Rarely do I have blog post ideas come to me like flashes of insight. I take great pleasure in being a planner, and generally I have a few ideas brewing long before I ever post them- this post, however, is an exception. Over the past few weeks, I feel like I’ve been dragged into the middle of a number of fights, disagreements, and critical conversations between individuals or groups of people that could easily have been resolved if the parties actually took some time to communicate with others. After spending the better part of the middle of last week cleaning up a situation between an individual student and a group of other students that could easily have been avoided with a simple conversation- likely without a great deal of help- but instead was blown out of proportion to the point of parent involvement because people chose to avoid conflict, I knew immediately that this had to be my topic of choice today. You can thank my Pandora account for the title of the post- literally 20 minutes after I had my topic, one of my saved stations Summer Hits of the 2000’s played John Mayer’s 2007 song Say (What You Need To Say) – and this post was born. Here’s the song for those who haven’t heard it:
Granted, as a student affairs professional, I mediate conflicts for a living, and I generally don’t mind them because they are great learning opportunities for all involved. I don’t expect that people are going to come out of the womb being able to perfectly articulate themselves and feeling especially confident enough to take on all who come their way; I certainly didn’t and to expect that of others is foolish. What I am beginning to wonder about is why this seems to be a problem that gets worse by the day, for students and for professionals (no, we’re not immune), and what we should be teaching our students and ourselves going forward.
Why Can’t We Get Conflict Right?
There are a number of reasons that could contribute to this- including our overall desire as a society to avoid conflict, a lack of good examples of how to resolve it, degradation of social skills related to social media and cell phone obsessions- and I think each of them could use a bit of exploration.
Think about the first time you had a conflict with someone ever- in many cases, it was probably with another kid at school or if you had siblings, very early on in the household with one of them. What happened? Did the adults in your life actually give you the opportunity to work through it, or did they just separate you and tell you to stop? I’m going to guess that the latter happened. There are reasons for this- teachers have enough to deal with and I’m sure dealing with petty squabbles between students are not at the top of the list, and at young ages, students don’t necessarily have the cognitive and emotional tools to resolve these things well. Additionally, I think that especially with the Millennial generation, we’ve gotten away from the idea that just because someone says something you don’t like, that doesn’t make it wrong, insensitive, or evil- it just makes it something you don’t like. Our generation got told over and over again that we were special, we all deserved trophies for existing, and that if anyone dared tell us no that they’d have to go through Mom and Dad- so it’s no wonder that more and more people just skip the conversation these days and go straight to complaining to the nearest authority figure.
Again, I don’t expect anyone to have the innate capacity to work out who gets to play with the favorite household toy at 4 years old or who gets to take the class pet home at 7 years old, but in those moments it’s important to ask what the adults in the room are doing and if it’s setting folks up for a lifetime of mess. We include a variety of learning goals in elementary and secondary education related to social interactions- the most infamous “works well with others” has to have been on at least one report card you got as a kid- so why can’t we be more focused on conflict resolution as one of these goals? Yes, it takes effort and a level of cognitive function that may be outside an individual’s zone of proximal development to have a nuanced, thoughtful discussion of key differences of opinion at a young age- but getting people to that place is the role of the educator and today’s talk about sharing toys becomes tomorrow’s talk about sharing apartments.
All the lecturing and discussion on conflict resolution means nothing if you don’t have good examples to choose from in formulating one’s personal conflict management toolbox. If you don’t have the opportunity to engage in meaningful conflict yourself, seeing other figures like parents, relatives, friends, authority figures, etc. being able to do it confidently and thoughtfully can make a difference. Not having these opportunities can put one at a double disadvantage. We live in a world where congressmen scream out “You Lie!” during a presidential speech, where police officers turn their backs on the mayor of NYC while he gives a eulogy, and where Twitter wars take center stage, sometimes on national news- so being shocked that normal, everyday people can’t get it together isn’t realistic. Even when you have individuals around you who can effectively manage conflict, the fear that exposing others to your conflicts could either cause embarrassment or more conflict may sometimes keep them from leading by example.
Finally, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t comment on the way that texting, social media, and other technologies have played a role in this. Why actually confront someone if you can just subtweet them? Those who decide to confront electronically can do even more damage than the average subtweet- z many times have we heard of a physical fight or confrontation that ended in tragedy but started on a touchscreen? The relative anonymity of some social media technologies combined with the distance given by others, coupled with our inability to gather tone and sentiment from written communications like e-mails creates a perfect storm that can allow for the tiniest disagreements to become massive crises that require more than the usual cleanup. I won’t stand here on my soapbox and pretend that I don’t use technology in this way, but I’m at least aware that it’s not the most productive way to go about things- and I’m not sure that folks growing up in the digital age DO know that.
