If your campus is free of conflicts, you’re in either in a honeymoon phase or in denial, or maybe your school is set in its ways and big on avoidance. Where smart, creative, self-assured people are gathered together, clashes of perspective are bound to surface.
Conflict can do harm or good, depending on how it’s handled. Keynoting the Wisconsin Women in Higher Education Leadership (WWHEL) conference in Madison WI in October was Dr. Sandra Cheldelin, professor of conflict resolution at the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University VA.
She’s a licensed psychologist, experienced mediator and co-author of Conflict Resolution (Jossey Bass 2004 with Ann Lucas) and Conflict: From Analysis to Intervention (Continuum 2003 with Daniel Druckman and Larissa Fast). She was provost—not a job for the conflict-averse—at Antioch University OH before joining George Mason in 1996.
Conflict comes from Latin for “striking together with force.” Sparks fly when words, emotions and actions strike together. She defined conflict as an expressed struggle between interdependent people or groups who perceive incompatible goals, scarce resources or interference in achieving their goals. “If it’s just a misperception, it’s easy to resolve with just a touch of good will,” she said. When the differences are real, relationships can get dicey.
Good, bad and ugly
Many groups have experienced the destructive effects of poorly handled conflict. It undermines good feelings and cooperation, divides the group into factions and deepens differences by legitimizing lack of support for the group.
It discourages honest and open participation; why stick your neck out to get bashed? Turning personal, it diverts attention from the real issues.
Did you ever wake up in the middle of the night thinking, I can’t believe I said that? “A destructive conflict will end up with behavior you regret,” she said.
She got into a conflict on co-authorship: Which name should be listed first? She won the first round but his name appeared first on the second edition. Though she knew better, she sent him a nasty email; “I did it with great joy.” He wrote back that he had nothing to do with the change.
In contrast, well-managed conflict can bring wonderful benefits. It encourages open discussion and a full exploration of what’s on everyone’s mind. It gives otherwise powerless new people a voice and lets new ideas surface.
Communications become authentic and pent-up emotions find release. Diverse individuals build skills and confidence, and the group develops trust in its ability to weather change. The solution to the immediate conflict will be something everyone can live with.
Why conflicts happen
Not every difference of opinion is a conflict. You can listen to your favorite music and your friend can listen to hers; but you can’t play them both full blast in the same room at the same time, or each take home the same CD if there’s only one and you live apart. Conflict occurs when people either want different things and have to settle for the same thing, or want the same thing and have to settle for different things.
Across-the-board budget cuts set departments and faculty scrambling for scarce resources. Curriculum decisions can’t offer all things to all people. Threatening, contentious patterns of influence escalate matters, as may personal characteristics such as race or gender.
In The Mediation Process (Jossey-Bass, 2003), Christopher Moore outlined five causes of conflict:
- Data disputes. People have different information or interpret it differently. “These are shockingly common in higher education,” Cheldelin said.
- Relationship conflicts. Bias, stereotypes, poor communication, strong emotions and repeated negative behavior cause interpersonal tensions.
- Interest conflicts. When there’s only so much money for computers, who gets one? The senior administrators need one to plan a budget, staff need one to track the budget and faculty and students are all supposed to write on a computer.
- Value conflicts. Different ways of life or beliefs lead to different criteria for judging behavior. New arrivals don’t see things the same as the old guard.
- Structural conflicts. Unequal power, authority or distribution of resources is a common source of tension. Campus hierarchy and the tenure system are a set-up for conflict.
Physical structure was an issue where she worked. Faculty offices were upstairs, not accessible to everyone. Some wanted to pay $180,000 for an elevator. Instead, they eventually moved to a new site where stairs weren’t an issue, which changed the whole culture.
The unacceptable other
“When you create a story about a conflict, you position yourself and the other,” she said. You set yourself up as right and the other as wrong (or old, or female or black).
Rom Harré of Georgetown University DC developed positioning theory to describe a more flexible set of relationships than the traditional, static notion of “role.”
Positions don’t have to be forever. When she first went to the Institute, everyone went straight to their offices without saying hello. She felt unwelcome, positioned as an unwanted outsider. She would go home and cry. Someone asked her, “What are you going to do about it?” So she set about to reposition herself. She stopped by one colleague after another and said “Good morning” until they replied. In effect she was saying, “Hey, I’m here, you could at least say good morning.”
“Focus on the story line, not the person,” she said. Avoid describing people in metaphors, which position them as unacceptable others:
- “She attacked me; she was indefensible.”
- “He comes in like a hurricane.”
- “He’s stubborn as a mule.”
