Part Two: Communicating Your Way Through Conflict in Academia
Sensitivity, awareness, and acknowledgement of your institutional environment are critical to managing conflict. What you say — and how you say it — also plays a major role in diffusing or perpetuating situations.
David Rasch, the Ombuds at Stanford University, sees and helps mitigate conflict every day. In his role, he serves as a confidential and neutral resource to help resolve disputes, conflicts, questions, and problems that arise within his institution.
In part two of this interview series with Rasch, he shares ways you can consider managing different communications that come up during a conflict.
One-on-one conflicts can affect entire departments. If a third party sees an issue worsening, how can they sensitively encourage those in conflict to address it?
The approach is specific to the situation and the personalities involved. Frequently, third parties are helpful in noticing conflict. People often have a natural impulse to want to assist with settling a disagreement.
However, risk may prevent them from acting. Some third parties notice an obvious conflict but don't say anything because they feel that raising the issue may negatively affect their academic or professional situation.
It makes a difference if people are thoughtful and diplomatic in the way that they approach someone in conflict. Sometimes, third parties will visit an ombuds office or counseling and psychological services to seek coaching on what they could do or say as a third party witnessing a difficulty in their department.
Can individuals expect absolute confidentiality if they confide in a trusted mentor or another faculty member in their department or elsewhere?
You may know someone well enough that you know it's safe to talk to them. If that's the case, that can work.
However, certain situations are very difficult for university officials to keep confidential. Someone may say, "You can tell me anything. I'm not going tell anybody," but later find out that they can't keep it to themselves because it's too upsetting or because there are other institutional policies connected to the problem. An example would be issues connected to sexual harassment, where typically many people in the institution — unless they're noted as a confidential resource — are under an obligation to report the issue, even if they are told, "I don't want you to tell anybody about this."
The limits of confidentiality for an ombuds office, for instance, are similar to those counseling or psychotherapy. If there's an imminent threat of physical harm to somebody, and if there’s something we can do to prevent an imminent risk of physical harm, we don't keep confidentiality. Short of that, everything else can be kept offline and private.
How do you suggest people navigate the complexities of faculty-faculty and faculty-student relationships?
These situations are potentially challenging if things go wrong. If you decide to become a graduate student, you are agreeing to be in that kind of relationship, and if you decide to become a postdoc and then get on the tenure track, you're choosing a path that has a lot benefits and potential, but also risk.
Have your eyes open about what could go well and what could go wrong, and how you can decrease the likelihood that things will be difficult. Realize that situations can change along the way and that there are things that will be out of your control.
Generally, be aware and thoughtful about how an academic institution works and try to know as much about the people and personalities and history of where you're getting involved. When conflict does arise, be diplomatic, try to resolve the conflict informally, take the high road, be careful, and be thoughtful about relationships.
Within academia, relationships and reputation are important elements connected with success and progress. To work skillfully with those relationships, in addition to studying, teaching and conducting research, is often a critical component of future success. That means when difficulties come in, try to be as diligent as possible in addressing those challenges, and that may mean developing new skills, or getting consultation or assistance. People skills are very important in academia.