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Managing Conflict with Students and Peers

by Mary Wiemann

Difficulties are meant to rouse, not discourage. The human spirit is to grow strong by conflict.
-William Ellery Channing


Imagine: You have conducted a wonderful class. Your carefully prepared lecture, discussion and activities have engaged your students. You feel confident that the assignment you've just given them for the next class will reinforce the day's lesson and challenge them to extend the concepts in their daily lives. You're feeling good.

As you return to your office, a colleague catches up to you and points out that the lab teaching assistant you supervise is unhappy with the workload, and it's up to you to handle this quickly. In your office, there are two voice mails from students who missed class (that brilliant class you just taught); they want to know if you did anything important today. You have an E-mail from your dean who wants that faculty evaluation packet in yesterday.

Your good feeling dissipates. Your level of exhaustion and frustration is understandable. In addition to preparing lessons, teaching and grading, you have many other responsibilities. Welcome to the life of a typical community college instructor. It is full of successes and trying situations. What can you do to handle it all?

First, you will not handle it all. Conflicts among colleagues, students and administrators are understandable aspects of complex relationships. But, remember, they are relationships, which means that other people besides you share in the responsibility for maintaining the relationships and working out the conflicts. By yourself, you won't be able to resolve all the conflicts. Nonetheless, you can handle the conflicts in a way that will increase your own satisfaction with the outcome and manage the relationships you have with all the people in your professional (not to mention your personal) life.

It may help to consider:

  • Your returned calls to the absent students will focus on your need not to have to repeat material for each of your 200 students and yet attend to the choice they made not to attend class that day.

  • Your return e-mail to your dean will request collusion on setting up a reasonable deadline for the submission of that faculty evaluation packet given the new set of circumstances since the request went out two months ago.

  • This lesson provides guidelines for approaching, managing and (in some instances) resolving conflict. We will apply a "Stop, Look, Listen, Respond" method to our study.
    1. Stop. Rather than just reacting to a situation, it is useful to step back and reassess the situation. When we deal with conflict, we often have anger, or one of the parties involved has anger. When people express anger without reassessing the situation, they almost always make things worse. So, stop, count to ten, take a deep breath, take a "time out" - anything that helps you think about what just happened rather than rushing in to make everything right.
    2. Look. A conflict situation will involve facial expressions, tone of voice, pitch, timing, body tension. Look at all the nonverbal behaviors in the people involved in the conflict situation - including yourself! At times, you should also look at your surroundings for anything that might be contributing to the conflict situation. The number of people, the temperature, the lighting, the time of day (or night) might all contribute to the conflict situation.
    3. Listen. Hear the other person out. Often this is the best mode of discovery. Think of all the times in your own life when you just wanted to be listened to. Others are like that, too. A colleague, a student, a friend - often you can help them and yourself just by listening.
    4. Respond. After you Stop, Look and Listen, you can then make a considered response. Note that this is the fourth step, not the first. Responses can be verbal or nonverbal. We'll discover how to choose the best response, not just any response. Your responses will also help the other person save face. Conflict participants often feel backed into a corner; considered responses will give them a way out that doesn't involve fighting their way out by having to retrieve a damaged self-image.

Conflict Situations

Attitude - Conflict is a normal part of relationships.

These animals 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

Attitude 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.

Conflict 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.

Conflict 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.

Goals. Describe the perception of incompatible goals among the conflicting parties.

Goals 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.

Notice 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.

But in 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.

Another 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.

Conflict 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 exams.

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 do.

Look at 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.

In other 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.

Next, 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.

Next, 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.

Aerie 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 a "pushover."

Needs. Define the unmet needs (scarce resources) the parties perceive.

Needs are 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.

Other people 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.

At times 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.

Conflict 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?

One of 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.

George 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.

Look at 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.

If you 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.

If you 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.

If you 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.

Describing 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).

Conflicts 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.

  1. 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).

  2. 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."

Conflict Capsule: Your department chair schedules you for classes that meet earlier (or later) than you'd like. How do you approach the situation?

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 you respond.

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 Wednesday night."

Facilitate 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.

Conflict 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:

  1. A list of each time the group has met, when, where, for how long.

  2. 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

  3. 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 your students.

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.

Classroom management 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.

Conflict 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 continue.

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 parties.

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 well.

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 less defensiveness.

Descriptive language 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 and "I-oriented."

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.

Conflict 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 that?"

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 it out.

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.

Conflict 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 your dean.

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 validity)
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-Solve. Employ 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

  1. describing needs and goals,

  2. listening effectively to the other, and

  3. summarizing what you all have in common as goals. Then you can

  4. 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.

Conflict 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.


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