- Conflict is a normal part of relationships.
will fight over food, one another, territory - various rights they
perceive to be their own. Human beings fight over perceived things,
too. A big difference is that we don't have to engage in physical
acts like butting heads to resolve our differences. We can use our
minds and words to create productive conflict
is important. Don't perceive every little conflict as a major event.
Recognize that conflict is normal. You can accept conflict as natural
and work to manage or resolve it.
is not pathological. Conflict exists because people have strong
emotions when they cannot reach their goals, not because they are
neurotic or have other personality problems.
Capsule: Your colleague tells you about a lab teaching
assistant (LTA) who is unhappy with the workload, and it's up to
you to handle it quickly.
When your colleague tells you about the lab teaching assistant,
relax. That LTA is experiencing the normal conflicts of a demanding
job. So are you. Your attitude in approaching the LTA will help
set the tone for productivity. Reassess your priorities. Think
about how soon and how quickly you have to address this conflict;
you may not have to do it immediately. When you do decide to approach
the LTA, remember to do it slowly so that the LTA has time to
stop and reassess, too. Let the LTA know that you know that a
problem exists; this validates the problem for the LTA but doesn't
give it emergency status. A matter-of-fact approach tells the
LTA that you place importance on the conflict but it is not the
end of your world - or the LTA's world.
Attitude is important. Many people try to avoid conflict because
they are afraid of it or because they have had bad experiences
in the past. Avoidance usually leads to bigger problems in the
future. Looking at conflict as an opportunity to discuss and/or
resolve differences is a better approach. Other people feel defensive
when conflict comes up, and they blame others rather than handling
their own conflicting feelings. It is important to reduce defensiveness
so that productive conflict can occur. Don't be afraid of conflict
or see it as an attack on you; a positive conflict attitude is
an important first step to conflict management or resolution.
Take time to look at the situation. There are probably other people
affected by the LTA (students, colleagues, other staff). Are they
smiling, sullen, indifferent, working, goofing off? What can you
tell about their attitude by looking at them when they don't know
you are gathering data? Often, one tense, angry, outraged person
can affect a whole group. Observe the extent of the problem. Look
at the workload you've set up for the LTA - go back to that schedule
you worked out months ago. Is it still reasonable? Have things
changed since it was structured? Look at the responsibilities
of other people around the LTA (and their relative level of monetary
compensation). Try to empathize with the position of the LTA.
In other words, think about what the LTA may be thinking or feeling.
In order to empathize, you don't have to agree that the LTA is
right; you only have to understand the attitude. Look hard. Then
look at your own attitude. Are you so busy that you have very
little sympathy for anyone else? Do you wish people would shut
up, quit whining and just do their job like you do? Attitude is
hard to see. Look hard.
Listen to the LTA talk to others while observing the tone and
content of the encounters. Listen to see if tone or content reflect
the serious problem your colleague indicated existed. Then approach
the LTA. Ask questions like, "I hear you're unhappy about
a few things. Want to talk about it?" or "Professor
Horton told me that you wanted me to check out how things were
going here in the lab. Can you help me understand what's happening?"
Don't give your own analysis or propose any solutions yet. Listen
to the LTA. Ask follow-up questions, depending on what the LTA
says. If you understand the problem from the LTA's perspective,
you can be better prepared to respond. Your attitude about careful
listening is also important. Remember how important listening
is and don't go into the conflict situation with the attitude
that only you know what is wrong and how to solve it. Involve
others in listening, too. Your attitude toward listening may be
contagious. Others will listen to you if you listen to them.
You've reflected on the situation and you've gathered data.
Now you can decide what to do. Perhaps you see a very simple
solution; you might give advice (but keep in mind that people
don't always receive advice well). If the LTA doesn't want
advice and continues to be angry, perhaps even blaming you
for all the problems, you might want to make a decision and
ask that the LTA try it out for a week to see if it makes
any difference. Or, if the LTA seems reasonable and willing
to work out the conflict, you might invite the LTA to brainstorm
solutions with you (write these down together, so you both
"own" the solutions; the ideas are "ours"
not "you think we should do 'x' but I think we should
do 'y.'" Avoid evaluating the solutions until you get
a number of them; then go back and evaluate the pros and cons
of each. Decide on the solution that you both think will meet
your needs and the needs of the situation. Agree to try it
out for a set period of time. Also agree to reevaluate the
situation and the solution periodically to see if any changes
need to be made.
Describe the perception of incompatible goals among the conflicting
in conflict are what we want as the outcome, or the end result,
of the conflict situation. We usually have conflict because one
person thinks they can't get their goals accomplished if the other
person in the conflict gets what they want.
the phrase "perception of incompatible goals" above.
