Executives standing together in an office.

From breakdown to breakthrough

Transforming conflict to find common ground

By Patricia Clark White & Keith Larick | September | October 2019
Conflict. The very word can summon feelings of anxiety, dread and apprehension in even the most experienced of leaders. Conflict is inevitable in business, government, education and our personal lives. Conflict in education manifests itself many ways. Every day, a a school or district leader, you get up to solve a new set of problems or face conflicts to manage. The issues and forces that are driving conflict today are not unique to education, but school leaders continue to be central to successfully managing conflicts that are often driven by issues of local, state, national and global social change. School leaders are impacted by societal conflict over gender, race, immigration, religion, language and politics in addition to the usual issues of achievement, poverty, funding, vouchers, teacher shortage, labor disputes, technology and the list goes on.  In the middle of this tempest, school leaders are called upon to embrace the most diverse communities in history, bring them together, break though conflict and find common ground.  For the last year or two, there has also been a dramatic upsurge in the call for common ground nationwide. America has become increasingly polarized at all levels, from the Congress to the PTA. One can hardly listen to an interview or discussion on a news channel without hearing that term used. Leaders and followers alike are tired of the endless tactics that seem to lead nowhere yet, in spite of the common yearning for productive relationships that yield positive accomplishments, power struggles rather than problem solving continues to generate more breakdowns than breakthroughs. Where are the leaders who exhibit the characteristics, competence and courage necessary to actually find common ground? It’s time for leaders at all levels to pay attention to these 3 C’s to move from “breakdown” to “breakthrough.”  The problem is that often when someone says there is a need to find common ground, it means, “There is a need for you to do it my way.” As John Maxwell says, “It is difficult to find common ground with others when the only person you are focused on is yourself!” Our experiences as suburban and urban superintendents suggest that, unless we address conflict from a true common ground perspective, it is unlikely that the kind of transformational changes that are desperately needed will occur in our organizations.  The fact that conflict is a natural and normal part of the change process in any organization doesn’t make it any easier on those affected by it.  It can be either negative or productive depending on leadership. The widespread and urgent call for help in dealing with the volatile, ambiguous and highly complex conflict of the 21st century led us to embark on a three-year study of what some of the most exemplary leaders in a variety of professions do to lead through conflict to find common ground.  We wanted to learn more about what seems to get in the way of transforming conflict into a more productive state, and we wanted to study those exemplars whose characteristics and competencies gave them the courage and know-how to actually transform conflict to find common ground.  Barriers to moving through conflict to find common ground We typically don’t like conflict because it’s disruptive. It can be frightening. We don’t know how to handle ourselves. It’s stressful! Conflict can be high stakes. And it can be emotional. Because of skill deficiencies in conflict resolution, it tends to bring out the worst in people, hostility, anger and unethical behavior. Leaders have been without diversified strategies and therefore have tended to use “the hammer” to manage conflict. And when the only tool you have is a hammer, the rest of the world looks like a nail! The problem is that too many of our leaders still have only the hammer in their tool kit. The hammer does not resolve conflict. It generates enemies who have long memories and a strong will to get revenge. Insufficient tools or strategies is one of the important obstacles in working to transform conflict. Adversarial organizational culture is the second obstacle to finding common ground. When you have an adversarial organization, it creates cynicism in stakeholders and they don’t trust or believe what you say. It also creates intolerance for other voices and opinions, power struggles, insults and sarcasm. People tend to go into their safe corners and keep their heads down, unwilling to take a chance on supporting new ideas or meeting in the middle. This creates extremism and polarization. This environment of winners and losers causes morale issues and depression, zaps energy and creativity, and hurts the organization and the people in it. In your organization, who are the adversaries? Is it unions vs. management? Is it department vs. department? Is it leader vs follower?  