I often hear people, especially educators, say “I avoid conflict”. I think this is probably because so many educators typically have a personality of working very hard to do things “right” and please other. So many see conflict as negative. However, I think avoiding conflict and seeing it as something bad is antithesis of learning. Merriam Webster defines conflict as a struggle between opposing ideas. As educators, we should embrace conflict more than most. After all, what is learning besides a mental opposing conflict that requires us to resolve new knowledge with what we have always known? Education is no longer a world of homogenous students complying with our attempts to pour in information. Because it is now about engagement of students from all different backgrounds and cultures who must buy into the learning we are trying to instill, we must all be skilled in helping our students resolve current views with new concepts for knowledge to become a part of their schema.
I will never forget in my interview for my current principal job. After arriving, I had forty-five minutes to prepare a presentation to a room of more than twenty parents, school staff members and district level administrators on my vision for the school. When the time passed, I began by presenting my vision and then answering at least twenty questions that meaningfully connected with each of these different groups. When finished, the superintendent who sat in silence examining my responses and the reactions of the group asked his question. I took a breath as he spoke, “What is cognitive dissonance and how do you know if your staff is doing it? How do you help them embrace it?” –Wait, what? I felt like I needed a dictionary or some visual supports. Where were the accommodations? Was this really the question? To buy me some time to think about this and not having a long pregnant pause and hopefully hide any look of utter confusion on my face, I asked him to repeat the question. As he asked the question again, I was able to put together “brain” and “unrest”. LEARNING! Cognitive dissonance is nothing more than conflict within your brain as you learn something new. Putting “conflict” in a context of being something positive and helping us grow and evolve definitely helps us see this struggle in a more positive light and this is what drove my response. To effectively teach learners, we must be learners ourselves. I guess I hit the mark, I got the job!
I love what Jack Canfield has to say about accepting one hundred percent accountability for your life. Often, if we are unhappy about something, it is because we aren’t taking action to change it. I would add that it is probably because we are avoiding the discomfort of conflict. We would rather keep our circumstances as they are than “confront” the issue at hand. We use excuses to say that we don’t want to make the other person uncomfortable, but actually, it is really more about that we don’t know how to discuss the situation with the other person in a way without feeling that someone must win and someone must lose. It’s really that we don’t want to experience the discomfort. Think about it, when people reach the end of their rope, they have no trouble raining the conflict down on someone else. Stephen Covey’s fourth habit for highly effective people discusses seeking the Win/Win:
“Think Win-Win isn’t about being nice, nor is it a quick-fix technique. It is a character-based code for human interaction and collaboration.
Most of us learn to base our self-worth on comparisons and competition. We think about succeeding in terms of someone else failing–that is, if I win, you lose; or if you win, I lose. Life becomes a zero-sum game. There is only so much pie to go around, and if you get a big piece, there is less for me; it’s not fair, and I’m going to make sure you don’t get anymore. We all play the game, but how much fun is it really?
Win-win sees life as a cooperative arena, not a competitive one. Win-win is a frame of mind and heart that constantly seeks mutual benefit in all human interactions. Win-win means agreements or solutions are mutually beneficial and satisfying. We both get to eat the pie, and it tastes pretty darn good!
A person or organization that approaches conflicts with a win-win attitude possesses three vital character traits:
Integrity: sticking with your true feelings, values, and commitments
Maturity: expressing your ideas and feelings with courage and consideration for the ideas and feelings of others
Abundance Mentality: believing there is plenty for everyone
Many people think in terms of either/or: either you’re nice or you’re tough. Win-win requires that you be both. It is a balancing act between courage and consideration. To go for win-win, you not only have to be empathic, but you also have to be confident. You not only have to be considerate and sensitive, you also have to be brave. To do that–to achieve that balance between courage and consideration–is the essence of real maturity and is fundamental to win-win.”
A former superintendent said that in education we don’t create products, we develop people. I believe a master of conflict knows and cares about the people they are responsible for developing enough that they want to help people to be better. I think about my sons. There is no way I wouldn’t tell my one of my children something that they needed to hear, even if it was uncomfortable. If my youngest, who just hasn’t yet become socially aware, forgets to wear deodorant, I’m going to tell him. I don’t do this to hurt his feelings, and I’m certainly going to make him aware in a kind way, but I’d rather he hear it from me than a peer.
As leaders, we have to have the same approach. We have to care about developing our teachers more than we care about our own comfort. We must be kind, sensitive, and make sure that our purpose in bringing about the tough conversation is driven by what is best for students and the individual. Letting things go unsaid isn’t good for anyone and does more to harm the relationship in the long run if resentment builds up. I think I can say that I’ve probably had more these types of conversations with more of my staff than not. I also think that in most instances, the relationships have become stronger. Being willing to go to a deep level shows real commitment to the other person. I think the key is that if people know that your intentions are just and that your end result is to help them win, not lose, they may initially feel uncomfortable or defensive, but then ultimately appreciate that you cared enough to tell them what they needed to hear, not just what they wanted to hear.
I appreciate those people who are willing to tell me what I need to hear as well. As a leader, it does me no good if everyone blindly agrees to every idea or initiative. I like for people to speak up and speak their mind. It’s funny sometimes to watch the looks of horror around the room by the compliant. While the one speaking up may not always do it with grace or initially seeking the win/win, I alway try to recognize the individual for helping the group consider the unintended consequences of our action. So often, taking time to resolve the opposing views makes the situation go so much better in the long run. You can plan for the negatives rather than be blindsided by them in the middle of implementation.
When teams have productive conflict, it helps them to grow. Conflict helps the team:
- Expose new ideas
- Identify situations that are no longer best practice
- Allow everyone’s ideas to be heard
- Encourage innovation
- Eliminate a build up of resentment
- Embrace diversity
However, sometimes we need to teach our teams how to have productive conflict. We cannot just assume that everyone can effectively manage conflict in productive ways. Having conversations and discussions about conflict help everyone reveal their attitudes and fears about conflict while also discussing how it can be a positive force in team building.
Conflict is not bad. It shouldn’t be avoided. Conflict is the root of all learning and helps us to make our situations better if we rally our grit, desire to grow, and always seek the win/win by extending grace to others. Embrace the struggle to learn and improve so that you can “Keep Calm and Conflict On”!