At times, one person can't get what they want if the other
gets what s/he wants. For example, if two people are competing
for one job, one person gets it. If teams are playing a game,
one team usually wins and the other loses.
relationships, understanding goals is more complex. Sometimes
you only think you can't get what you want if the other person
gets what they want. Think back to your childhood. Did you ever
think that your mother or father loved your brother or sister
more than you? Did you think that your sibling got more attention,
that the sibling was more acclaimed or valued because of their
academic or athletic success? Almost everyone has felt something
like this at times. It isn't until later on that you realize that
there is plenty of love or acclaim to go around. You only perceived
that there wasn't at the time.
related aspect of goals is what we count as the goal. Some people
will make demands of others. Even when they get what they demand,
they are often unhappy. What they described as a goal wasn't what
counted when they got it. For example, Veronica and Justin are
having a conflict about the amount of time they do or do not spend
together. Veronica demands that Justin take off Saturday from
work (his busiest day) to go to her office picnic. Justin reluctantly
does this, goes to the picnic with Veronica, and Veronica is still
not happy. Veronica claims that Justin doesn't spend enough time
with her. It is nice he went to the picnic - so why can't he take
Saturday off all the time? Veronica wants more attention from
Justin, and her Saturdays-off goal is only one of many "means"
to the end (goal). Veronica and Justin would be far better off
to describe their end state (final goal) and then think of many
ways (means) to achieve that end state.
Capsule: One of your students, Aerie, wants to take the
final exam at other than the college's scheduled time. She claims
she has a work conflict. You think she may be leaving early for
Jamaica. Your college does not look kindly on professors who reschedule
Before you tell Aerie that college policy says she must take the
exam at the scheduled time and that's that, wait. Reassess the
situation. You have the right to make no exceptions and not to
listen to any excuses. If you have the time or are willing to
take the time, however, you can probably handle Aerie in a way
that makes both of you feel better about one another. As you stop,
monitor your tone of voice and facial expression. Don't appear
angry, irritated or frustrated, even if you feel those ways. Remember
the attitude from the first step in this module. The approach
you take will affect your attitude and the attitude of Aerie.
If you treat Aerie with respect, she is more likely to treat you
with respect, too.
Look back on Aerie's performance over the term. Has she made requests
like this before? Has she been reliable, turned things in on time,
been involved in class? Look carefully at college policy again.
Find out if there are any exceptions allowed. Have the written
policy at your fingertips. Be certain of what you can and cannot
Aerie's nonverbal behavior when she makes the request. Is she
making jerky movements, avoiding eye contact or in other ways
behaving inconsistently with her usual behavior? Be ready to ask
questions if you notice anything unusual.
You will do most of your listening in conjunction with your response
below, but initially listen to Aerie's situation to determine
if it is worthy of more of your time and consideration. Sometimes
students will try a quick request just to "test the waters"
to see if you are willing to break the rules. You will not want
to appear easy to break the rules because you'll have many more
students who will hear of Aerie's success and want similar treatment.
So listen to determine your next step. If you think Aerie's case
has merit, tell her to talk to you about it at a set time.
areas of your life, listen to others before you respond. Determine
their goals and yours. The data you collect will always help you
make a better, more reasoned response.
Ask Aerie to meet in your office (not in the minutes before or
after class when others are around). Show Aerie the written college
policy on taking exams. Show Aerie the schedule of exams. Explain
any exceptions to policy that you think are relevant to Aerie's
case (if you choose to do so). Explain to Aerie that these are
the goals of the college.
explain to Aerie your goals. Tell her you want to help her finish
the course successfully. Tell her you are bound by college policy.
Tell her you want to avoid the anger of your dean (or other administrator).
You don't want to get into trouble for violating college policy
while you help Aerie. You also want Aerie to get the best grade
in your course that she can.
ask Aerie to explain her goals to you. Find out the end state
that she wants (to get out early to leave for Jamaica early versus
to get the best grade in the class that she can). You will probably
have to listen, probe, reassess to determine Aerie's goals. Many
of the people in your life will not be able to describe ultimate
goals - they are often so fixated on the particular "means"
to the end that they don't realize it is only one way to get what
they actually want.
may decide that it is actually easier to take the exam as scheduled
to meet her goal of getting the best grade she can. Or she may
ask that you help her achieve her goal of meeting her work commitment
and meeting her commitment to your class. If you believe that
you can help her meet her ultimate goals and still meet your own
goals (within those of the college), you can then outline alternatives
for Aerie that are within the parameters of the college policy
and your own personal goals. Aerie will probably be grateful to
you for listening to her, being so flexible and still not being
Needs. Define the unmet
needs (scarce resources) the parties perceive.
desires connected to your view of self. You need a certain amount
of control over yourself and your environment, so that you have
the freedom to make some of your own decisions. You need at least
some people to treat you with respect. You need a certain amount
of money, food or shelter to survive and to feel safe or secure.
have similar needs. Conflict occurs when you think that you can't
get your needs accomplished because of interference from someone
else's needs. You perceive that there are scarce resources - not
enough money, food or shelter - or, even more commonly, not enough
control, affection, or respect to go around.
there are scarce resources, such as when you and a roommate have
a conflict over the food or money allotted for the month. Other
times there is simply the perception of scarce resources; you think
you're not loved or respected because someone else is, for example.
