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“Who’s on First?” Conflict vs. Combat

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“Conflict is inevitable, but combat is optional.” Max Lucade 

It is natural and even expected that whenever a group of people gather in one place in order to accomplish a task that disagreements, differences of opinion, and conflict will occur. Many people tend to shy away from confrontation, viewing it as a negative or uncomfortable event, that will often bring disastrous results. I have witnessed people walk away from disagreements carrying personal offense over an issue that has been damaging to the relationship. Consequently, a tendency to avoid confrontation, contribute to problem solving tasks, and collaborate effectively with one another will develop among colleagues. This type of staff culture is highly ineffective, debilitating, and unacceptable for a highly productive learning team. Conflict is actually a positive thing that can inspire the best in individuals and solutions moving forward, as long as it doesn’t become combat.

As an administrator of a school, I have dealt with a number of conflicts at our school that have arisen between staff, students, volunteers, and parents in different combinations of all of these groups of individuals. Every conflict involved different people and different issues; however, they all, in one way or another, had one thing in common… communication or more accurately… miscommunication.

I am reminded of the famous Abbot and Costello “Who’s on First?” bit as a classic example highlighting the complexity of communication.  There often can be a vast difference in what was intended to be said, what was actually said, and what was heard. It is in this formula that conflict can become unproductive and in the worst of cases, full on combat.

So how do you avoid the fight? How do you establish and build a culture that promotes open, honest dialogue that utilizes conflict as a means to build rather than tear down? Obviously, every situation requires a unique approach and is often much too complex for there to be a simple “cookie cutter” answer; however, here are some principles that have proven very effective whenever I have mediated conflict.

People are NOT Robots: Everyone is unique. Understanding that everybody communicates differently is imperative to productive conflict resolution. Anybody who is married can tell you that. What is heard and said is simultaneously being filtered through emotions, past experiences, perspectives, belief systems, personality, knowledge, and individual perceptions while the conversation is occurring. Acknowledging differences of gender, personality, age, and experiences is vital. People are not robots. To take the same approach and treat them as such will result in less than desired results as such. Furthermore, people are not clones of yourself. In other words, the way in which they communicate is often different from your natural approach. The best leaders do not try and fit every individual into a specific mold; instead, they recognize their differences as an asset to the organization, celebrate their uniqueness, and empower them to succeed to their potential. Coaches understand and apply this with their athletes. Leaders of schools should as well. Different situations, problems, conflicts, people, and conversations are exactly that… different; thus, different approaches are required.

Plan the Conversation: How you are going to say it is just as important as what you are going to say. Before entering a potentially difficult conversation, I always take the time to plan the conversation. There are a few questions  that I consider in preparation for these conversations.

  1. What is the goal of the conversation? What is the desired outcome? If I can’t articulate this in one sentence then I am not prepared to communicate it to the other person. It is the answer to this question that I begin the conversation with. Doing so immediately sets the direction for the conversation and frames it in a positive manner.
  2. How will they respond in the conversation? I try and anticipate the other person’s possible responses, then think through how I will respond in advance. This prevents me from getting caught off guard regardless of their response and empowers me to continue to direct the conversation in a manner that is productive and working towards the desired outcome.
  3. What are the details that need to be discussed? Especially when the issue is more complex, taking the time to jot down notes to use as a guide for the conversation is a great help. It will ensure that the issue is thoroughly so that complete resolution can be achieved.
  4. When and where should we have this conversation? Timing and location is important. Having the conversation in a timely manner is important; however, acknowledging the person’s schedule and individuality is vital as well. Some prefer to deal with it right away and some need time to reflect first. Some prefer to know about the conversation in advance, while others will only stress about the upcoming conversation and would prefer to have the conversation on the spot. Some feel intimidated and uncomfortable about having it in the “boss'” office, while others would prefer the privacy. When and where are important components to productive conversations. I have learned not to underestimate the power of timing and location.

Pull the Thread: It is easy to ignore the passing comment or minor incident. You hear or see something that for a  second makes you pause or causes your “spidey senses” tingle. You wonder if there is something behind it or what they meant exactly just for a moment; however, in the next breath dismiss it as no big deal. Or worse, the fear or discomfort of confrontation paralyzes you from “pulling the thread”. The problem is that if you don’t explore the potential issue it can later balloon into a much bigger problem than it had to be as the unresolved issue grows over time. I have learned to “pull the thread” and see what unravels. Many times it turns out to be nothing; however, there are times when you start pulling and it reveals that there is something that needs to be addressed. You never know until you ask the question. Asking the question, proactively prevents small issues from becoming big issues. Asking the question fosters a culture of open communication with an approach to deal with potential problems before they become real problems. “Pulling the thread” communicates that you care about the individual and how they are doing. Modeling this approach and opening yourself to others checking in with you not only prevents mole hills from becoming mountains, but also enhances collaboration. “Pulling the thread” isn’t a negative thing. It isn’t even about conflict. It is about healthy, open communication. The more this becomes part of the culture, the more productive and effective the team will be. The more this is practiced the less fear and discomfort accompanies the conversations.

