To the Career Counselor:
I have held my current position within my institution for the past eight years and enjoy the job, the challenges it has to offer, and the folks I work with. Just recently a colleague retired, and we have now hired someone new to take their place. I now seem to find myself in constant disagreements and discussions, and am having to negotiate things that have been in place for many years. The situation is creating a lot of stress for me and my division — and is making all of us look a little foolish. Do you have any suggestions on how to effectively deal with conflict or tips on negotiating to a better solution?
— Conflicted Techie
Dear Conflicted Techie:
Conflict is normal and a necessary part of life and relationships. Nobody can agree on everything, all the time, with everyone else. Because you cannot avoid conflict, you must learn how to deal with it. A mismanaged conflict can harm a relationship, whether professional or personal. On the other hand, a conflict handled in a respectful and positive way opens opportunities for growth and perhaps even a strengthening of the relationship.
Advising you to “Negotiate” might be an easy answer, but it also has problems. Merriam-Webster Learner’s Dictionary defines negotiation as a formal discussion between people trying to reach an agreement. Unfortunately, today negotiation is often seen as the ability to persuade others to accept your point of view. No doubt you’ve seen and read books and articles that advise you to use intimidation, to compromise in a limited fashion, to let someone else win on a small point, to verbally overpower others, or to talk them into something they don’t want to do. Frequently the resulting deal has been negotiated to the advantage of one party and the detriment of the other, which will create future disagreements, retaliation, and negative unforeseen results for the “winner” of the negotiation. This doesn’t seem like such a great solution, does it?
A better way to resolve conflicts through negotiation is to discover the other person’s needs and then try to meet them without compromising your own goals. In this way you create a “partnership” and achieve a win-win strategy for everyone involved. With a little effort, this technique adds another tool to your arsenal for fighting conflict.
Managing and resolving conflict also requires an ability to quickly reduce your feelings of stress while bringing your emotions into balance. This is not an easy thing to do. The following guidelines should help you stay positive:
- Make resolution the priority, not winning or “being right.” Furthering the mission of the institution should be your goal, and respect for the other person and their viewpoint, a priority.
- Focus on the present. Do not hold on to old hurts or resentments; they will impair your ability to assess the current situation. Focus instead on what you can do here and how that might resolve the problem.
- Be flexible. Unwritten agreements and understandings don’t necessarily carry over to a new person coming into an existing position. Jobs evolve over time, and a new colleague has the right to question — and even challenge — the status quo. This offers an opportunity to revisit why some things are done the way they are and to explore possible process improvements at your institution.
- Pick your battles wisely. Conflicts can be draining, so weigh all the options and consider whether an issue is worth your time and energy given the possible results, both positive and negative.
- Listen for the feelings behind what is said. This simple exercise allows you to connect more deeply with the needs and emotions of others, as well as your own. It also strengthens your understanding of exactly what is going on and ultimately makes it easier for others to hear you.
- Try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. It’s hard to do, but in your mind, try to imagine the other person’s perspective. How might you come across — and how might your argument come across — to the other person? Is what you consider “context” something the other person might consider “ancient history”? The more you can empathize with the other position, the better you can address the issue at hand.
- Keep your ego in check. The goal of conflict resolution is to see past the personal agendas and resolve an issue to the benefit of your institution. Egos get in the way and hide the real motives and emotions behind conflicts, making them even more difficult to negotiate successfully.
- Be willing to forgive. If you are unwilling or unable to forgive something said or done, resolving the conflict might be impossible. Resist the urge to punish — this will only deplete you, or begin to drain you and your enjoyment of life. Don’t assume bad intentions on the other person’s part without definitive evidence. You mean well in addressing the conflict, right? They (probably) do, too.
- Know when to let something go. If you cannot come to an agreement, agree to disagree. Arguments have at least two sides; when things are going nowhere, choose to disengage and move on.
In an age of e-mails, texts, and social media your best option might be talking to someone face to face. Walk down the hallway, pick up the phone, or invite someone to talk over a cup of tea or coffee so you can get to the bottom of the situation without allowing technology to get in the middle. Even misinterpretation of e-mail wording can cause firestorms the original sender did not intend, thus making it much harder to resolve anything. Some of the worst situations had their genesis in ill-conceived e-mails or responses to e-mail that really should have been phone calls or conversations over coffee. Lots of emotion complicates things, so the value of face-to-face interaction should not be overlooked when working to resolve disagreements.
The following references provide additional information, including some other tactics, for conflict resolution:
- “Conflict Management,” People, Partnerships, and Communities, no. 12 (updated April 2005), USDA Natural Resources Conservation Services
- “Conflict Resolution Skills,” Helpguide.org
- Barbara Hulburt, “Listening without Ego,” ADR Lunchtime Series, March 12, 2009
- Stephen J. Laster, “Leading the Higher Education IT Organization: Six Building Blocks of Success,” EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 46, no. 3 (May/June 2011)
- EDUCAUSE Institute Management and Leadership Programs
Take some time to learn the skills you need for successful conflict resolution. This will make it easier to resolve your current problem and give you the confidence to face disagreements while keeping your personal and professional relationships strong and growing.
Do you have a question for the Career Counselor? Please send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. (Your identity will be kept strictly confidential.)