In these situations, we can usually work through a conflict to find
out that everyone's needs can be met because there are more resources
than we thought.
Capsule: George, a new adjunct instructor, asks to use
all of your prepared quizzes and tests for a class. You're willing
to help George, but don't want to just hand over things you spent
a lot of time on. You also don't want to compromise the security
of your quizzes and exams.
Before you tell George "no" outright or hand over all
your hard work, reassess the situation. What are your needs here?
What are George's?
your needs may be to control access to your material. You might
perceive that George wants an easy way to save him time in course
preparation at your expense. You may not know George well enough
yet to know if you can trust him with your material. Another need
might be to get recognition for your work. Respect from your peers
may be important to you, and you want George to acknowledge the
time and expertise needed to create your materials.
may not know his needs. He may not know how things work in your
department or college, and he may be very anxious about teaching
there for the first time. He may need acknowledgement, respect
from other instructors or inclusion in the activities of the department
to get the confidence to proceed.
Look at your own behavior. Watch your tone of voice and facial
expression. You don't want George to think you are selfish. You
want to establish a collegial atmosphere in your department to
help your program or department and the college. You recognize
your responsibility to facilitate the development of new instructors.
George, too. Does George appear desperate? Do you think he is
trying to take advantage of you? Or perhaps you think he is trying
to flatter you by asking for your help. Or maybe you think he
truly does not know how to even begin to approach preparing for
a class. Perhaps his request for your materials is what he thinks
he needs to get through the class, when it is only one means to
an end (see lesson 2 in this module). Look at George's past experience
and education. See if you can help determine a number of means
to his end. Look at what may be his ultimate goal. How might his
needs fit into that goal? Look for your ultimate goal, too. Are
your goals compatible? Will meeting the goal(s) also meet the
needs? Will facilitating the needs help meet the goal(s)?
Talk to George about the course. Tell him that you'd like to learn
what he knows about the course and some more about him. Offer
to meet with him to collaborate. Then listen to George. Ask a
lot of questions to determine what he knows and how he is feeling.
You'll be able to determine from his answers to your questions
whether he needs help planning a syllabus, whether he's read the
text for the course, whether he's prepared any lectures, whether
he knows of exercises or discussions related to course material.
Listen to his tone of voice as he answers your questions. He'll
probably relax a bit and you will see him becoming more comfortable
about his responses. Be nonjudgmental and encouraging. You may
fulfill some of George's needs for respect and inclusion simply
by listening to him. He may feel more confident and secure. He'll
speak well of you to your peers because you've meet those needs
- whether or not you decide to let him use your materials.
Based on your reassessment and investigation, respond to George
in a straightforward manner.
think George is just taking advantage of you, you'll be friendly
but firm. Your needs here (to control your material) can be accomplished
while you meet George's needs (to quickly get the course under
control). You'll offer to help George create a quiz or two to
get him started. You'll explain what makes good test questions,
and what the department expects of its instructors when they give
quizzes and exams. You'll offer to review a quiz or exam for George
as he makes his way through the semester.
think George needs more help, you may offer to let him use the
first few quizzes until he gets his bearings. His needs (for inclusion
in the department "norms", control of his class and
respect from his students by appearing prepared and organized)
will take precedence over yours. You might explain to George the
time and effort required to create these quizzes and suggest that
he contribute some test questions once he feels more comfortable
with the class.
determine that George does not know enough to even begin to organize
the course, let alone create fair and effective testing procedures,
you will have a talk with him, your department chair and whoever
is in charge of hiring and firing to set up a very stringent training
and evaluation procedure. Your needs are to maintain control and
standards in your department; the needs of the students are to
have adequate instruction; George has to be trained and become
better, or he will have to be let go. A careful analysis of the
needs of George, you, your department, the students and the college
will lead to the appropriate response.
