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Be it resolved

An interview with professor John Beck, conflict resolution expert


Academic relationships can be fraught with competitiveness, hostility and resentment. They can also be harmonious, fruitful and healthy. Conflict resolution is one of the newer approaches to make those relationships flourish.

John Beck, an associate professor in the school of labour relations at Michigan State University, and an expert in conflict resolution, recently gave a workshop at the Canadian Association of Graduate Students’ annual conference held in Moncton. Mr. Beck has presented such workshops at universities across North America, and tried it out on CAGS participants. We caught up with Mr. Beck after the conference.

Do you find that professional conflict occurs at all levels in academe, or are there certain areas that are worse than others?

Conflict exists at all levels. The issue is the consequence that conflict creates for all the players – some people are in more vulnerable situations than others, and graduate students would fall into this group. The consequences can be more serious because when a grad is ABD, leaving their institution to go elsewhere can be disastrous. They’ve invested a lot of time in that university – you can’t expect them to move.

How significant is conflict in terms of time wasted?

It’s extremely important that people who are in positions of power both understand and use conflict resolution mechanisms to makes things better all around. Conflict is bad for everyone – even if you don’t think you’ll pay a heavy price because you’re powerful, conflict takes time away from other things you could be doing. The last thing you want is to lose valuable time to a situation that could have been solved by dealing with it when it first came up.

Is academe itself more prone to interpersonal conflict than other work places?

There appears to be a larger number of people who are hard to get along with in academe, but they might be brilliant writers or be responsible for the big grants. And so a general breakdown in civility can happen easily.

In addition, interpersonal conflict and pettiness are allowed to continue to exist in academe longer than they would be tolerated in a non-academic setting. There are good and bad reasons for this: in the private sector, if conflict is getting in the way of making a profit, there’s no way the higher-ups would tolerate that conflict. This doesn’t mean that the private sector is fair – you might be working for Attila the Hun – but there are different considerations.

In the idea business, there’s a tendency to give a fairly long leash because academe can be a very solitary and individualistic endeavor – think of it as the ‘solo scholar’ – and idiosyncrasies that might cause problems in other environments don’t become a problem in academe until they become embedded.

What about the mentor/student relationship?

The pressure is on in academe – scholars are worried about where they’re going to publish, there are grad students demanding their attention, they need to keep up their research. Conflict can be caused when even one grad student is really needy. If students think that working in academe is an extended coffee break, they’re seriously mistaken. It’s getting tougher and tougher for faculty to be mentors. It’s important that students are informed and have realistic expectations – they need to come to grips with reality. Both camps need to be clear about their interests.

Can you describe how the conflict resolution workshop works?

Early on, we worked on the premise that we would be dealing with full-blown conflicts, but the reality is that most situations don’t present themselves this way. What you need to do is rewind the movie from the beginning and review all of the steps that led to the current situation. This allows you to examine what actually occurred. It’s not about laying blame – it’s about assessing those steps, identifying the underlying problems, and coming up with solutions as well as ways to prevent them from happening again.

At the workshop you presented at CAGS, you talked a lot about peoples’ “interests”, which you described as being at the source of creating a harmonious outcome. Can you explain this?

We try to get students and faculty to understand how their interests are motivating their choices. By being clear about interests, people are better able to set expectations. We motivate participants by helping them really understand the questions we’re asking before looking for an answer.

We get rewarded in life for answering questions, but not for elaborating on those questions, so we jump from A to H to M and we don’t fill in the in between parts, we just move on to the next thing. This results in people not stopping to think about what the real, underlying issues might be. Sometimes you need to ask a lot of additional questions before answering the original question. If I only focus on answers, as opposed to good answers, I won’t be seeing all of the options open to me.

Have you found the workshop to be successful across the board, or are there always lingering issues?

We think of the workshop as a “habit of mind” – once you’re able to frame things using what we’ve taught you, that knowledge can be very useful to you. There’s a lot of self-discovery involved in the process. It’s also a very rational approach. When we work with universities, the participants get it – it’s really just common sense, and it’s simple. People sometimes try to make it more complex, but when they take a step back, they realize this simplicity works.

What kind of results have you seen, specifically in your work with universities?

Retention rates have risen. What people tell us in their evaluations is: “I used it and it worked and I felt that I was in greater control of the situation.” Control is a funny thing – people seem to think that if one person gains control, the other loses, but everyone actually gains more control through this process.

Is it difficult to get participants to speak up?

Academics are funny from the point of view that they’re happy to talk about subjects even if they don’t know anything about them. The issue is to what degree people are willing to share their thoughts or ideas. Some of our sessions have been easier than others. We’ve done sessions with psychologists and someone will inevitably raise his hand and ask: “Isn’t this all game theory?” We’re not here to give a kick to theories, but we work on a practical level. I tell the participants that only philosophers worry about whether the glass is half full – thirsty people are going to drink the water in the glass. The whole idea is to help people experience better outcomes.

What do you see as the most beneficial aspect of what you do?

The effect the process has on individual students. They find they can gain control, so they try the process out and it works, so they try it again. There’s no one area where it works better than others. The real success is in seeing people get it and hearing them say “Yeah, I can do this.”

Conflict resolution is a step-by-step process which is based on open discussion with workshop participants. The process and outcomes can vary greatly from one group to another, but the process itself follows this path:

Both parties agree on the issue (the immediate question to which they need an answer).

Eg: Who should be on my committee?

Eg: When will I defend my dissertation

Both parties determine their individual and common interests (these are the underlying values, beliefs and principles related to the issue – those things which must be reflected in any and all answers to the question to make them good answers).

Eg: Sitting on this committee is important to me because …

Eg: Defending my dissertation by December is important to me because …

Together, the parties generate a list of options that may be full or partial answers to the question and might meet the underlying interests.

The conflict is resolved by examining the

context in which the issue arose

the specific issues (questions needing to be addressed) that have been identified

the options available to the parties which may help in addressing the questions in part or in whole

the potential resolution which can be created through examining the options within the context of the issue-related shared interests which they have identified.

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