Walking the Talk:
Back to Basics in
Once the conflict emerged, it revealed an iceberg of subsurface conflicts that had been
routinely overlooked or brushed aside in the interest of harmony and due to bigger fish
to fry. Colleagues with whom I have worked in harmony for two decades became distrusted adversaries, as people were forced to take sides. Suddenly 20 years of peace
on our floor gave way to a month of hell, mounting tensions, and a future that looked
grim and unfriendly. After two really dysfunctional department meetings, it seemed that
nothing would save us from a new future of open conflict and distress.
Another meeting was promptly scheduled by a colleague who was outside of the initial
conflict but part of the overall iceberg. The night before the meeting, I did a lot of thinking
about how to walk the talk of all the conflict resolution classes I had taught over the years
and all the skills I believe in and use as a matter of course in my life.
The conflict had become centered on my department co-chair and me. I spent time listing my interests and his, my BATNA and his, what I wanted as an outcome and what I
thought he wanted, my accomplishments and his, how to feel resourceful going into the
meeting, what our common ground was, possible gender and cultural considerations,
and specific strategies to use during the meeting (like LISTEN, LISTEN, LISTEN, genuineness, allowing room for saving face and keeping a future focus to not get bogged down
in the past month of issues and the past years of minor ills). Also, what did I need to own
and what did he (each’s contributions, not fault)? And, would bringing chocolate to the
meeting build rapport or not?
After making notes and thinking things through, I hit the hay for a good night’s rest.
Toward the morning, I had a vivid dream in which a strategy idea came to me. I awoke,
clear about what I had to do, and as I put out the bird feeders that morning I spotted a
bald eagle soaring over the house (a rare sighting), and knew I had a good plan of action
to begin the day’s meeting.
After we had all seated ourselves, and the colleague serving as facilitator called the
meeting to order, I asked if I could make a brief opening statement. “In this difficult post-
economic-bust environment, I have tried hard to do the very best job I could to protect the
needs of the department, balanced against the changing and demands of the administra-
tion,” I said. And then, as I looked my colleague directly in the eye, I said, “And if you feel
that I have stepped on your toes or mis-stepped, I did not intend to do so, and I apologize! I
have always admired you so much and I want us to get back to a place where we can work
together. I so hope that we can forgive each other and move forward.”
He stood up, came over to me and hugged me! “You are my sister,” he said! And so we
returned from the brink of disharmony to normalcy.
About the Author
is a Professor of
at Western Connecticut State University. She has been
a member of ACR
since the mid-1980s
Years of collegiality turned on a dime. It all started over a simple signature on a
routine form, causing years of suppressed conflict in my academic department to
ignite. Economically induced changes contributed to a climate fraught with pressure
and competition for scarce resources, pitting us against each other.