Describe. Clearly describe the struggle for yourself.
your struggle is one of the most important things you can do in
conflict. You won't stop there, however. You'll determine the
best way to express the struggle. Often people are experiencing
"inner turmoil," and yet others around them have no
idea that there is a problem. Sometimes people suppress the struggles
they feel for days, weeks, months - even years. They wait for
them to build up, sometimes because they don't know how to express
them, and other times because they are unwilling to bring them
up. Then some event occurs that triggers the release of all this
built-up tension (and thus the other person is often overwhelmed
by the barrage of complaints).
between people cannot be solved if only one person knows about the
struggle. The struggle must be expressed. It is important to express
the struggle effectively to yourself so that you can express it
effectively to other(s). When you describe a struggle, do two things:
1) Be as specific as possible and 2) Focus on behavior rather than
the person(s) involved.
- Be specific. Avoid
saying things to yourself like, "She always tries to .
. ." or "He never lets me . . . " Make a list
of the specific times and instances involved in the conflict
(you won't throw this list at someone later, however - you'll
use it to help yourself describe the situation as specifically
and rationally as possible).
- Focus on behavior.
Rather than saying things like, "She's such an idiot"
or "He's so insensitive," you will focus on what happened
rather than assigning personality characteristics to others.
You'll say, "I was inconvenienced three times last week
when Shelley told me she'd meet me at a specific time and then
she didn't make our appointment" or "Juan and I agreed
to split the cost of the luncheon on Thursday and then we disagreed
on whether to tip the waiter fifteen or twenty percent."
Capsule: Your department chair schedules you for classes
that meet earlier (or later) than you'd like. How do you approach
Remember the information on goals and needs in previous lessons
in this module. Reassess the situation in light of goals and needs.
Think about how long you've been feeling this struggle, what else
it might be related to and your unmet needs in the situation.
Reassess the role of the other; are they aware of the conflict?
Might they have some struggle themselves that they have not expressed?
Before you go to your department chair, whining that everyone
else gets better schedules than you do, that the department chair
is unfair, and that you demand to have a specific schedule, stop.
Is your discontent related to your needs? Do you feel disrespected,
unappreciated or helpless? Are you more upset because of your
specific schedule or what you perceive as unfair treatment compared
to others? Or is your discontent associated with your goals? Are
you trying to work childcare around your teaching schedule so
that you can be a good parent and a good instructor? Are you aware
of the needs and goals of your department chair, particularly
with regard to the other instructors in the department?
Look at yourself. With some situations, you can do this literally.
Look in the mirror. Assess nonverbal behaviors like facial expression
and muscle tension. You might also look at others' responses to
you when you're feeling the struggle. Are they aware of your struggle
or are they oblivious to the inner conflict you are feeling? How
might you make them aware of your conflict on a more regular basis
without waiting for things to "blow up"? Search others
for signs of inner conflict, too. They may be unable or unwilling
to express their own struggles related to yours. Consider how
you might handle this aspect of conflict, too.
As you reflect on the
scheduling situation with your department chair, look back on
your past behavior. Reflect on the past behavior of your chair,
too. Look for clues to the conflict or misunderstanding. Are you
making the situation more serious than it warrants? Can you look
at specific behaviors to define the past few semesters in light
of your struggle?
Listen to yourself. Talk to the mirror, if you have to. Say out
loud what you are thinking. Often you will admit how silly or irrational
it sounds. It is much better to have done this by yourself than
to have said silly or irrational things to others - and then to
have to deal with the destructive aftermath of your behavior.
Listen for statements
that are too general. Make them specific. Listen for statements
that focus on the person. Reshape your focus to the behavior rather
than the person. Don't blame the department chair for gross injustices
until you have a chance to listen. The chair may be unaware of
your struggle. You may be unaware of the chair's struggle. Consider
the history of your relationship. Perhaps the chair thinks you
are happy with your schedule; perhaps the chair has people with
more seniority requesting what you want. Perhaps there are conflicting
goals and needs. Listen for them. Take them into account when
Practice saying specific and behavior-centered statements until
you are comfortable with them. Be sure they sound rational and
reasonable. Take into account the other person's needs and goals
to make yours fit with the overall goal.
Practice saying to
your department chair things like: "I would like to teach
my classes between 8:30 and 2 every day so that I can teach
when I feel most alert." "I have been unable to arrange
child care on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons after 3 p.m., so
I'd appreciate a schedule that allows me to leave campus by 2:45
those two days." "I have taught 8 a.m. classes the past
three semesters, so I'd appreciate a teaching schedule that doesn't
start before 10 a.m. this next semester." "I have been
more productive at grading and course preparation in the mornings,
so I'd like to teach in the afternoon and evening this next semester."
"I know you are having a hard time fitting in those two new
adjuncts into the schedule, so I'll be happy to move two of my
morning classes to the afternoon if you can help free me up on
the description of struggle for the conflicting parties.
