It’s only human to try to avoid conflicts, but unfortunately, few problems just quietly slink away.
Conflicts have a way of turning into crises. When they do, you jeopardize the very relationships you wanted to protect by procrastinating, says a new study in Educational Administration Quarterly.
Two University of Auckland, New Zealand researchers have developed a 6-skills model to help educational leaders address conflicts as they arise. Based on the work of Chris Argyris and Donald Schon, leading thinkers in creating learning organizations, the researchers adapted the skills specifically for principals and other educational leaders who often must manage conflict with both teachers and parents over classroom performance issues.
“The challenge for leaders is how to address the conflict in ways that minimize the relational harm in doing so,” write the authors.
The model was road-tested with 27 new principals who were randomly selected from 156 principals enrolled in a national voluntary 18-month induction program known as the First-Time Principals Program (FTP). Principals were rated on how well they applied these conflict-resolution skills in a role play with a female actor as a parent with a complaint about a teacher. The principal then interacted with the same actor role-playing the teacher responding to the complaint.
Principals were videotaped during the encounters and were given 5 minutes to think about the scenarios but were not allowed to practice. Conversations were limited to 7 minutes each to increase standardization. Participants later viewed the videos and received feedback. Principals were rated on a 5-point scale.
The principals were rated on the following 6 communication and problem-solving skills tailored for educational leaders:
Skill 1–Express yourself and describe your position. An optimal solution integrates the legitimate interests of both parties. For this to happen, you must fully express your point of view and you must listen carefully to what the teacher or parent is saying. Take the time to describe and explain your perspective. Give relevant reasons, examples, or evidence to help the parent or teacher understand why you have the point of view you do.
“One of the differences between the problem-solving of expert and typical principals is that experts are more likely to clearly disclose their own interpretation of a problem and provide supporting reasons,” the authors write.
Skill 2– Listen for deep understanding. Careful listening in response to complaints restores trust. Your curiosity in the discussion signals a deep respect for the other person’s ideas and concerns and helps build a working affiliation. You should listen both to fact-find and to understand how the facts have been interpreted. You must understand the emotional content of situation as well as the factual details. There is a long-term payoff, as well. Listening gives you the information you need to prevent or resolve similar situations in the future.
Skill 3–Check your understanding. Make sure that you have correctly understood what the parent or teacher has communicated and that your reactions are not based on faulty inferences and attributions. “Interactions that are emotionally laden and conflict-prone provide considerable opportunity for mutual misunderstanding,” the authors write. Checking your understanding disrupts your assumptions so that you can more effectively resolve the situation.
Skills 4 and 5–Re-examine your point of view and help the other person re-examine theirs. Research shows that people selectively hear information that confirms their existing beliefs. Keep an open mind to improve the outcome. When people are not so certain about their initial positions, they are more tentative and flexible in searching for a solution.
“The doubt triggers more inquiry into alternatives, and this, in turn, encourages the other person to take a more flexible stance,” the authors write. If one person begins to doubt his or her position, this modeling sets up a reciprocal dynamic.
The ability to engage the other party in a reconsideration of their perspective is a high-level skill requiring that you both challenge and respect the other’s point of view. This is where good listening pays off. The teacher or parent is more likely to follow your lead in re-examining your perspective if they feel you have really listened to them.
Skill 6–Agree with the principal and parent/teacher on what to do next. Expert principals genuinely try to find solutions that satisfy the legitimate interests of all parties. Even after taking all of the steps above, the best solution may not be obvious to you. You must also work with stakeholders to craft the optimal solution.
“Typically, principals were more skilled in advocating their own position than in deeply inquiring into and checking their understanding of the views of the parent or teacher,” the authors write.
Here are some other findings of the study:
- Principals displayed limited (low-to-modest) effectiveness in handling the two interactions with parents and teachers
- They behaved consistently across the two scenarios
- They were more skillfull when seeking to understand the teacher’s point of view than the parent’s
- Their weakest skill, as a group, was in checking understanding of the parent or teacher’s view
- Principals were more likely to try to help the teacher than the parent consider an alternate point of view
Possible explanations for why principals did not do better at checking for understanding are that they feared it would confirm the existence of disagreement or that they were preoccupied about what to say next, the authors write.
“The Interpersonal Challenges of Instructional Leadership: Principals’ Effectiveness in Conversations About Performance Issues,” by Deidre M. LeFevre and Viviane M.J. Robinson, Educational Administrative Quarterly, 2015, Volume 5, Number 1, pp. 58-95.