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
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
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.
Your colleague tells you about a lab teaching assistant (LTA)
who is unhappy with the workload, and it's up to you to handle
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.
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.
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
Notice the word 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.
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
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
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."
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.
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
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
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
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.
- 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."
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
- A list of the people in the group at each meeting, when
each arrived and when each left (i.e., were they late, early,
- 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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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 lesson 7) 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
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 hear that 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
- describing needs and goals,
- listening effectively to the other, and
- summarizing what you all have in common as goals. Then you
- 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
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 make 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 copy with any criticism that
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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