Find Common Ground: Often, it is not the end result in which the conflict lies, it is the method to achieve the goal.  In   other words, both parties in conflict ultimately want the same thing, they just disagree on how to get there. Acknowledging this fact and structuring the conversation around the common ground as opposed to the differences turns the conversation from combat to collaboration. People with different ideas and perspectives working together to accomplish a goal will inevitably be more effective than like minded people only working together. True growth often occurs when you are willing to be challenged by others with a different viewpoint. Creating this culture of vulnerability requires recognition of common ground in the face of opposition. Common ground can be found in core values such as respect, honesty, and integrity. It can be found in the desire to do what is best for students. It is often found in the desired end result: the product as opposed to the process. Common ground can even be found in professionalism and in the pride of doing your best. Whatever the common ground, find it, focus on it, and use it to frame productive conversations.

Assume “Right” Motivation: Don’t make judgments about a person’s intentions; instead, deal with their actions. Most   conflict stems from a place of misunderstanding and misinterpretation. In other words, the offending party did not intend their words or actions to be interpreted in the way in which they were. Their motivation was not malicious or to offend. The second the issue is addressed from a position of questioning one’s motivation; it immediately becomes personal, often causing a defensive posturing completely counterproductive to resolution. Even if their intention was bordering on ill intent, what is there to be gained by addressing it as such? Extending grace and the benefit of the doubt will always bring you closer to the desired result of the conversation. Depending on the situation, I often begin the conversation with a statement such as, “I know you didn’t intend to do this… that your motivation was right… but this is the way it was perceived”. My experience is that people rise to the level of expectation that you speak to them and are quick to rectify their actions. After all, isn’t that the goal?

Use “I” Language: I learned this from my wife. It works in my marriage and it works with my colleagues. “I” and “me” language is not accusatory. It does not put people on the defensive. It avoids the perception of personal attack and empowers an attitude of ownership for all parties involved. “You should not have done that”, is much different than “I felt offended when that happened” or “you are wrong”, in contrast to “I disagree because…”. “I” language allows for the possibility that you interpreted their actions incorrectly and displays ownership to how you responded.

Validate Their Perspective: Seek to understand their perspective. I have alluded to the fact that misunderstanding,  misinterpretation, and poor communication is often the culprit of combat. Walking a mile in their shoes is imperative to resolving conflict. What are they really trying to say? What is really important to them? People need to be heard and understood. Their perspective, feelings, and opinion need to be validated. Ultimately, we want others to extend this to us, so we need to do the same. Someone needs to be the model and leader for this in the conversation. I have found that if I do that, it is often reciprocated. If I am mediating a conversation, helping the people involved understand the other person is essential to ending the conversation productively. Taking the time to summarize what they are saying as opposed to responding immediately, pushing your own agenda is the best way to gain insight into the other person’s position. “What I hear you saying is… is that correct?” has been an essential tool to navigating difficult conversations.

Own Your Part: Remember the goal. Take ownership for your part. Even if your intentions were misinterpreted and you don’t feel like you did anything wrong, demonstrating responsibility for how your actions impacted the other person, not only validates their perspective, but empowers them to do the same. Acknowledging how your actions impacted others negatively, regardless of intent creates a culture of open communication and trust. Leaders set the culture, tone, and direction for their team. If we expect accountability, we need to make ourselves accountable. Transparent vulnerability and responsibility demonstrated by leadership will create the same among the staff.

Follow-Up: After a difficult conversation, follow-up is essential. Depending upon the issue, I will do this in conversation  or email and sometimes both. Reiterating, summarizing, or clarifying the conversation, resolution, and direction moving forward is part of this; however, it goes deeper than that. Following any form of confrontation or conflict, I deliberately seek for opportunity to communicate appreciation and value to the individual as an essential part of our team. Intentionally doing so communicates that the incident is in the past and that a grudge is not being held. Inadvertently, it also assists people in not holding grudges against you; instead, winning favour in the relationship moving forward. It creates a positive culture, laying the groundwork for effective collaboration moving forward.

Invest in Relationships: Truthfully, although the above principles outlined above help, the number one indicator for how the “tough” conversations will go is in the relationship established before the conflict ever occurs. I believe trust is the foundation for establishing effective relationships. Do they trust that you want the best for them? Do they trust you want them to succeed? Do they trust that you value them and recognize them as a valuable member of the team? Do they trust they can be vulnerable with you? Do they trust that they can take risks without fearing failure? Do they trust that you will always communicate with respect? Do they trust that you will be there to help them resolve problems? Do they trust that you will be vulnerable and transparent with them? Do they trust that you will protect their confidence? As a leader, if you can gain their trust, you have gained their permission to address the issues that you see.


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