From Conflict to Collaboration

A hypothetical case study shows how to create consensus in service to school improvement.

Topics: Social Emotional Learning, Principal Leadership, School Culture and Climate

A principal’s day often careens from one intractable dispute to another. One study found that school leaders typically spend 20 to 40 percent of their time managing conflict. This state of persistent conflict results in a toxic work environment, on-the-job dissatisfaction and stress, and a knee-jerk resistance to school improvement efforts. For new school leaders, continuous exposure to conflict might produce avoidance, causing schools to neglect critical and potentially polarizing issues such as privilege and inequity.

Conflict is a part of all human endeavors. Dissent in the schoolhouse arises from a multitude of sources, because human beings hold different values, belief systems, and perspectives. Interests vary according to one’s position in the school organization; as the adage says: “Where I stand depends on where I sit.”

There is no universal standard of care in education. The most effective approaches to teaching reading, assessing student learning, and so on are contestable. Perhaps the most powerful source of conflict emerges from the essential mission of schools: educating society’s most cherished members. Adults feel that what’s best for children is something worth fighting over.

If we can’t avoid conflict, what can we do about it? As the authors of From Conflict to Collaboration: A School Leader’s Guide to Unleashing Conflict’s Problem-Solving Power, we dispute the notion that conflict is necessarily destructive. We believe that school leaders can harness conflict in such a way that diverse views are genuinely respected and a wider array of solutions explored. Let’s consider a fictional case study.

The Making of a Caring Community

Every spring, a committee of Passaic River K–8 School parents and faculty review the Student Code of Conduct. This year is shaping up to be an exception to the normal perfunctory stamp of approval. A group of teachers and parents are advocating for a new “caring community” restorative justice approach to bullying.

An equally vocal contingent asserts that the only effective response is punitive consequences. On a neighborhood social media platform, posts allege that the school climate is becoming disorderly. When a committee member suggests they read The Little Book of Restorative Justice, the union president retorts, “Bullies don’t respond to ‘Kumbaya.’ ” As Passaic River’s principal, how would you approach the controversy?

From our research of organizations and peace studies and more than 50 years combined sitting in a principal’s or superintendent’s chair, we have identified four strategies leaders might use to enhance their understanding of conflict, grow trust, engage in dispute without dissension, and build long-term capacity and skills. We call these skills conflict agility. Below are four tools the principal might apply as the Code of Conduct committee meets to deliberate a provocative issue.

Understand the conflict. The next time you’re sitting in a committee meeting, observe how others respond after someone presents their point of view. We’ve found that follow-up speakers either state their own opinion or wrap a judgment inside a question, opening with a phrase such as, “Don’t you think that … ?” Another eye-​opening social experiment? Tally the number of statements asserted versus the number of genuine questions posed. Asking questions is pretty rare.

One of the foundational principles in Steven Covey’s bestseller The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is “seek first to understand.” In our Code of Conduct case study, the chair might stipulate a 20-minute period in which responses are limited to questions that seek to understand the conflict after parents share their perspectives.

Study before problem-solving. If a group jumps into problem-solving mode too quickly, they often miss the opportunity to investigate and learn. In our case study, for example, the committee might generate a list of school-based data questions, such as, “Where and when do most bullying incidents occur?”

The school leader must be mindful of two perceptual limitations. A co-worker often reminds us that “the issue isn’t always the issue,” meaning that the expressed complaint might not be the underlying problem. In addition, some people have a tendency to anticipate the worst possible outcome. That’s why a thorough understanding of an issue from multiple perspectives is a fruitful starting point.

Here’s another social experiment: When someone states a difference of opinion, note how the assertion is supported. Is it data, a literary citation, logic, or an ad hominem attack? You’d be surprised how quickly discussion diverges from the realm of ideas to finding fault in another person’s character. The case study we’re exploring might devolve into a dispute with those who allegedly coddle miscreant children versus opponents who are accused of being unsympathetic.

The first rule of conflict management is to focus on the issue, not the people. It is possible for groups to exchange ideas dispassionately; they become defensive and accusatory when the conversation turns personal.

