For most of my career I avoided conflict with my colleagues – those I’ve worked with, for and managed. Not because I’m scared of it, but because of the naive belief that any conflict meant I had failed. I had failed with my communication. I had failed with my listening. I had failed with my understanding. I had failed with sharing my values and principles. It was like I blocked out any conflict that was happening in front of me. I deliberately choose to be ignorant of it. When given responsibility on top of my job this blinkered approach worked well for me for a while, because many of the conflicts that happened didn’t escalate. On reflection it wasn’t because of my exceptional interpersonal qualities, but because I was very fortunate with the people I worked with.
However one incident changed all that. Many years ago two members of my department decided to engage in a transaction of selling a used car. One as the buyer and the other as the seller. Three weeks after the purchase of the car, it broke down. The buyer wanted to return the car to the seller and have a refund. The seller did not agree to this. The conversation, between two members of my department, quickly escalated to a full blown argument within school. I did nothing to stop, influence this or deal with it in the aftermath. Once again I had my blinkers on and thought they would be able to manage this themselves as adults. However during the argument both the seller and the buyer said things to each other that meant all trust and respect was broken. This one act, which I witnessed and ignored, started a feud and almost broke the department and every single person in it. Once I had realised it wasn’t going to resolve itself I stepped in, but it was too late. The damage had been done. For four years I then had to deal with conflict on a daily basis. Other colleagues within the department found the whole experience very tiring, stressful and draining. It only ended when members of the department left the school. In that time I did not managed to rectify the situation, even with SLT support, but I had learned a valuable lesson about myself.
I needed to face the fact that I had a notable weakness when it came to managing a PE Department; that of confronting conflict. One of the most powerful things we can do as someone who has responsibility of others is to see conflict as normal not personal and internalise it. I needed to adopt that mindset about conflict if I was to make any personal development and ensure I didn’t make the same mistakes again. Conflict is also terribly complex. I was lost on how I would deal with this in the future. Then a possible answer came to me when listening to Atul Gawande’s Reith Lectures. In his second lecture, The Century of the System, he explores the impact of systems, from simple checklists to complex mechanisms, have had on our ability to overcome failures. He specifically looks at the Health Care system, but I found what he was saying very adaptable for my own personal context. This lead me to read his book, The Checklist Manifesto, where he expertly explores his ideas on dealing with complexity further. Harry Fletcher Wood has written about it in more depth here and here.
Could a simple checklist help me to confront conflict and manage it better than I had to that date? Through my reading and personal experiences I went about adapting a checklist for me to use in future situations.
- Step back and think. Very few conflicts need to be settled immediately in the moment, but they do need to be settled.
This thinking time also allows me to reflect about the people I am dealing with, their drivers and how the conflict might be seen from their point of view.
- Set Context of resolution. A serious issue needs a serious place when resolving. Not in the staffroom or in the corridor as a brief ‘chat’. Find an agreeable time and place, within the next 48 hours, to discuss resolution. It may need someone else as a mediator to be there.
- Emotion check before meeting. Try and moderate my breathing. Am I already tired or stressed from dealing with something else? Try to be aware of what I am, what ‘presses my buttons’ and any blindspots I might have with regards to the situation. Be careful of judgmentalism.
- Agreeing Next Steps. The outcome of that meeting must have action points that all parties agree to and feel happy with. Needs to be positive and ensure that the conflict doesn’t raise its head in the immediate time after the meeting.
- Building bridges. Agreeing steps and action points does not necessarily solve conflict. This takes time and patience to rebuild trust. Find ways to speak to all involved afterwards, trying where possible to give reassurances.
- Review. I feel it is important to have a review after dealing with conflict, to remind action points from meeting or to give a forum for people to discuss and issues arising from them.
On top of this checklist I felt I needed to be aware of a number of other issues that I had experienced. Firstly what is my intention when dealing with this conflict. Is it because I want to deal with the issue at hand, or am I dealing with my ego? Need to keep this between those I deal with and my line manager. Secondly I need to be aware of the individuals network of colleagues within school. Gossip will occur and I need to ensure that I demonstrate transparency when dealing with the conflict. Finally I need to be more aware of personal histories that could affect the process of conflict solving.
There comes a time when conflict needs to be confronted and resolved. If it doesn’t credibility and trust drops which has a massive negative impact not just for all those involved, but others that are close to them as well, either professionally or personally. The checklist has helped me to begin to take the steps out of my comfort zone, depersonalise conflict where possible and keep the discussion around the issue and explain how we together intend to manage it. Conflict takes up a huge amount of time and drains all the energy from people involved. A checklist might be a way towards dealing with that in the best way possible.