job to change her co-workers’ behavior. Instead, she should focus her efforts on understanding why such behavior is present. Could it be jealousy? Or simply a co-worker feeling powerless or less valued due to the other party’s recognition?

The answer for Mary on both questions is a firm yes. Therefore, when you are on the receiving end of passive-aggressive behavior, you must avoid communicating in ways that may trigger such behavior even further. In Mary’s situation, she could begin a dialogue with her co-worker in a private setting with the following:

“Recently, I have noticed a difference in how we have been providing feedback to each other. I would like to talk with you and learn how we can both better communicate with each other. What could I start doing to help with improving our communication?”

Practice. At this point, you have taken the time to really understand the situation at hand in the preparation stage. You think you are ready to make the first move in the conflict resolution process. However, before you take this next step, practice is key. By practicing, you will be able to work through any discomforts you might have about the topic. You will also become more at ease with uttering the words needed to reach a compromise and work toward resolution.

During the practice stage, Mary should seek help from a mentor, adviser or close friend to fully role-play the pending conversation. Through role-playing, she will be able to practice active listening as well as feel more comfortable with having the uncomfortable discussion. In addition, it will help her react more favorably to potential surprises during the real exchange, since she will have had the opportunity to practice answering questions and comments modeled by her role-play partner.

When passive-aggressiveness is at its peak, it takes time to fully understand how to best deal with the situation. Therefore, it is imperative for Mary to practice multiple times with a variety of people to gain a realistic perspective of how the actual conversation might evolve.

Communicate. It’s showtime! You are face-to-face with the other person. The conversation has started, and the discussion begins to heat up. Now what? Take a deep breath. Remember what you practiced. You got this! Now, consider these steps:

  • Acknowledge: Do not blame. Instead, acknowledge the other person’s frustrations and complaints. You hope that individual will do the same for you. However, assume she won’t. Therefore, it is important that you also communicate the importance of acknowledging each other’s feelings and emotions during the difficult discussions.
  • Make eye contact: When you are communicating your point, as well as listening to her point of view, establish direct eye contact. That tactic puts you on equal ground with her. You are demonstrating your full engagement and interest. Keep in mind that this tactic is very effective in American culture, which is more individually focused. But be careful of how you use it when dealing with individuals who are part of a collective culture, as it might not be a good idea to seek direct eye contact. Instead, research what the best approaches are to establishing an equal playing field for that specific culture.
  • Provide information and inquire: In a calm and serene voice, explain your point of view, ask for theirs, compare and contrast. When explaining your point, never come across as indignant or annoyed with the other person’s viewpoint. As you did in the preparation step, take the time to actively listen and work toward identifying options and ways to compromise. Remember, you have already practiced multiple scenarios before this discussion. Try to relax and fully engage in the conversation without illustrating negative feelings.
  • Reassure: After each solution is agreed upon, reassure the other party by confirming you are both expecting the same change of behavior or outcome. It is best if you start working on the easier issues before tackling the most difficult ones. That way when you face a crossroad in the discussion, you can remind the other person of how many things you have agreed upon and how it would be a shame if she quit now and basically dismissed the collective hard work of negotiating.

Genuine communication can immediately de-escalate a conflict. Although Mary’s example might not be your reality, you can use the process I’ve outlined in any type of argument as it provides a strong foundation to help work toward an agreement. True leadership clearly requires managing conflict. You may as well learn to wake up ready to address it effectively!

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Elizabeth Suárez is director of the HERS (Higher Education Resource Services) Denver Institute.


Elizabeth Suárez

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