The posting below gives some nice strategies for helping people resolve conflicts. It is by April Gentry, director of the Center for Academic Success at Savannah State University, where she previously spent five years as chair of the Department of Liberal Arts. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. It is from The Department Chair: A Resource for Academic Administrators, Spring, 2015, Vol. 25, No. 4. For further information on how to subscribe, as well as pricing and discount information, please contact, Sandy Quade, Account Manager, John Wiley & Sons, Phone: (203) 643-8066 (email@example.com), or see: http://www.departmentchairs.org/journal.aspx.
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Helping Others Put Out Their Own Fires: The "Stop, Drop, and Role" Approach to Conflict Management
How often do we use or hear the phrase "putting out fires" to describe our daily work as academic leaders? But unlike the neighborhood fire brigade, department chairs are often left to fight their fires as single individuals without the full complement of resources and training they need to be successful.
In some cases, the chair-as-firefighter model supposes that only the chair holds authority to address conflict. This can be due to the power dynamics or organizational structure of the department or institution, or perhaps faculty and students find it easier to place the responsibility (and the accompanying blame) for problem solving in the chair's hands. Sometimes we encourage this ourselves; being seen as "the problem solver" or "the day saver" does have its appeal. Whatever their origin, situations where only the chair is seen as responsible for conflict management and problem solving cannot only damage department morale but also exhaust and undermine the chair who is so busy keeping things from burning down that she or he has no time or energy to lead.
How, then, can chairs encourage a department culture of shared responsibility for addressing conflict? In part, such culture building requires adopting leadership habits that help others learn to fight their own fires before they get out of control. Situations where people bring conflicts to the chair are teachable moments. Rather than trying to solve the problem, the chair can guide the conversation to help an individual find and own solutions through a series of simple steps. These steps can then become a habitual response to conflict in the absence of the chair, empowering faculty, staff, and students to handle interpersonal conflict more skillfully. I am thinking here not of those higher-order conflicts in which the chair must formally intervene, nor of situations where multiple parties in the conflict are present for mediation; I hope those situations are rare enough to be considered separately. Rather, I am thinking of those daily situations in which one party comes to the chair to lodge a complaint or request some action involving conflict with an absent other party-situations that, for many of us, can take up a great deal of time and energy. In the spirit of the National Fire Safety Administration's "Stop, Drop, and Roll" fire safety campaign of the 1970s and 1980s, I have come to think of one way of guiding others to deal with these situations as the "Stop, Drop, and Role" approach to daily conflict management.
The National Fire Safety Administration's slogan emphasizes that if we find ourselves on fire, we must stop rather than run. This is figuratively true for the emotional "fire" of conflict as well. Consider, for instance, that a student has been told by a faculty member that he cannot retake a test he missed. Often, by the time that student "runs" from the faculty member's office to the chair's, he has already convinced himself that missing the test means failing the class, losing his scholarship, being unable to return to school next year-and he comes to the chair not to discuss the test but to discuss the many ways in which the professor has set out to ruin his life.
At such moments I simply suggest a mindful pause to separate fact from feeling. Stopping means coming back to the root causes of the concern, filtering out the complex story that the individual has begun to tell himself about the situation-to stop escalating, to stop feeding fear and anger to the racing mind that fuels the conflict.
Once we stop escalating, we can reflect on the components of the conflict. As we sort through the issues of concern, we can then decide which we want to carry forward to the other party and which we want to drop. The individual might choose to leave an issue aside for a variety of reasons-perhaps it is no longer important, not germane to the situation, or can be resolved on its own. This can sometimes happen in one conversation, but in other cases it may take a lengthier period of reflection.
For example, a student once came to my office in tears, upset because a professor had accused her of cheating and given her a zero on a quiz. After talking through her initial emotional response, she identified three separate concerns: (1) she was worried about her course grade as a result of the zero; (2) she maintained that she did not cheat, and therefore she thought the professor's actions were unfair; and (3) she was embarrassed by the accusation and hurt by being perceived as a "cheater" because she saw herself as a diligent and ethical student. Once she was able to look at each issue individually, she quickly addressed the first concern on her own. She got out her calculator and syllabus, did the math, and discovered that she was still able to earn the grade to which she aspired in the course regardless of the zero. That helped her think through her second concern; she still viewed the action as unfair but now saw it as having a much less significant effect. She also recognized that if her professor did believe she had cheated, then he likely saw his own actions as fair and appropriate, so simply continuing to argue that she didn't cheat probably would not accomplish much. On that basis, she decided to drop her first two concerns and to develop a strategy for talking with her professor about the third concern, the one she saw as having the greatest effect on her ability to complete the course successfully.
As a leader, I am always acutely aware of my inability to know the actual truth of these sorts of situations-having not been in the room, I have no way of knowing whether the student actually cheated, what the professor said to her or how he said it, or any of the other elements of the conflict. Other related questions of motivation, character, and the like are even more unknowable. I cannot know those things, but in this scenario, I don't need to know in order for the conflict to be managed because the parties in the conflict are responsible for that management. The student initially came to my office asking me to take some authority-based action (make the professor agree that I didn't cheat, make him accept my work, make him see me as I see myself) and, as it later turned out, the faculty member wanted me to do likewise (make her respect my authority, make her admit that she cheated, make her accept my decision). But instead, through this approach, the student was able to work through her own concerns, recognize multiple perspectives, and plan a course of action in which she and the professor were mutually engaged. Rather than continuing to argue over who was right or having the chair make a somewhat arbitrary decision about whose version of events prevailed as the "true" story, the student and faculty member could focus on restoring the working relationship they needed for the remainder of the semester.
The single most useful step I have found in helping others effectively manage their own conflicts has been role-play, especially in conflicts between parties with differing levels of power. Whether it's a student planning to talk to a professor, a junior faculty member about to talk to a senior colleague, or a staff member who needs to address a concern with one of the faculty, a little practice can go a long way in creating effective conversations. Often, when the chair is called on to "firefight" a conflict, the situation has arisen because one party cannot see an effective way to communicate concerns to the other party, and being in a position of lesser perceived authority can enflame that communication gap.
In some ways, though, the discomfort inherent in facing a difficult conversation actually opens people up to the prospect of practicing the conversation in a neutral setting. Both students and colleagues are usually willing to try out and evaluate various conversational strategies. At the point where the individuals begin thinking about what to say to the other party in the conflict, I invite them in the simplest way possible to practice: "Why not try it out on me?" I ask questions about what they want to focus on and leave out, which responses their words might elicit, and what they might in turn say to those responses. In considering all of this, along with where and when to have the conversation, the individuals necessarily build greater empathy with the other party in the conflict. They also develop a greater sense of self-efficacy, realizing that the words, tone, and timing they choose are fully within their control and can help create the outcome they seek. They become better able to put out their own fires.