We all experience conflicts in our professional and personal lives, and a lot of conflicts can be challenging to resolve for many reasons. Maybe there’s a power imbalance if you have a conflict with your advisor, or maybe there’s scientific and emotional tension if you are having trouble navigating the shared lab workspace. Also, if you are a people pleaser like me, you might be a conflict avoider, but often it can be healthy and productive to work to resolve a conflict. I’m going to outline a technique that you can try, suggest how to prepare for a conflict resolution conversation, and provide ideas for additional resources.

Ready to resolve some conflicts? Here we go!

A technique you can try: Here is one framework that you can use to facilitate having a conversation about a conflict and developing a plan for resolving that conflict. This framework has several steps, but following the whole progression will help to both set up the conversation in the best light and then help to make sure that things change as a result of the conversation. In addition to talking through feelings and experiences, developing a concrete plan is a critical piece of resolving a conflict. I learned about this method from a leadership development course for life scientists that I took at Cornell University. I highly recommend looking for similar opportunities on your campus (more on that below).

This technique has four steps on the emotional side, where you go over what happened and how you felt about it. Then, there are three steps on the commitment side, where you make a plan to help improve the dynamic moving forward.

Step 1: set a positive tone for the conversation. By setting a positive tone, you are going into the conflict resolution assuming the best (for instance, maybe the other person didn’t realize/intend their actions to have the effects they had on you) and promoting a safe environment for talking about feelings and experiences. In this portion of the conversation, it can help to explicitly state that you wanted to talk because you value the other person (and describe why) and that care about your working relationship. 

Step 2: describe the situation. Here, you want to layout the situation for the other person. Try to be clear and direct, but in a non-judgmental, non-offensive way. Focus on telling your side of the story without trying to fill in the other person’s thoughts or motives. It can be helpful to use a lot of “I statements” here as a way of focusing on your experience.

Step 3: ask the other person to tell their story. After you’ve expressed the conflict from your perspective, give the other person the space to explain how they were thinking or feeling. During this step, be prepared to listen and try to understand without evaluating or judging, which can be hard when you are upset!

Step 4: describe the impact of the behavior. After the other person has described their side of the story, you can explain how that made you feel. It can be helpful to reiterate what you heard from the other person here, which signals that you were listening, and also gives the other person a chance to correct you if there is still a misunderstanding. In this step, I like using phrasing like “what you probably didn’t intend is that when you said/did xx, I felt…” or “what you may not have realized is that when you said/did xx, I felt…”

Step 5: develop options. Great, you made it through the four emotional steps, and now it’s time to work on committing to changing behaviors and practices for the future. At first, you can discuss different options for what behavioral/procedural changes could help improve the situation. You can think of this stage as brainstorming different solutions or strategies that will reduce the chances of having this type of conflict again.

Step 6: make decisions. After brainstorming options, together you need to decide which option(s) you want to use, and how you will implement them. Try to get specific as needed, and think about what you might need in terms of supplies or resources to make your plan feasible.

Step 7: meet and monitor. So close, but you’re not done yet! It’s super important to make a plan for when you can meet up again and talk about how things are going. Regardless of whether it makes sense to meet again sooner or later, try to schedule out your next meetup. You can also reiterate what you’re each going to do in the meantime.

How to prepare: Working to resolve a conflict can be challenging on many levels! There are several things you can do to prepare for a conflict resolution conversation. First, I suggest doing a practice run with a friend. Generally, we do practice talks before presenting at a meeting to make sure that our ideas are presented clearly. Similarly, practicing a conflict resolution conversation with a friend can give you a chance to think through what you’re going to say, how you may feel as you say it, and how another person might respond to how you present the situation.

Depending on the conflict you are trying to resolve, you may also want to seek out external help and input. As a graduate student, you may be able to go to your advisor, the director of your graduate program, or the chair of your department to get input or advice. You also may consider asking one of them to sit in on your meeting if you feel less intimidated by having another person in the room. If you want to look outside of your department/program, most universities have an ombudsperson whose job it is to provide a safe and confidential space for members of the community to discuss problems. An ombudsperson can serve as a sounding board, help connect you to available resources on campus, and provide information about specific policies in place at your university, among other services.

Other resources: In addition to talking to others about your conflict, you may also want to explore taking a leadership development course. These courses often cover a range of topics including conflict resolution, working well in teams, and motivating a group. These types of classes often also include different diagnostic tests that will help you learn more about your strengths, weaknesses, and values, which can be really illuminating as you try to resolve conflicts but also navigate grad school in general.

Hopefully, this provides a place to start if you currently have a conflict on your mind—remember, you’re not alone, and you have lots of resources you can use. Also, if you have suggestions for other topics we should cover in upcoming blog posts, you can find us on twitter @asngrads or reach out via email at asngrads@gmail.com.

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