Communicating through Conflict: Dos and Don’ts
This article first appeared in The Best of the 2020 Leadership in Higher Education Virtual Conference (Magna Publications, 2021).
In academia as in every other aspect of life, effective communication is a key skill. And we must never minimize the importance of having this skill. Communication can either make or break a negotiation and resolve or escalate conflict. It can also make the difference between success and failure and in many cases raises one’s profile considerably.
Let’s consider two scenarios: one that was effective and one that was not. Strangely enough, the effective example did not actually produce the desired outcome but raised the credibility of the communicator considerably. The second, “poorly worded” case caused a great deal of embarrassment to the communicator but ultimately resolved the problem at hand.
You are being extremely generous in offering me an orchard full of apple trees. There are a lot of advantages to apple orchards . . . think of all the pies and applesauce and baked apples you can have!
But I really want ONE ORANGE TREE because I need to have orange juice . . . I need that tree. I would happily agree that you can give me fewer apple trees in exchange for that one orange tree.
You see . . . you cannot get orange juice from an apple tree!
Case 1 highlights a request that I personally made several years ago for a particular type of hire for what was then a school of computing of which I was director. The request was denied, but the powers that be were so impressed by my creative request that they ultimately gave me more than I expected.
You have alienated the rest of the department with your meddling and destructive behaviors.
It has become so difficult to work with you.
I will continue to work with you when needed but want no further contact with you unless absolutely necessary.
Case 2 is an example a colleague provided of a poor way of communicating. A chair sent it in an email to a faculty member after growing frustrated with that person’s behavior. The dean needed to get involved, and the situation escalated much more than it needed to. Ultimately, the meddling did stop, and collegiality was restored, but it took a great deal of time.
Although the dean understood why this message was sent as an email, the dean pointed out that a chair needed to stick with facts and not editorialize. Oddly enough, even though this was a very poor example of self-expression, the situation did eventually improve considerably and has remained on neutral ground.
Here are some strategies that I have found useful for effective communication:
- Be willing to listen and hear what the person is saying.
- Think before responding.
- Do not let emotions take over—for you or the person you are communicating with.
- Where possible, meet in person to discuss. Try not to use email if the situation is tentative or your responses are likely to be misconstrued. I have found meeting over coffee or lunch to be most effective.
- Be as calm as possible.
- Be willing to compromise but not to the point of backing down every time.
- Offer a follow-up meeting.
- Avoid the use of the word you and use we instead.
- Make certain that the faculty member understands the “department’s” position and that you understand their position on the issue . . . LISTEN!
- Be firm and strong if you need to, but without showing anger.
- Do not make it personal.
- Be concise and to the point.
- Remain as objective as possible.
- Maintain transparency.
- Keep to the situation; don’t wander around or waver.
- If emotions do take over, suggest that you end the meeting and discuss again soon.
Solving problems . . . sooner rather than later
- Do not allow bad feelings to fester; make every attempt to address problems early.
- If the problem involves several faculty members meet with each one separately as soon as possible before bringing them together.
- Let people know you are willing to talk as soon as you perceive a problem.
- Do not prejudge.
- Ask the faculty why they think this problem arose and if there is anything that they or you could have done to prevent it or make it less toxic.
- Try to handle the problem without bringing in senior administration if possible BUT if it is necessary to do so let the other party know why.
Handing complaints from faculty or staff
- Listen carefully and speak with a positive attitude while ascertaining the extent of the problem.
- Avoid personal issues if possible.
- Promise to investigate any problem areas but do NOT promise that the situation will be resolved.
- Assess the seriousness of the situation.
Handling complaints from students
- Decide whether is more prudent to meet with students individually or as a group (if more than one student is involved in the complaint).
- Ascertain how well or poorly the students are doing in the course.
- Give the students a timeline as to when you will respond to their comments.
- Tactfully approach the faculty member for their input on the situation.
Consider the following scenario:
Three of the best students in the program come to you separately with complaints about one of your faculty’s classes. All three are hard-working, high-achieving students whom you know personally from classes you have taught them in.
They complain that the professor plays favorites, seeming to favor those from a certain ethnic group, and considers these three individuals disruptive and inconsiderate and tells them so. You speak with the professor, tactfully asking whether there any issues with the class. The professor responds that he enjoys the class, the differences in viewpoints in it, and composition of it. He commends the three students who came to you. You have a positive relationship with the professor and have not encountered these types of problems before in dealing with said professor.
What do you do next?
Do you do anything?
Having used this scenario in many of my workshops, most attendees have indicated that they would keep an eye on the situation but not step in just yet. Some suggested that the chair discreetly speak with some other students in the class to get their perspective (maybe not a good idea!).
As leaders, we all make errors in judgement and sometimes feel the need to backtrack. It is perfectly acceptable to admit this both to yourself and others involved in the communication (whether to someone who reports to you or someone you report to). We are human, have bad days, and sometimes also need to reflect on a situation before we act and communicate. It may be best to acknowledge a problem immediately but also take a bit of time before offering a response or suggestion. Listening is an extremely vital component in the process of resolving conflict and it is often the missing piece in any communication effort.
Chu, D. (2012). The department chair primer: What chairs need to know and do to make a difference. Jossey-Bass.
Hickson, M., III, & Stacks, D. W. (1992). Effective communication for academic chairs. SUNY Press.
Stovall, J., & Hall, R. H. (2016). The art of communication: Your competitive edge. Destiny Image Books.
Domenick J. Pinto has been director of the master’s in computer science program at Sacred Heart University since 1998. He has been with the university for 45 years and for 31 of them served as chair of the Computer Science Department and then director of the School of Computing. He twice served as president of the UAA (the faculty governance organization) and will again serve as president in 2021–2022.