lessons from conflict

I rarely have negative interactions with my students. I don’t know if that’s because of the environment in which I teach or the obsessive care I take to try to stay on everyone’s good side–likely it’s a combination of factors. But when I do have a negative interaction with a student (typically by email, since I teach exclusively online right now), I tend to be equally obsessive about trying to figure out what went wrong. I’ve learned that there’s a good side and a bad side to this tendency, and I want to share these lessons in the form of two tips that, in most cases, should be followed in sequential order. Though I’m thinking about student and professor interactions as I write this post, these two tips can apply to almost any type of conflict.

  1. Be open to realizing you’ve been wrong. By listening to other faculty talk and doing some uncomfortable self-reflection, I’ve realized that we professors are way too quick to assume students are in the wrong–they didn’t read the assignment carefully enough, they’re entitled, they just don’t like me…you can see that these assumptions may lead down an ugly path. Sometimes those statements may be true, but they should not be our default responses. A conflict with a student can be a good opportunity to evaluate our own teaching practice. Ask yourself: Can I explain these assignment instructions or this course material more clearly? Can I rewrite the test to remove unnecessary ambiguity? Can I approach my students with a more open mind and a listening posture? You can also pose these questions to a colleague or someone else you trust, who may be able to see the situation more clearly than you can.
  2. Sometimes, though, asking those questions does not lead to an explanation of why the negative interaction occurred. Maybe the student is going through a hard time and is taking frustration out on you. Or maybe, in rare cases, this is simply a student who likes to stir up conflict. In that case, my second tip applies: Let it go. I know that this is much, much easier said than done. But sometimes it’s the only right answer. Instead of obsessively combing through your responses and wondering where you went wrong, you may need to accept that you did everything right as much as you were able. If you’re like me, you may have to remind yourself that it’s not a tragedy if a student doesn’t like you. Admitting this doesn’t make you cynical or uncaring, and it may help you sleep better at night.

So there you have it–my simple (but not necessarily easy) steps to dealing with interpersonal conflict. Maybe I should write a book about this and make lots of money. But then I’d have to fill it with embarrassing stories about myself and my students, and I don’t want to do that. So I’ll turn it over to you: What principles have you found helpful in dealing with conflict resolution?