Returning to Campus–and Conflict | From the Ombuds

Originally published OCT. 22, 2021

I was fortunate to attend the Faculty Senate Retreat yesterday morning as a guest. This was the first Faculty Senate meeting I’ve attended in person, if memory serves, since February 2020. Much of the discussion centered on the uncertainties around classroom instruction in the upcoming semester, enforcement of mask mandates, and vaccine mandates for faculty, staff, and students. There are no easy answers to any of the questions raised, but it is encouraging that the Senators had robust conversations about these important issues.

Seeing so many colleagues again—and seeing the uptick in activity on campus this week, as new students arrive and old ones return—reminded me that, we are going to have to get used to working on campus again, which means working in close proximity to others (of course, many of us never left campus, but even they will find themselves in closer quarters as campus returns to something approaching its “normal” occupancy level).

Working with diminished resources, higher stress levels, and more uncertainty, it seems inevitable that conflicts will arise as campus becomes more crowded. It might be something as simple as getting annoyed at a colleague’s overly-loud phone voice, or a deeper-rooted clash over fundamental values.

Whatever the scope or nature of the conflict, it is most likely in everyone’s best interest to address it rather than let it simmer.

Of course, if you felt comfortable enough to tackle the conflict with the person or people you’re at odds with (or who are at odds with you), you probably wouldn’t have a conflict in the first place. And, if all our problems could be solved just by taking advice posted on the Internet, well, we’d all probably be a lot happier.

On the other hand, there is a lot of very, very helpful free advice on the Internet. This video, for example, saved me a few hours of frustration a while back. And, while solving interpersonal conflicts is rarely as straightforward as taking down a ceiling fan, I’d like to offer five tips that won’t necessarily defuse your conflict completely, but may help you to better understand it, which is the first step towards resolution.

  1. Think contribution, not blame
    While it is tempting to blame someone else for the conflict, that is rarely a constructive start to seeking a resolution. Instead of trying to foist blame and be done with it, think critically about what all parties, including you, have contributed to the current state of affairs. Shifting the focus from assigning (or accepting) blame to considering contributions to the situation can enable an honest exploration of what can be done to resolve the conflict.
  2. Chart the history
    I’m not just saying this to justify my history degree—you can learn a great deal by looking at the history of the conflict by typing or drawing out a timeline. Sometimes it may be helpful to start at the beginning, but other times it’s easier to start with today and work backwards. As you work through it, you may notice themes or contributions that were not obvious before.
  3. Discover the root of the conflict
    The surface conflict or triggering event is rarely the most significant part of a conflict. For example, a disagreement over items left in a staff refrigerator isn’t just about the disposition of an old, diamond-hard piece of birthday cake or a takeout container that’s developed into its own ecosystem, but rather about bigger conflicts over responsibility and stewardship of shared spaces. Go beyond what’s bugging you today and try to understand why it bothers you so much. That will usually point you to a root conflict over values or resources.
  4. Understand your own interests
    What do you want to get out of resolving this conflict? What do you want to change? What do you want to stay the same? More importantly, what are you willing to concede in order to make those changes (or lack of changes) acceptable to others? Move beyond a demand (or series of demands) that you want met, and consider how you want things to be after the conflict is resolved. What’s going to, in the long run, make you happier?
  5. Put it in perspective
    Once enmeshed in a conflict, we invest a great deal in “winning” (or even losing). It might be a need to save face, a need to assert one’s will over others, or a desire to avenge past injustices, but in getting caught up in a conflict we run the risk of going all in (to borrow a poker phrase) when we don’t hold the best cards, or when we have too much to lose. Before it gets to that point, think honestly about just how meaningful this conflict is to the big picture of your life and career. That may help you step back, giving you space to commit more fully to the first four tips. It can also help you accept that any resolution to the conflict is unlikely to leave all parties equally satisfied, and that, in most cases, you will need to continue working with the person or people you are having difficulties with.

If five general tips on a blog don’t give you all of the resources you need to resolve your conflict, the Ombuds Office is ready to help in three key ways.

First, the Ombuds is available to hear your concerns. You may be unsure about where you can seek formal redress for your complaint, or what avenues for conflict resolution are open to you at UNLV. You can make an appointment with the Ombuds to talk—informally and confidentially—about what you are facing.

Second, you can consider the possibility of mediation to resolve your conflict. Mediation is voluntary and informal (outside of UNLV’s official complaint channels/processes), and is about finding a path forward out of conflict that is acceptable to all parties. If both parties are willing to make a good faith effort to settle their differences, mediation can be an excellent option.

Finally, the Ombuds Office offers coaching for those facing conflict. This includes one-on-one and group sessions on how to best mitigate and productively solve conflicts and how to have difficult conversations.

Please contact the Ombuds if you want to discuss any of the above options, have the Ombuds visit your unit for an introductory chat, or want to suggest ideas for future posts.

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