Allowing adversarialism to dominate decision making results in destructive decision making or no decisions, lack of progress, unsolved problems and broken relationships. This is extremely dangerous to the long-term health of the organization. Assumptions that go unchecked can be a third barrier. Assumptions can cast doubt and inhibit trust. Relying on past performance, attitudes and beliefs instead of clarifying and inquiring about what may be the current situation imposes an impediment to understanding, and without understanding, nothing fruitful can emerge.  Sometimes a leader’s arrogance and need to control everything and everybody can cause resentment, and even contribute to underground sabotage. It is the fourth barrier to finding common ground in conflict situations. Finding common ground may be desirable, but it is not easy. All too often, we are only concerned with what we want and need. We make assumptions about what is right and good for everyone else. In our arrogance, we believe that our priorities are most important. We are indifferent to the needs and concerns of those who might see things differently. And we have a strong need to control the outcome. Transforming conflict with a common ground approach We began our search for strategies that would help leaders to not only manage conflict, or resolve it when it occurs, but strategies or behaviors that could actually transform conflict to a point in which the parties could break through to a new and highly productive state of common ground. Our research resulted in a theoretical framework based on our experience as superintendents and our combined 50 years of university study and work on leadership. The most recent research focused on the contributions of the Common Ground Society.  Transforming conflict means finding a way to work through conflict creatively,  while building peaceful, cooperative relationships among all the parties. The creativity emphasizes the use of possibility thinking rather than getting stuck on positional demands.  It’s all about finding solutions that everyone can support rather than beating the other side into submission. It starts with understanding that conflict itself is neither negative nor positive. It is the natural result of differences between people—religious, political, ethnic or whatever they may be. Those differences can enrich us and can be as much at the root of peaceful progress as at the root of violence. Dealing with these differences constructively is a skill that can be developed. Used appropriately, conflict can cause an organization to examine its practices, improve its product and reap greater success. Used inappropriately or unskillfully, it can be destructive and hurtful. It’s a choice not a destiny. Transforming conflict is a set of skills that can be developed. Conflict transformation is not about ending conflict. It’s about changing the way conflict partners work through differences, moving away from an adversarial stance toward a cooperative, problem-solving one.  It's not about having two sides meet in the middle, but rather discovering a common interest they can creatively pursue together.  At the heart of this work is the need to change the nature of the relationship between the parties from fear and power to progressive trust and teamwork.  Our research on transforming conflict in search of common ground led us to a theoretical framework based on our experience as superintendents and our combined 50 years of university study of leadership. This theoretical framework integrated six behavioral sets that had the potential to transform conflict: ethics, process, emotional intelligence, problem solving, collaboration and communication.  Together with Jeff Lee, we led a team of nine doctoral students in a thematic study of leaders from nine different fields. A description of the conflict transformation behaviors that formed the basis for this study are presented here.

