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In a previous essay, we introduced the Academic Unit Diagnostic Tool (AUDiT) that we’ve developed at the National Center for Professional and Research Ethics at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. The AUDiT is a self-assessment tool for the health of academic units. Perhaps by now you have had a chance to use it for an assessment of your own academic unit. 

One focus of this assessment is to consider the causes and manifestations of conflict within academic units. Such disputes can escalate and contaminate the working climate, drive out valued colleagues, make it harder to hire new colleagues and contribute to a unit’s overall decline. While you cannot change the conduct of your colleagues, you can affect how problems play out by changing how you think about and react to conflicts when they arise. 

Here are five ways to manage conflicts and disputes.  

Step back and assess. Once you realize that you are in a dispute with a colleague, stop and reflect before engaging more fully. If conflict erupts unexpectedly -- say, in the course of a meeting -- try to de-escalate in the moment, then reflect and re-engage later when tempers and emotions are not running so high. It can be a temptation to respond in the moment, but doing so draws you into the other’s dynamic rather than giving you time to think and respond according to your own values and goals.

Consider the source of the conflict and why you are involved. Determine your goal and the outcome you’d like to see -- whether pursuing an alternative solution to a problem, seeking an apology or changing certain procedures or behaviors. Once you know your goal, it can be easier to devise a solution that will help you achieve it. Be honest with yourself. If your goal sounds more like “win the fight and never deal with the person again,” it may be time to do more thinking.  

After you have considered those core issues, turn to the specifics of the situation. Start with considering your role in the conflict and asking why you are engaging. Are you a party to the dispute, are you serving as a mediator or are you the decision maker? Once you know what others expect of you and what you are willing to do, explore how the current situation developed, the perspectives of the different stakeholders, what the parties (including you) want and need, and the most likely outcome the group can achieve.  

Then decide when you will pursue the next step. If you can, choose a time of day that will be best for most, if not all, of the involved parties. In preparing for this step, ask yourself:

  • Will you have time to work the problem all the way through? 
  • Where will you meet? Someone’s office or a neutral site? 
  • Will you invite other people to join?

If at all possible, deal with the problem in person where you can see the person’s face. Avoid using email when having a dispute. A conflict requires a richer form of communication than email can provide. If the conflict began over email, do not continue it there. It is easy for emotional miscommunication to occur over email, compounding an already complex and heated situation. Move email conflict to face-to-face interaction as soon as you can. If face-to-face is not possible, try the telephone or video chat.

Prepare. Identify and gather the information, documentation or evidence that you need to move to a good or acceptable resolution. Do not assume others have all the facts that influence your goals. Consider how this information would “read” to neutral or objective parties. Do other people have information that might change your perspective? Work to keep an open mind. 

Prepare a script or words to use if the situation escalates or you need to call a break. Have that script ready to follow to avoid making decisions in the moment, and for agreeing to disagree. Prepare strategies to agree on a time, place and method for another meeting.  Here are some sample scripts:  

  • “I would like to reflect so that I can give you a thoughtful answer. Can I get back to you in 20 minutes?”
  • “I would like to give this issue further consideration. Might you have time tomorrow when I could get back to you?”
  • “I’d like to recheck some of the matters we're discussing and resume our conversation later.”  

If at all possible, do not extend the conflict by involving others in it before you have pursued a resolution with the people most directly involved. Keep the circle of conflict as small as possible. Distinguish between airing your concerns with those around you and seeking confidential advice to help you prepare for a constructive approach to resolution. There is a big difference between airing the dispute with others (“He was so awful to me”), which can extend the conflict, and practicing what you will say with someone you trust to keep the conversation private and who can give you constructive feedback. (“If I say it this way, does it communicate effectively?”) If the consequence or seriousness of the discussion is significant, it is important to be well prepared. So having a perspective from someone more objective than you can be might help lead to a more constructive interaction. 

Stay calm and stick to facts. The calmer you are, the more effective and persuasive your comments will be and the more likely you are to be heard. Do not guess at or impute motives to others. Do not attribute to malice anything that miscommunication might explain. Assuming a positive intent on the part of other people -- even when you have reason to doubt it -- will help you stay in a constructive, problem-solving mode. If bad intent is causing the issues, that will emerge soon enough.

You should also clarify the facts. Rather than saying, “Everyone knows …” share information you have and listen before responding. You may find that everyone does not know. Be ready to consider alternative explanations, especially the possibility that you might be wrong. Before drawing conclusions or making charges about what the other person has done, ask clarifying questions, such as:   

  • “Have I understood your concerns properly?”
  • “I’d like to understand more about why …”
  • “Maybe I’m confused. As I understood from our previous conversation, you were going to do X and Y. Could you help me understand where I’ve gone wrong?” 

Use low-key language. Strip all accusatory, blaming or angry words out of everything you say. Focus on conduct, not intentions or motives. Remove all emotionally laden words and replace them with more neutral, action-specific ones:    

  • “You left the meeting at that point” instead of “You stormed out of the meeting.”
  • “You became red in the face and raised your voice” instead of “You pitched a fit.”
  • "We had differing perspectives on some central points” instead of “You lied about all the facts.”

Soften your introductory phrases to leave room for a misunderstanding:     

  • “Would you agree that, when we discussed this in August, we had allocated effort as follows?”
  • "As I understand the situation, A and B had an exchange in class that became heated, and you were intervening. Is that accurate?”

Use “I” not “you” messages in order to avoid making a rushed or poorly founded accusation and to help the other person understand what is clear to you and what isn’t. Use: 

  • “I’m confused …”
  • "I'm hoping you can help me understand …”
  • “I’m concerned …”
  • “I wonder …”

Stay factual. Do not infer cause or connection. Say:

  • You stated …”
  • “I saw/noticed/observed …”
  • “First X happened, and then Y happened …” 

Show respect for the others in the conversation. Disputes are, at base, negotiations in which both parties have something they want to achieve. Setting the tone and doing what is possible to build trust are vital for constructive outcomes. 

Stay on the high road. If the other person makes unprofessional remarks or says something hurtful or rude, it is tempting to respond in kind. Instead, acknowledge that they are upset and return to the topic at hand in as low-key a way as possible. Seek to avoid escalation of anger and negativity. Rather, say:

  • "Let's stay focused on the problem, not on each other."
  • "Would it help to take a break?"
  • "You are really invested in this, and I see that you're frustrated. We will not solve this by turning up the volume."

You can win the battle and lose the war through a stinging rejoinder, losing your temper or speaking in anger. Remember that your affect, how you handle conflicts, will be remembered. Leave out that great one-liner you could deliver that would be at the expense of others. Stay polite and seek a civil closure to the interaction. Express appreciation and double-check on the other person’s well-being. Remember that relationships in academe can last for decades, and how a colleague feels will linger long after the particulars of the event have receded in memory.  End your conversation gracefully: 

  • "This has been pretty intense. Do you think we're on a better track now?"
  • "Thank you for hanging in there with a hard topic. I really appreciate your commitment."
  • “I’m glad we were able to work though that and end amicably.”

By applying these techniques the next time you find yourself in the midst of a conflict or dispute, you will be on the way to preventing toxic interactions with colleagues and revitalizing your unit. When you are a unit’s leader, consciously model the ways in which you wish for others to treat you and each other, as well.

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