Before you attempt to
help others describe their struggles, you will make sure that you
can do it for yourself. Be sure to complete lesson 4 in this module,
"Clearly describe the struggle for yourself," before you
attempt this one.
You know how difficult
it can be to clearly describe your own struggle - and you're a professional!
You can expect others to have an even more difficult time. So one
of the best things you can do for them is to help them Stop, Look,
Listen and then Respond.
Capsule: You assign a group project in your class eight
weeks before it is due. Two weeks before presentation time, three
of the members of the group come to see you, claiming that the other
two group members are not attending the group meetings and not doing
their share of the work.
This conflict situation is so common that many instructors eliminate
group projects from their syllabus rather than have to deal with
it. Group projects, however, can teach students so much in addition
to the content of their project. If you structure the project
well, the students can learn more about themselves, about working
in teams, about managing time, about creating agendas, about running
meetings, about handling difficult people, and about handling
conflict. So, stop and think before you eliminate that group project
or kick the two offending students out of the group and give them
an "F." Reassess this situation to make it a true learning
experience for all involved - the offending students, the hard-working
group members and even yourself.
Ask the students to
"stop," too. Tell them you will meet with them to discuss
this situation, and they should bring the following to your office:
- A list of each time
the group has met, when, where, for how long.
- A list of the people
in the group at each meeting, when each arrived and when each
left (i.e., were they late, early, etc.), and
- A list of the goals
(agenda) for each meeting, with annotations for what was accomplished
in conjunction with each goal.
Part of your own reassessment
here will be to see how you might structure the assignment in
the future to help your students set goals and work through them,
to set expectations for one another and each meeting and to set
reasonable time-frames for accomplishing tasks. You might prepare
worksheets, checklists, time-lines, and/or student project manuals
to facilitate this process in future semesters.
Watch the involved students in class. Have they stopped sitting
near each other? Are their facial expressions angry when they
are near one another? Do they avoid the presence of one another?
Do they come early or late to class and avoid eye contact
with one another - or with you? You'll want to let them describe
the behaviors they have observed in one another, too. Look
to the students on the "outs" with the group. Ask
them to come talk with you, too. Explain what is happening
with the other members of their group; don't keep this a secret.
Ask the "outs" students to bring the three lists
mentioned above to your office, too. Arrange to meet with
them separately and then as a group.
Your listening here is critical to facilitating the expression
of the struggle. The lists you asked them to bring will help -
if they were able to create them. As you listen, avoid judgments.
Repeat, paraphrase, summarize. Ask them to tell you what they
think the other people in their group are thinking and feeling.
Tell each one what you think they are thinking and feeling and
ask if they think you understand what they are saying.
Summarize your understanding of each person's struggle. Ask each
one to correct you. Make a quick list of each aspect of the struggle.
Ask each person to correct your list. Then ask each person to
describe (and write down) the aspects of the conflict.
At this point, many
of the students will see solutions. Avoid coming up with your
own solutions if possible. Let them learn from the process. They
might say things like, "Oh, I see, if I had been more clear
about the exact meeting time, and if I myself was on time, the
other members might have taken me more seriously." "I
guess when I ordered her to the visual aids, I just assumed she'd
want to do them and I didn't take the time to realize she wanted
to do more of the research."
Of course, the tendency
for most students is still to put blame on the other(s), and you
might still have to intervene with more controlling guidelines.
If you can help the students see where the conflict came from,
however, they will be more likely to accept your imposed solutions.
Teaching Methods. Employ
teaching methods that reduce potential conflicts between you and
Have you ever wondered
why some professors have so little trouble with classroom management?
Are they just born good instructors who command the attention and
respect of their students? Hardly.
and teaching methods can reduce a number of potential conflicts
between you and your students. You can start the very first day
with a clear syllabus with clear grading expectations. Set your
policies the first day; have them in writing but repeat them verbally.
Remember attitude. As you are presenting the policies, do so in
a friendly but firm manner. Make eye contact with your students,
smile occasionally and move slowly around the room. They will learn
to expect a set of behaviors from you as you describe the set of
behaviors you want from them.
Consider putting a series
of guidelines for classroom behavior together in a manual or as
part of the syllabus. You can always refer students back to this
at regular intervals in the semester. In creating these policies,
students will learn that if they break classroom etiquette, they
can be reprimanded calmly and pleasantly; they will not take it
as personally as they might otherwise. Establish an atmosphere of
respect and civility by respecting their opinions and involving
them in discussion. Establish a norm (for you and the students)
of respecting other students, too. Respect is usually reciprocal.
Capsule: A small group of students, who are friends,
sit in the back corner of your classroom and frequently talk quietly
to one another while you're lecturing. You are distracted and bothered
by their noise.