It’s human to want to collaborate with those who see things the same way you do. It’s more comfortable, decisions are made more quickly, and there’s less conflict.
Conflict transformation behaviors  Conflicts can break down the relationship between parties and, as they become increasingly isolated from one another, their perceptions of one another become distorted. The behaviors described here are designed to challenge distorted perceptions by giving people an opportunity to hear each other's stories and see each other as human beings with common interests rather than adversaries. Ethics.  This first behavioral set involves actions that reflect the character of the leader. Honesty in one’s dealings with others is the cornerstone of ethical treatment.  From a very early age, children identify fairness and equal treatment as essential to good character. The courage to do what’s right even when those on your own side may disagree can be one of the harder aspects for leaders to carry out. Compassion and respect for others are also examples of ethical treatment. Ethics and leadership conflict transformation behaviors are inseparable. The understanding and consistent practice of ethics is critical to the decisions, actions and behaviors that support trusting relationships. It is this foundation of ethics and trust that supports resolution of disputes and prevents unnecessary conflict. Process. A leader who is careful to establish sound processes that are fair, reasonable, and well understood is more likely to build understanding and trusting relationships. An example of that would be developing norms for meetings together from the outset and then sticking to them, even when the heat goes up in a discussion. Establishing an environment that is comfortable and in a neutral location symbolizes the leader’s intention of sharing power. If you always conduct your bargaining sessions with the union in the management’s board room, this may send a needlessly adversarial power message. Setting the agenda together and reviewing minutes together before distribution are other processes that might be considered. Emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence includes self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management (Bradberry & Greaves, 2009). It’s easy to manage yourself and your relationships when things are going well and everyone is in agreement. It’s more difficult in the emotionally charged situations that often accompany conflict. The emotionally intelligent leader is one who has worked at becoming aware of their own feelings, values and hot buttons. It also means reflecting honestly on personal reactions that help or hinder a situation and then developing competence in managing those reactions. Finding a trusted ally who has the courage to give honest feedback and signals at crucial times is a good way to help with both self-awareness and self-management. Building strong and positive relationships with others begins with an awareness of what’s going on with them. Developing a keen eye for body language, tone and interaction patterns helps the leader stay attuned to others and is the first step in being able to manage relationships successfully. Understanding what is going on in the personal lives of your people will help you to build connections with them and they will see your caring nature. When the leader is also able to identify strengths and talents in others, they know they are valued and appreciated (Greer, Jehn, & Mannix, 2008).  Problem Solving. Conflict often arises needlessly because people skip the step of defining the problem. This seems automatic, but even those on the same side of an issue often disagree on what the problem is. You may be creating solutions for a problem that nobody really cares about. Take the time to mutually craft a statement of the problem at the outset. Be aware that people often come to the table with positions that do not reveal their real interests. Discovering the real interest only comes about slowly through conversation and gentle questions. Stay alert to find out what the real interests are. It will lead you to the solutions. Before you start generating solutions, collaborate on defining the criteria for finding the best solutions. Then focus on finding solutions that match the criteria you all agree on. Test for consensus before moving too quickly to a decision. It is more important to make a good decision that all parties will leave the meeting and pledge to support. Collaboration. Begin by developing a collaborative vision of how you want to work together and toward what end. What norms are mutually acceptable in this relationship? Clarify the issues to be sure everyone understands them and that the problem is clearly defined. It’s human to want to collaborate with those who see things the same way you do. It’s more comfortable, decisions are made more quickly, and there’s less conflict. However, if you want to transform conflict and get to common ground on a long-term basis, it definitely means including all sides, not just those who agree with you or are easy to convince. Putting others at ease is simpler if you have worked on building trust over months preceding a conflict. There’s an old saying: Dig the well before you are thirsty! Build trust with honesty, integrity and affability. Say what you mean mean what you say and do what you promise. Being pleasant, friendly and sociable facilitates collaboration because it removes the intimidation factor, which tends to shut down open sharing of ideas. And the more ideas that are on the table, the more creative your solutions can be, which promotes finding common ground. Communication. When asked what has caused a conflict between people, they will often answer, “Communication!” While poor communication can be the cause of a problem, sound communication can often be the solution for it. These strategies can be very helpful:
  • Listen actively and respectfully. Seek to really understand what the other party is saying rather than using pauses to plan your next rebuttal. People need to feel respected or they will either shut down or retaliate. Mutual respect is an essential ingredient in transforming conflict. Ask good, relevant questions that will help you to get to the unstated interests and devise good solutions that meet mutual interests.
  • Be transparent with information rather than hiding it and using it for power. Leaders often use the old school method of “holding their cards close to their chest.” It’s important to develop the ability to find that sweet spot between sharing everything you know with everyone and sharing nothing with anyone. Common sense can be your guide in sharing what is appropriate even if it leaves you feeling somewhat vulnerable.
  • Rather than just throwing your opinions around, back them up with evidence, data, rationale and other forms of support by experts. Understand that emotions are often what controls agreement, but facts, data and rationale give you the credibility to pursue a particular solution or direction. Take the time to think about proposals, and give others the same opportunity.
  • When interpreting another’s meaning, make the choice to give them the benefit of the doubt for what they intended to say, rather than going for the interpretation that is aligned with your previous assumptions about the speaker/s.
Communication is most effective in finding common ground when all the parties focus on holding an authentic dialogue to truly understand differences and act on commonalities.
In closing, conflict is ubiquitous and inevitable in all types of organizations, large and small. You can run but you can’t hide from it, and the longer you leave it unaddressed, the more likely your organization is headed for a major blowup. Partisanship at all levels results in long-term failure in promoting healthy, successful organizations. Stakeholders recognize this and are increasingly disenchanted with the results or lack thereof. Leaders must take the reins of conflict, develop the skills to transform it, and bring their people with them to a place called “common ground.” References Maxwell, J.W. (2010). Everyone communicates, few connect. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, Inc. Greer, L. L., Jehn, K. A., & Mannix, E. A. (2008). Conflict transformation: A longitudinal investigation of the relationships between different types of intragroup conflict and the moderating role of conflict resolution. Small Group Research, 39(3), 278-302. Bradberry, T. & Greaves, J. (2009). Emotional intelligence 2.0. San Diego, CA: TalentSmart

Patricia Clark White and Keith Larick are former superintendents and currently work for Brandman University. 

© 2019 Association of California School Administrators