You’ve stopped talking person-to-person when you see the other as a bomb squad, a storm or an animal. Emotions are bound to rise. Take a break and try again tomorrow, going back to the beginning to undo the negative story line.
How conflicts escalate
Conflicts turn ugly by a predictable process:
- Attributions. Here’s what I see you doing and what I’m convinced you mean by it.
- Commitment. It’s my way or the highway.
- Entrapment. As the problem absorbs more and more time, energy and resources, people dig in and become entrenched in their positions.
- Arousal. The word sarcasm comes from Greek for “to tear flesh.” Aggression takes the form of hostility, scapegoating and flesh-tearing humor.
- Reciprocity. What goes around comes around. You harmed me so I’ll get even.
- Coalitions. Opponents line up supporting teams; anyone who isn’t with me is against me. This can happen quickly or simmer.
“Faculty who are really smart can do very well at making life a living hell,” she said. She was the only tenure-track woman in a department with a well-established bully. She shut down when he bullied and so did her chair. At the coalition stage, she had the students and women faculty on her side while he had the old-time males.
She finally went to his office one morning and they worked out their differences, to the relief of all of their colleagues. The sooner a conflict can be worked through, the less chance it has to escalate. Initiating collaborative talks with the enemy doesn’t come easily for many of us, but sometimes it’s necessary.
Think of a conflict that’s touched you in the last three months. How did you respond? Did you open a discussion, make nice to diffuse the anger or ignore it in the hope it would go away?
We learn styles for handling conflict in our family of origin. When her mother was mad, all the doors got slammed. Her father told her to be nice to everybody, no matter what. Did your family fight openly, slam doors or keep silent? Were you punished if you raised your voice? Was a controversy the elephant in the room that nobody mentioned, or did your family love the drama of a fight? “We learn early on how to cope, based on pecking order. We bring all this stuff to the academy,” she said.
Styles for handling conflict fall into five basic categories. You can graph them, with “meeting my needs” on one axis and “meeting others’ needs” on the other. Most of us lean toward one or another of these behaviors:
- Avoiding. “Leave well enough alone” falls in the corner of the graph that’s low on meeting any needs at all. • Competing. “Might makes right” cares about only self.
- Accommodating. “Kill the enemy with kindness” falls at the opposite extreme, setting aside one’s own needs to meet the needs of others.
- Compromise. “Split the difference” sits right in the middle of the graph, meeting some needs of each and leaving other needs unmet.
- Collaboration. “Two heads are better than one.” At the opposite corner from avoidance, collaboration assigns high value to the needs of everybody involved. It means working together toward a win-win solution.
Conflicts are very situational, and each style has its place. The challenge is to know when and how to intervene.
Strategies for managing conflicts
Many conflicts are resolved privately and informally by people with no training in mediation. Do you know the informal peacemakers on your campus? Often they’re women. “We’re good at it. We do it all the time,” she said.
When that doesn’t happen, a conflict can take on a life of its own. Cultures, personalities and interests collide. The further it goes, the harder the solution.
Methods of resolving conflicts progress up a scale from informal discussion to lawsuits:
- Third-party mediation
- Non-binding arbitration
- Binding arbitration
As the scale progresses it gets more formal and confrontational, with winners and losers. Your goal in conflict management is to intercede in the early, less formal stages to reach a consensual solution. Other ideas:
Anticipate potential conflicts. With age comes wisdom of seeing problems before they arise. We learn who never gets along and what’s likely to push whose buttons. “Past performance predicts future performances,” she said.
Provide a process to deal with conflicts. At the end of a meeting, ask what worked and what didn’t. Consider rotat-ing who leads meetings; payback time faces the heavy-handed meeting chair. Depending on the issues, counselors, human resources or ombudswomen can help.
Acknowledge conflicts when they arise. Escalation makes conflicts harder to resolve. She could have been spared a lot of bullying if she’d gone into the bully’s office sooner.
Apply a problem-solving model. Define the issues, gather relevant information, generate and evaluate options and select one together. Appreciative inquiry—asking what worked well—raises positive energy for finding shared solutions.
Keep cool. Calm yourself by running, doing yoga and using anger management techniques. Disengage when emo-tions run high; if it doesn’t need to be done right now, take time out.
Use effective communication skills. Listen, rephrase and reframe. Checking your understanding helps you get it right and is a gesture of good faith.
Consider using third parties. If emotions are getting in the way, a neutral party can facilitate communications. Campuses are full of bright individualists with strong views and limited resources. Plan for conflicts; they’re inevitable. Well managed, they can build trust and stimulate creativity in your group.
Contact: Dr. Sandra I. Cheldelin