Does your classroom structure lend itself to talking? As you reassess
the situation, think about the fine balance between encouraging
questions and discussion and discouraging talk that is unrelated
to your lecture. You have to help the students understand the
difference between on-topic talking and talk that is distracting
to you - and probably other students.
Don't ignore the talking the first time it happens. Stop and look
in the direction of the offending students. Often that is all
it takes. Don't glare at them. Simply stop, look in a friendly
manner at their back corner and wait for them to stop before you
You might also look
for signs from other class members that they are bothered by the
talk. Look back and forth from the offending corner to the rest
of the class. Sometimes other students will even "shush"
the offending corner for you.
If you are unsuccessful above, consider asking the students to
share their ideas with the class. Call them by name to get their
attention. "Leticia, do you have something to add to this
point?" "Sam, are you thinking of a good example of
what I was saying?" If they are truly talking off-task, they
may be embarrassed by this and apologize or simply quiet down.
Move on quickly to avoid focusing attention on them. Remember,
your goal is not to embarrass them but to get attention focused
on the content of your lecture. Your classroom control can be
shared if they do have something to contribute. Make a point of
responding to whatever anyone says before launching back into
your lecture. Even seemingly off-topic responses may be revealing
of what students know and don't know.
Sometimes students don't get the hint. Sometimes they don't care
about your need for respect and control. In these instances, you
are going to have to tell them outright. You might say, "Leticia,
Sam, Ugo, Danae - I'm having a hard time concentrating on what
I need to get across here. Could you help me by saving your talk
for after class?"
Most times, this is
enough to take care of the problem. In other instances, however,
you don't want to do this in front of the class. If the attitude
of the offending group members is challenging and strident, you
might set up small discussion groups to quickly address an issue
you've raised and then immediately go talk to the offending group
privately about your discomfort. Or you might decide to wait until
after class and catch the group members for a casual reminder
of what you need from them to successfully complete the class.
Whatever way you decide to approach the group, remember attitude.
Friendly and firm will get you farther than angry and hostile.
Language. Utilize effective
and appropriate language to reduce defensiveness in the conflicting
Conflict situations usually
involve defensiveness, the feeling that you need to protect yourself
from attack. There may be a real attack on you, but there could
also just be the perception of an attack. In either case, you want
to handle it if you are the one feeling defensive, and you want
to reduce the chance of triggering defensiveness in others. When
people are feeling defensive, they are not handling conflict very
You can reduce defensiveness
by the language you choose. Language that is descriptive rather
than evaluative helps reduce defensiveness. You're probably thinking,
"I'm a professor - I'm supposed to evaluate!" What you
say is true, but you can evaluate in a descriptive way to cause
will also take "ownership" of the situation by inserting
as much "I language" into the situation as possible. "I
language" helps reduce defensiveness by acknowledging the speaker's
role in the situation and by describing the behavior (not the person)
and the consequences of that behavior. "I'm wondering why you're
asking me to give you an extension on this assignment, Jeannine.
I thought I'd written my 'no late assignments policy' on the syllabus,
so I'm confused about whether you had a chance to look that over
before you came to see me." Descriptive language is specific
For example, you could
say, "Alberto, this is a lousy paper. I can't believe you even
bothered to turn in such garbage. You're going nowhere fast with
this kind of approach to your education." You wouldn't say
this, of course, because it is highly evaluative and you-oriented.
Instead, you would address Alberto's evaluation in a more descriptive
way: "Alberto, I am worried about your performance on this
paper. I wanted a minimum of three references, an approved outline
and approximately 1000 words. But you turned in this paper without
having me look at your outline, and you have two references and
500 words. I'm afraid I didn't get the instructions across to you
clearly (of course, you have them written in the assignment or student
manual). Can you explain to me what happened?"
Your student may still
get defensive, but the descriptive language is more "face-saving."
Alberto can address the specifics a lot easier. He's also more likely
to respond to you in a less defensive manner - depending on his
situation, of course.
Capsule: Your student Mika claims that you have graded
her paper unfairly. She got a "C" when she claims her
friend in the class got a "B" and spent less time on the
paper than she did.
First of all, handle your own defensiveness. Mika is speaking
evaluatively, and you need to step back and reflect. Remember
your attitude - friendly and firm. Remember your goal for effective
instruction. Remember your needs for respect and control. Reflect
on what Mika's goals and needs are that she is not expressing
while she attacks your integrity.
