Field Notes: 6 strategies for dealing with conflict at work

April 3, 2020
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"Field Notes" is a regular AACRAO Connect column covering practical and philosophical issues facing admissions and registrar professionals. The columns are authored by various AACRAO members. If you have an idea for a column and would like to contribute, please send an email to the editor at connect@aacrao.org.

by Jim Wohl, DVM, MPA,  University Ombuds, University of Connecticut

Those of us at colleges and universities providing services to students, parents, the public, and other campus offices navigate all types of interactions every day.  Most exchanges are pleasant and reaffirm a sense of service and meaning in our work.

Those rare negative interactions we face in carrying out our duties, though statistically small, create a disproportionate amount of stress. 

Energy-sucking exchanges

In trying to assist others who call upon us, for example, we may find ourselves in debates over facts, arguments, and having our authority and expertise questioned. We are expected to summon the appropriate response to other people's strong emotions, even accusations, when we provide information people don’t want to hear. We can feel nervous when frustrated people tell us they are going to ignore or circumvent established rules or policies, essentially psychologically absorbing the risk of someone’s else’s behavior.

We spend more time and energy on these negative exchanges than the positive ones, often letting them ruin our mood for the entire day—and even driving us to look for other jobs with less customer service responsibilities. 

Each of us have steps that work for us individually, for example, reminding ourselves about the positives in our work, deep breathing exercising, or taking a walk.  Some strategies from conflict management practices can help supplement our own personal strategies for navigating through difficult interactions by focusing specifically on the anxieties we feel when our customers and service partners have problems.

'Me' vs. ‘not me’ problems

When you first feel your stress response kick in, start by knowing your job. Our job is to know the applicable policies for the situations presented to us (or know how to find out and communicate the rules if we don’t know them off the top of our head), to know the resources available to people contacting our office, and to communicate possible options to people not satisfied with the outcomes they are perceiving. 

If I’m not fulfilling those responsibilities adequately then that’s a "me" problem. All other stressors beyond this are "not me" problems.  If we can remember that simple equation, then we can formulate a list of strategies for dealing with the anxieties we feel when dealing with "not me" problems.

Dealing with anxieties about ‘not me’ Problems

1. Identify the source of the stress. Slow down and think: what about the interaction is triggering your anxiety response? Wilmot and Hocker in their book Interpersonal Conflict described the drivers in a conflict as relating to some combination of goals: the content of the dispute, the relationship of the people involved, individual identity, and process. 

Many interactions that cause anxiety when dealing with difficult people are rarely just about the content.  After all, we’re experts in the rules and policies so the information itself often isn’t the problem! But being attentive to how the relationship with our counterpart is playing a role can help us accurately identify the source of our stress.  Is your counterpart a recurrent problem who seems to only have an issue with you, a campus VIP, or is this a single one-off interaction? Is the difficult interaction affecting our sense of who we are, do I feel I’m being treated differently than others, does being the recipient of someone’s antagonism not comport with my own self-image, is what’s happening triggering personal sensitivities or values important to me?  Is the source of my anxiety about this not me problem about fairness or are established rules and practices being violated? 

Being self-aware to the stress, and then considering the source of the anxiety, can be the first step in preventing someone else’s anxiety from becoming our anxiety.  In addition, once we’re able to do that, we can apply the same questions to our counterpart: Is their stress about more than just the content or issue at hand?  Is there something about the relationship with me? their identity, the process that’s causing their angst?

2. Uncover underlying interests. After parsing out the source of your feelings, several steps from mediation training can advance the exchange to a more positive interaction – or at least to an interaction that you can feel is more under control. 

Mediators attempt to distinguish and address interests, the reasons why someone is seeking a specific outcome, as opposed to the positions people make during a disagreement. Positions are claims about the truth of a situation or an outcome they desire. Asking how or why something is important can be an excellent way to uncover interests.  When people explain why something is important or how a situation is difficult it can refocus people towards problem solving and away from their emotions. That’s essential to opening up new avenues for solutions.  

3. Reflect and reframe. A useful mediator’s technique is to paraphrase back to your counterpart your understanding of their interests.  That allows you to check the accuracy of your understanding and reframe the conversation. Even when you don’t have an immediate solution, knowing your counterpart’s interests can put you in a position to provide other resources, brainstorm possibilities, or defer to the expertise of other offices on campus when appropriate (rather than having fact debates). 

Sometimes when dealing with other employees on campus, the problem is within your authority and expertise and you can’t meet their interests because you’re constrained by policies.   By asking, Given the constraints I have, how do you suggest I handle that? you can frame the next stage of the interaction in a way to which they can often relate because it’s likely they have situations in which they, too, are constrained. 

4. Be calm and direct. Other helpful techniques in dealing with negative interactions come from the business communication literature.  Professor Laurie Weingert from Carnegie Mellon published research in the Academy of Management Review demonstrating that during conflicts, maintaining direct and low-key communication is key.

Direct communication is substantive and focused on the subject as opposed to indirect or ambiguous where people have to spend energy interpreting what you said or wonder what you mean. Using low intensity language and tone keeps the conversation from being personal and eliciting defensive responses.  It will also calm you down, too.

5. Keep it collegial. Bill Eddy of the High Conflict Institute recommends using the acronym BIFF when responding to hostile interactions whether they be in person, over the phone, or on email.  BIFF stands for Brief, Informative, Friendly, and Firm.  Keeping responses short is almost always sufficient to get across your point and also gives your counterpart less to react to if they’re motivated to continue hostilities.

Providing direct low key, substantive information rather than opinions or defensive explanations keeps the exchange, and your counterpart, focused on the problem rather than emotions. Being friendly, particularly at the beginning and end of your response, can be as simple as acknowledging that you see how the situation is frustrating.  As challenging as it may seem to address hostility with friendliness, you’ll feel better about the exchange and it can often immediately calm a stressed customer or co-worker. Being firm refers to being conclusive in your response and not inviting another round of exchanges that risk additional hostilities.

6. Respond, don’t react. We all will encounter negative interactions in our important work for colleges and universities.  Committing to responding rather than reacting to hostility will prevent those rare negative exchanges from overshadowing the myriad positive interactions we have every day. 

When delivering our campus services, make a commitment to avoid debating who’s right and who’s wrong and choose to respond to the substance of the issue rather than react to the emotions of the communication.  When the result of a negative interaction is a potential policy violation or circumventing of rules, transfer that risk to the responsible person (often your supervisor) rather than holding on to the risk.  Managing our own anxieties during these relatively few interactions is the key to both professionalism and personal fulfillment when representing offices and campuses to others.