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Conflict is an inevitable element of the work we do. Our work is important, after all, and it involves high stakes for the students we care about and serve. We are passionate about our work and do not want to make careless mistakes. Each of us has a unique set of experiences and expertise that we want considered and respected. This combination makes conflict an unavoidable occurrence. 

Of course, conflict is not necessarily a bad thing or something to avoid. In fact, when engaged in with thought, sensitivity, and purpose, conflict can be a significant contributor to a healthy and productive culture, as it can help us to sort the best approaches and find the best solutions.  

On the other hand, conflict can also become a barrier to innovation, a divider of staff, and a drag on the culture if not engaged in skillfully, purposefully, and thoughtfully. Healthy conflict is not just arguing or insisting we have our way.  

A great deal of important planning, decision making, and other work likely lies ahead over the summer months. Predictably, we will encounter diverging opinions about some of the approaches, concepts, and content that we will need to resolve. Skillful handling of these disagreements will be required to reach consensus on the path forward. Here are five strategies to consider that will ensure that any conflicts remain productive.  

Move from defending to listening. When we find ourselves conflicting with someone, our first instinct is often to defend ourselves. While this stance may serve to protect our position and ego, it ignores the probability that there is another side or perspective to know and consider. When we default to defensiveness, we risk accelerating the conflict and embarrassing ourselves when the full picture emerges. Taking time to listen first gives us access to what may be important and saves us from having to backtrack once another perspective is presented. 

Shift from furious to curious. Conflict can be the source of strong emotions. We may feel justified in projecting our anger and frustration. However, like failing to listen, failing to ask open-ended questions and explore the understanding, perspective, and expectations of the other person is likely to move us deeper into conflict rather than toward resolution. Questions such as, “What makes you say that?” “How do you see this situation?” and “What do I need to know?” can be good places to start.  

Go from pressing to patience. When we feel as though we have the correct motivation, position, or understanding, it can be tempting to press the other person to agree with us. Unfortunately, this stance can push the other person to “dig their feet in” to their original stance and stop listening to what we have to say, regardless of how right we may actually be. Taking a step back and giving the other person time and space to think and process can open the door to new information and greater understanding.  

Shift from forcing to flexibility. Similarly, when we feel we are right and we have a path in mind we believe the situation should follow, we can become narrow in our perspective. Simultaneously, we risk missing or rejecting workable, or even excellent, solutions that could lead to the outcome(s) we seek by employing a different strategy or following a different path.  

Move the focus from winning to solving. The emotions and momentum of conflict can lead us to become so focused on “winning” that we forget that the goal is to find the best solution. In fact, conflict over the best path to a shared goal can generate innovative ideas and lead to creative solutions. The key is to focus on what will work, not just getting our way.  

Conflict can be uncomfortable. Sometimes, we may even choose to stay quiet or give in just to avoid it. However, such a choice undervalues our experience and expertise. It also deprives colleagues and the institution of what may be the best, most effective, most innovative solutions to the challenges we face.  

Thought for the Week

Simply pulling a strategy “off the shelf” or defaulting to the most recently read article or staff development session topic may not generate the results we seek.

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