Tell Mika that you are willing to look at her paper. You could
have made a mistake. Of course, you could have given her too high
a grade as well as one that was too low, so you plan to look at
the entire paper again and reserve the right to lower the grade
as well as raise it. With Mika, look back over the assignment
and review the guidelines and grading criteria. Point out that
there are no grades assigned for the amount of time spent on the
paper and remind her that you will not discuss the grade of another
student with her. You respect the privacy of other students just
as you respect hers. Look at Mika's nonverbal behavior during
all this. You can respond appropriately.
Invite Mika to tell you how she thinks her paper meets the criteria
for a "B" paper (this being clearly outlined on the
assignment pages you just reviewed with her). Paraphrase her statements
back to her, as in, "So you think you gave three examples
of concept A in the third paragraph?" "Am I hearing
you correctly that you did footnote these quotes? Where am I missing
Since Mika is probably
feeling very defensive already, avoid any language that will make
her have to protect her self more than she already is. You will
discover all sorts of things in this listening process - from
the pressures Mika is feeling from family members to the hours
she is working at her job (and not spending on her academics)
to the too many classes she attempted this semester. Of course,
all of those things are part of her needs and goals, but are not
a reason to change her grade. She may discover this on her own
as you go through the criteria for the grade and then listen to
her. If she doesn't discover it, you will kindly but firmly point
If, after reassessing, looking at criteria, listening and reasserting
the criteria for the paper and your policy on re-grading, Mika
still wants you to re-grade the paper, do so willingly and cheerfully.
Even if you do not change the grade, your attitude of openness,
your willingness to accept responsibility and your reduction of
defensiveness in Mika will be appreciated by her. You will maintain
your goal of presenting a fair, honest professor, and she can
maintain her face of being an good student - even if she neglected
to do part of the assignment's criteria for a "B" grade.
Criticism. Cope with
the criticism associated with defensiveness in conflict situations.
Nobody likes to be
criticized. You'd think we'd remember that when we get in conflict
situations, but when we feel defensive (see the previous "conflict
capsule") we often lash out at others. We criticize them,
the way they've handled the conflict, or others associated with
them. Their usual response is to criticize us back, and we end
up with more defensiveness and more criticism.
You can't stop others
from criticizing you. You can't stop yourself from feeling defensive.
But you can control your response and not act defensive so that
you don't contribute to a repeating cycle of defensiveness and criticism.
You can cope with criticism in two major ways.
First, rather than immediately
jumping to your defense, you can get more information. Ask questions
to clarify the criticism. Others often criticize you broadly. Help
them give you specific examples ("What did I do to make you
think I didn't care about you?" ) or guess at what they might
be meaning ("Are you referring to last week when I didn't make
that meeting we had scheduled?"). You might also find out how
they are affected by the situation ("When I didn't show for
that scheduled meeting, did it cause more problems for you than
I realized?") or what they hope to get out of the situation
("What could I do to make this up to you?"). Getting more
information usually validates the other person's position and reduces
their defensiveness. They know you know - and they are not as ready
to attack you back.
Second, agree with the
aspects of the other's position that are accurate without agreeing
that everything they say, particularly the defense-arousing statements,
are valid ("I did agree to help you with the first part of
the presentation for Monday"). Try to avoid the "buts"
here; don't make excuses ("but I was so tired") or use
evaluative language ("but I didn't think you were brash enough
to think I'd do the whole thing"). You can also agree that
they have a right to their position, even if you don't agree with
it ("I can see that you've had three different presentations
to make this week, so you're pretty tired and expected me to realize
that and take over this one for you"). Coping with criticism
in this way validates the other person, reducing defensiveness.
Coping with criticism lessens the possibility that the defensive
attack will continue. Thus, you can focus on the conflict itself
without having to defend yourself.
Capsule: You teach every day and one night a week, so
you take Friday afternoons off to get some exercise. Your dean now
wants you to attend a three-hour student success workshop two Friday
afternoons a month. When you balk at doing this, the dean points
out that you have a contract and stops there.
Before you say anything, think about this from the dean's perspective.
Consider the possibility that the request is a compliment - you
are the quality person desired in this workshop. Consider the
possibility that this is an attempt by your dean to further your
career, your position on campus, your connections with others.
Consider the possibility that the dean is unaware of your work/exercise
plan. Don't get defensive yet.
Look at your alternatives. What might you be able to juggle to
get your work accomplished and still get your exercise? Evaluate
the pros and cons of participating in the workshop. Look at the
information about the workshop; research what it will cover, who
will be involved, how many months it will last and whether there
is any other compensation for it. Validate your dean's request
by looking seriously at it.
Ask the dean why you were selected. Listen to the response. Ask
more questions related to the workshop and your contract. Paraphrase
If you are satisfied that you have all the information you can
and that you can remain acting non-defensive (even if you actually
do feel defensive), cope with the dean's criticism. "When
you pointed out that I have a contract, what did you mean? (asking
for examples - wait for response) Did you mean that you think
I should do this Friday afternoon workshop as part of that contract?