There are a myriad other reasons for our inability to have positive conflict- personal hang-ups around conflict, power dynamics, dysfunctional relationships and organizations, human nature, etc.- and if I focused on all of them we’d be here for a decade- but as educators I think we do have an opportunity, or rather an obligation, to create spaces to remedy some of these issues and to allow students to develop.
So How Do We Fix It?
We’ve got quite a mess to clean up in this case- no one actually expects an entire generation (or an entire society) to figure out how to better engage one another in conflict overnight, or even over the next year. However, we’ve all heard the story of the little girl throwing starfish back into the sea (if not, read this), and we know that making that difference even slightly for one person is a BIG step. So how do we do it? This is by no means an exclusive list, but here are a few of my thoughts:
Stop sending the message that conflict is bad.
Too often, we try and swoop in as professionals, as supervisors, as parents, and as friends to clean up conflicts and make everyone happy. Newsflash: It’s actually OK to not be happy all the time- and occasionally that unhappiness can end up teaching you a valuable lesson. I’ve made a habit of actually making folks try and talk it out before I jump in unless there’s a significant reason why I shouldn’t (threatening behavior, violence, mental duress, etc.) – then offering help to do so, and only THEN jumping in. If we stop giving folks the hint that actually having to talk out their problems with each other is a bad idea, they’ll eventually start doing it themselves. This leads into my next point…
Stop hiding conflicts that we get into and use them as teachable moments.
This one requires a bit of vulnerability and being willing to lean in and move into a brave space- I think it’s important that we are honest about the times that we’ve been in conflict with someone and use these examples to teach others. I’m not saying expose yourself to the point of being unprofessional, but it’s time to make conflict resolution a topic we talk about beyond just being theoretical and high-minded and to make the subject real for our students. Do we make conflict resolution part of our student staff trainings? Do we integrate the acquisition of these skills into our departmental goals and educational priorities? Is this a topic we discuss as part of professional development plans? Are we looking for ways to give our students the opportunity to practice? If not, maybe it’s time to think through why.
Teach concrete skills that students and staff can use.
This is something that I do believe many people do, but they may not necessarily make them priorities. In saying this, I’m including tactics like active listening as well as tips like separating people from positions, looking for points of mutual gain, using the STATE method to tell one’s individual story and to listen to others’ stories, and using reflective techniques to show that you did hear someone’s point of view and understand it. There are some great books out there that can give you some pointers to share, including Getting to Yes, Crucial Conversations, and The Mediator’s Handbook. Take advantage of your campus mediation group or Office of Conflict Resolution if you don’t feel confident about teaching these skills (and take notes!)- don’t wait until things blow up and become issues to teach students how to engage in conflict.
Encourage face-to-face contact in times of conflict over social media hijinks.
Let’s be honest- we’ve all said things on the Internet that we’d probably NEVER let come out of our mouths if we were sitting in front of someone. Well… some of the stuff I probably SHOULDN’T say WOULD still come out of my mouth at times, but that’s another story… Anyway, it’s important to make clear to younger folks that hashing out conflict is best done face to face and not behind a screen. We can do this by not feeding into e-mails or communications we get from angry students who want to go back and forth online as well as by reminding students we have conversations with them about their previous attempts to solve conflicts.
Finally, encourage students and staff alike to be introspective and to develop stronger awareness of self- and to bring these personal skills and traits to conflicts they face.
This really is at the heart of all lessons on social interaction that we can provide as educators. It’s incredibly easy to look at someone else and see their faults, missteps, and moments of idiocy and judge them, further feeding into any conflicts that we may have with them; it’s not so easy to take a step back and think about how WE may be contributing to the problem. When we deal with conflict, we need to be asking ourselves:
- What did I bring to this situation?
- How can I take steps to solve it?
- What stake do I have in this relationship and its success?
- Is this someone I can easily walk away from, or do I really want to fix the situation?
- Do I feel good about the way that I’ve handled this situation, and have I stayed true to myself in doing so?
This is definitely an area that students of the Millennial generation need to take to heart- but we can all use a little time to reflect occasionally to figure out if we’re really engaging with others in the way that shows our best selves. If you ask yourself the questions above and you don’t like the answers, think about why. Talk to a trusted friend or colleague if you need to, then approach the situation differently. When we take the time to let go of our own egos and really hear someone else for what they are really saying, often we are able to resolve our issues and move forward- so let’s start today.
Again, just a few thoughts- but definitely some steps that we can take to help make the situation better. If you agree, please share the post and feel free to add some of your own suggestions, experiences with conflict, or thoughts about how we got to where we are and how we can move forward. Looking forward to hearing from some of you on this- it’s a crucial topic that I think we don’t address enough. See you later this week!