One trust-building strategy, to cite another adage, is to “pick the low-hanging fruit”—resolve the least thorny issues first. As the group experiences a measure of success, they can tone their conflict agility muscles, develop collaborative problem-solving skills, and nurture mutual trust.

A second trust-builder is to abstain from either-or alternatives or a “fool’s choice.” Presenting just two options is usually an oversimplification that neglects a complex range of possibilities. It tends to divide people into oppositional, us-versus-them camps—a classic trust-buster. We advocate “third-way” thinking, or eschewing extremes using protocols that generate multiple solutions. In our case study, the leader can help the committee conceive of options between the extremes of coddling or condemning bullies, or perhaps investigate a more situational approach.

Engage dispute without dissension. As we’ve noted above, people have a tendency to get personal when they disagree. Failure to recognize complexity leads to simple, quick reactions like, “You’re an idiot!” We call this phenomenon “the blame game.”

The next time a problem is presented during a meeting, pay attention to the initial response. For example, let’s say the principal reports that fourth grade math scores have declined. A common reaction is defensiveness that absolves oneself or points fingers: “Well, I’ve been implementing the new math curriculum, but my colleagues haven’t.”

The problems schools typically confront are wide-​ranging and deep-seated. Fault-finding inquisitions miss the opportunity to identify the systemic causes that drive deficiencies, such as insufficient funding, poor professional development, or lack of vision. It’s easier to blame the teacher in Room 211 or parenting practices than to offer support and put in the work necessary to transform schools.

Normalize conflict. Differences, when suppressed or marginalized, fester; they don’t disappear. Leaders must reinforce the view that dispute is not necessarily indicative of dysfunction. Channel conflict to be productive. Authentic collaboration becomes possible when multiple voices, perspectives, and interests are respected and considered. Such a climate increases the likelihood of finding elegant solutions.

In our case study, the principal might adopt the language of “yes, and” rather than “yes, but,” emphasizing that the two viewpoints advanced on the committee are not mutually exclusive. A third adage shared by a respected colleague applies: Even if you disagree, “look for the kernel of truth.” The goal is dialogue, not debate.

Build capacity and culture. As a school community acquires conflict agility skills and gains confidence in the collaborative problem-solving process, resistance to change transforms. The shift won’t happen overnight. In a large suburban middle school, for example, we introduced inquiry learning capstone projects in which teachers shepherded individual student-centered projects. Previously, objections to this endeavor might have been insurmountable, but after years spent developing conflict agility, the faculty planned cooperatively, listened, and adapted when objections were raised. Disagreement lost its power to end the conversation.

In typical school improvement efforts, there are winners and losers who either see a favored curriculum, instructional practice, or policy adopted, or have no constructive outlet if they do not see eye-to-eye. Originating in the field of engineering, design thinking suggests collaborative protocols to solve problems by understanding an organization’s needs and generating creative solutions. Two steps in design thinking—prototype and test—can help reform school culture and build capacity around change.

Improvement initiatives are considered prototypes and subject to immediate and continuous formative assessment. There’s no sense of “This is the way it’s going to be,” since the prototype is a pilot study that undergoes testing and likely redesign. Stakeholders are assured that additional input will be solicited and emerging issues addressed.

Coming to a Collaborative Resolution

Back at Passaic River, the committee decides to pilot the caring community project for four months in the fifth grade following extensive dialogue, and agrees on a set of indicators to assess its impact in real time. As they disperse, participants feel they’ve taken the initial steps from conflict to collaboration.

As in working out at a gym, conflict agility muscles become better toned with more exercise. The most eminent 20th century figure in conflict resolution, Nelson Mandela, observed, “One effect of sustained conflict is to narrow our vision of what is possible.” The objective is to master conflict before conflict masters us, and in doing so, to overcome human obstacles that keep us apart and impede school improvement.

Robert Feirsen is associate professor of Educational Leadership and Coordinator of Manhattanville College’s Educational Leadership program and co-author of From Conflict to Collaboration: A School Leader’s Guide to Unleashing Conflict’s Problem-Solving Power.

Seth Weitzman is a senior instructor in the Mercy University Educational Leadership department and co-author of From Conflict to Collaboration.