(guessing what is meant - wait for response) "It is true
that my contract requires me to work on campus five days a week."
(agreeing with the true part of the dean's statement) or "I
can understand that you think this workshop will enable me to
be a better teacher and handle some of those student problems
I have had." (agreeing that the dean's perception has some
When you cope with criticism in this way, the dean is likely
to give you a chance to explain, to reward you in other ways
or to at least acknowledge your right to take some exercise
time off during the day when you spend more hours on campus
at night. The dean may not have been willing to listen had
you not coped with criticism so effectively.
problem-solving techniques to create satisfying outcomes.
Not all conflicts can
be resolved satisfactorily. Conflicting goals, uncooperative partners,
defensiveness that can't be handled, a history of negative conflict
- all can hinder your ability to resolve your conflicts satisfactorily.
Many other conflicts can be solved, however. Remember to have the
right attitude, to define goals and needs, to describe the struggle
for yourself and others, to use the appropriate language, to reduce
defensiveness and to cope with criticism. If you do all this and
gain the cooperation of the other(s) in the conflict, you will increase
the likelihood of satisfying conflict.
The Stop, Look, Listen
and Respond Approach works well under these conditions. The previous
eight steps can be used in combination to solve conflicts that meet
the above criteria. Problem-solving techniques that work well are
- describing needs and
- listening effectively
to the other, and
- summarizing what you
all have in common as goals. Then you can
- generate solutions
to your conflict.
You generate solutions
by listing all the ways that it would be possible to solve the problem
(without evaluating them - the real challenge for most people).
Once the list is as long as possible, you go back and critique the
solutions, combining possibilities into the one (or ones) that you
think will work best for the time. Finally, you promise to reopen
the conflict resolution process if anyone is unhappy with the outcome
of the decision after it is implemented.
Capsule: There are a number of jobs other than teaching
that need to be done in your department. Someone has to be department
chair, multiple section courses have to be coordinated, equipment
needs to be procured and monitored and repaired and the department
has a large annual campus activity that someone needs to direct.
In addition, there are the committees that need representation,
the reports to write, the budget to manage, the new faculty to be
hired, trained, evaluated-and sometimes terminated. There are only
so many bodies.
Before you try to figure out how to get out of a major responsibility,
stop and reassess the situation. Get everyone else to stop, too.
Spend some time defining the jobs that need to be done - and those
that might be able to be "let go." Have everyone reflect
on how much time each job takes, if there is compensation for
the job, what each person likes/dislikes about the jobs. Reassess
your personal goals and the goals of the department. Reassess
the needs of the individual members.
Look for alternatives. Can proposals be made for compensation?
Can you get help from your dean? Is there staff on campus to ease
your load? Is it possible that the "way we've always done
it" can be changed (i.e., some things not done, some things
combined to streamline the process)? Look at the strengths of
your individual department members. Are there strengths you might
not have discovered about any of them? Does someone need control
or respect but is not getting it? Is anyone feeling defensive
over past conflicts? Investigate the situation. Sometimes you
might get someone from outside your department to take a look,
too. Someone new to the process may have the insight to suggest
new solutions. As you generate the alternatives, look at them
with a fresh, open attitude. Don't rule anything out at the beginning.
Talk with people in other departments. Listen to how they
divide responsibilities. Ask enough questions to find out
how their distribution of responsibilities meets their needs
and goals. If you find poor examples, listen to them, too.
You may be able to figure out why that system doesn't work
for them - but it might work for your department. You might
also be able to help another department come up with solutions
to better their situation.
Once all your department members have Stopped, Looked and Listened,
come together to Respond. Have each person present their "research"
and redefine your departmental goals. Then generate solutions
to address your distribution of responsibilities: "We could
rotate responsibilities every year (or two or three)." "We
could divide them up by interest." "We could have people
volunteer for what they like to do best." "We could
elect people to the positions who would do the best job."
You'll get more
and more specific with these solutions as you try to work
out the actual logistics and the specific responsibilities
of each, but you get the idea. Write the solutions on a flip
chart or board so the solutions belong to the department,
not just one individual. Work with them, combine aspects of
different ideas and decide on one everyone can live with.
Remember to use non-defensive language and cope with any criticism
that may arise.
Agree to try the solution(s)
for a set period of time. Promise to reevaluate it (them). Finally,
pat your department members on the back for all the good things
they do. You'll be meeting their need for respect and admiration
- and they are likely to give you the same. You'll be less likely
to get defensive. You will have handled College Conflict effectively.