Conflict Resolution by Nancy Heuer-Evans, Curriculum Coordinator

What better time could we have to talk about conflict resolution than these crazy COVID days of quarantine, online learning, high tension politics, and civil unrest?

There’s a reason that conflict resolution is an essential part of any leadership training program—it’s indispensable and we don’t spend enough time, unless we’re social workers, learning how to effectively and empathetically resolve conflict.

As you know, conflict comes in every shade and flavor, and it can be found in every environment. The home, the workplace, social media, the grocery store (this one’s taken on new significance in light of the pandemic), and the place we’re going to focus on today—the classroom.

Sit in a room with any group of teachers and ask them about their experiences with conflict and prepare to buckle in for some bumpy rides. Whenever people are gathered together and have differing expectations, beliefs, communication styles, backgrounds, there exists the potential for conflict.

When I begin a new semester, one of the first lectures I give is on Artistotle’s rhetoric, and as I’m describing the rhetorical triangle (ethos/pathos/logos), I spend a great deal of time talking about pathos, which has to do with people’s deepest held beliefs and values, and how a speaker or writer cannot be effective if they do not know about and show respect to these beliefs and values. I talk about how damaging it can be to violate someone’s beliefs and values, and how difficult it is to recover from this damage if you’re trying to reach someone. Then the class contributes by telling their stories of when someone hurt their feelings or showed them disrespect. This really resonates with them.

Clearly, it boils down to empathy. This is where we must begin in seeking resolution.

Before you move toward solving stressful interactions, it is helpful to take an inventory of your conflict management style. How comfortable are you asserting yourself? Are you an introvert or an extrovert? These have a lot of bearing on identifying the conflict management style that might work best for you. This is definitely not a case of “one size fits all.”

Clearly, it boils down to empathy.

According to the Thomas-Kilmann Model, the most common types of conflict management styles are as follows:

  1. Competition (high assertiveness and low cooperativeness) You seek to achieve your own goals at the expense of someone else’s;
  2. Avoidance (low assertiveness and low cooperativeness) You avoid conflict and walk away, even if it means no one’s needs are met and the problem is not solved;
  3. Accommodation (low assertiveness and high cooperativeness) You give in to someone else who’s more assertive at the expense of what you might want or need;
  4. Compromise (average levels of both assertiveness and cooperativeness) You give up some of what you want in exchange for some sacrifices from the other side of the table;
  5. Collaboration (high assertiveness and high cooperativeness) You work toward finding a win-win solution for all parties by employing empathy and really listening to what is desired from all parties. (VanSant, S.)

Where are you on this continuum? I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to do an unvarnished assessment of your strengths and weaknesses in conflict scenarios. When I first started teaching, I had exactly 2 responses to conflict—1) flee and cry; and 2) go on the offensive. These were not useful, as you might imagine. I had to find some coping mechanisms—like what did my responses reveal about me? I suffered a bit from imposter syndrome, like if people were questioning or confronting me, it meant they saw through my teacher mask and knew I was a fraud. Eventually, after lots of journaling, talking to other teachers, and digging in online to look for solutions, I fell back on writing some “scripts” for myself. So if Student A wanted to grow belligerent about a grade, I could recite to myself, “This is not about me. This is disappointment and frustration and maybe fear talking. Address that.” I trained myself (and it was excruciating, believe me) to walk toward difficult conversations instead of away from them. I used to really struggle telling I student I had discovered their plagiarism. Yes, I know. It’s unreasonable. I had done nothing wrong, right? But in my head, I felt like a failure because I had not realized they were desperate enough to take that step. I finally found a compromise. I would return the paper with a note on it that said, “See Me. Attached is your SafeAssign report.” This accomplished a couple things—it gave them a private moment to digest the face that they’d been caught, and it put the ball in their court to come speak with me, which is where it should have been to begin with. This downplayed the “gotcha” element of being busted, which allowed them to save face and deal with the problem privately, and the fact that I had allowed them this privacy ratcheted down the conflict considerably.

Think about the types of conflicts you encounter. Are they Flash Fires or Slow Burns?

For Flash Fires (conflicts that arise spontaneously and rapidly), I would recommend you use LEAF, by Jeremy Pollack, founder of Pollack Peacebuilding Systems.

Listen – Listening to a grievance is crucial, and it’s not just a matter of being quiet until it’s your turn to talk. Be sure you ask any clarifying questions, that you acknowledge the position of the speaker, that you practice ACTIVE LISTENING skills. Focus completely on the speaker, using your attention, your body language, your everything to indicate that they have your undivided attention. If you are not in a place where this is possible, schedule a time to talk when you can do this. When they have finished, you should be able to restate your understanding of the issue; doing this helps them know you paid attention and allows them a chance to clarify anything that is unclear.
Steven Covey, author of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, is right: Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

Empathize – Empathy is in short supply, it seems, and yet it is one of the most important soft skills we can use. Put yourself in another’s position—how would you feel? What would you want?

Apologize – If you are the source of the problem, you must apologize. And it can’t be one of those phony apologies “I’m sorry you feel that way.” That takes no responsibility for how your words or actions hurt someone. If it’s someone else and you are mediating conflict, you can guide them toward the place where an apology is possible.

Fix – This is on the list, but it’s not always possible. Sometimes a fix is elusive. Sometimes a fix is an apology or a promise to do better the next time. Sometimes it requires bringing in a third party. Whatever it is, demonstrate your commitment to making it right.

For Slow Burn conflict situations, you might look at creating a system to manage conflict. For instance, if some teams are having trouble collaborating with other teams and it keeps happening, it’s time to do some deeper structural work. Should the teams be restructured? Should there be a rubric they have to communicate with each other? Is this a power struggle? Figure out what’s behind the ongoing conflict. Anything you do without knowing the motivation will be a temporary bandaid.

For these more complex situations, you may need to use the 6 steps of conflict resolution highlighted on the site (but only after you’ve listened and applied empathy):

  • Clarify what the disagreement is.
  • Establish a common goal for both parties.
  • Discuss ways to meet the common goal.
  • Determine the barriers to the common goal.
  • Agree on the best way to resolve the conflict.
  • Acknowledge the agreed solution and determine the responsibilities each party has in the resolution.

This takes the focus off the individual personality clashes and turf wars and refocuses it on goals that benefit your shared work.

Working on your own listening and empathy skills will serve you in most stressful situations. While I don’t relish conflict, I don’t shrink from it any more. I trust that I will do my best to put myself in someone’s position and understand their point of view. This informs how I interact with my students and my co-workers. And, most of the time, my family.

For resources on how you can become more comfortable dealing with conflict, see the list at the end of this article.

Don’t forget to check out our i-PathwaysLearningLab web site and be a part of our learning and growing community.

See you next month!

Additional Resources:

Covey, S. R. (2004). The 7 habits of highly effective people: Restoring the character ethic ([Rev. ed.].). New York: Free Press.

VanSant, S., Wired For Conflict: The Role of Personality in Resolving Conflict, at 53-55 (2003).

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