Administration & Leadership

Getting Unstuck: Conflict Resolution Strategies That Work

School leaders can use these strategies to turn down the heat and make progress on even the most intractable problems.

December 8, 2023
Liudmila Chernetska / iStock

We’ve devoted the last four years to studying adult conflict in schools, presenting on the topic across the country. After we explain a set of recommended conflict remediation strategies, someone in the audience invariably raises a hand and shares, “I’m sure your strategies work in 99 percent of schools, but you haven’t seen mine!” Indeed, while conflict resolution is never quick or easy (otherwise it wouldn’t be conflict!), sometimes disputes appear intractable. Staunch opponents endlessly vie at loggerheads, a 17th-century term variously describing unintelligent oafs or an iron tool used as a bludgeon.

When a group is stuck hip-deep in the muck and mire, wrestling with an obstinately “wicked” problem, how can a leader help? Literature from the field of organizational psychology and our personal experience suggest a number of strategies leaders can use to help a group get “unstuck” and move forward: turning down the heat, asking good questions, and trying new protocols. 

Reframing the Conflict

Turn down the heat: The first step is to turn down the emotional temperature, perhaps by taking a break. Leaders must also be careful to monitor their own emotional temperature to make sure that their words and actions do not exacerbate the level of social distress. Promoting psychological safety by respecting all opinions also reduces the likelihood of us-versus-them thinking. This is where a little humor goes a long way, the group leader showing the lighter side even in a contentious situation. We’ve found that a heartfelt smile while likening the leader’s job to herding cats lightens the mood.  

Let’s consider a high school committee consisting of staff, students, and parents butting heads over restorative justice versus a swift-and-sure-consequences approach to discipline. The leader’s initial objective is to shift the tone toward civil discussion and a disposition to genuinely listen. Next steps might include a short break, a reminder that they share a common aspiration to improve the school’s social and emotional climate, setting a few ground rules (e.g., don’t make it personal, seek first to understand, everyone plays a part in the solution), and generating a list of questions that the group will address in future meetings.   

Lengthen the time frame: Committees often want quick solutions, but deep conflict requires time to build trust and both comprehensively and sensitively study the issues at hand. In the case of the high school discipline policy committee, a preliminary step is to commit to spending a year gathering information and brainstorming alternatives. “This is a complicated issue,” the administrator might declare. “If there were ready answers, we would have discovered them by now. Our work will take time.”

Clarify assumptions and define the conflict: It’s useful to identify, without passing judgment, assumptions inherent in the outlook of contesting positions, and then analyze how the oppositional positions give rise to conflict. That is to say, before broaching possible solutions, the group must better understand the nature of the conflict.  

Returning to the high school discipline committee, the leader might ask the group whether they can agree on the theory underlying each point of view, then draw a three-column chart to list benefits, concerns, and lingering questions associated with each approach. The effect is to move away from the mistaken belief that two ideas are mutually exclusive or the only possible options. Once a group deviates from an overly simplistic either/or orientation to more creative “What else is there?” thinking, healthier and productive conversation ensues. 

Refocus from person to task: Literature on conflict within organizations shows that intense us-versus-them disputes inevitably result when the issue becomes personal, attributing fault to the other individual’s deficient skills, personality, intelligence, and/or motives. It’s not enough for two people to disagree; they disparage each other as well. Adept administrators shift difficult conversations from “who” to “what” or “how”: from a focus on the person to the organization’s need, abstract ideas, and the most effective way to accomplish the task at hand. 

In the high school discipline committee, the controversy may have turned personal, with each side on the attack, spewing ad hominem accusations. The leader’s role is to transform the subject from “who’s wrong” to “what works.”

In the case of the high school discipline committee, the leader might ask the group whether they can agree on the theory underlying each point of view. Swift-and-sure consequences relies on principles of behavior modification from the field of psychology. Restorative justice draws on community-based principles of accountability and repair. By putting aside personal invective and studying how each approach is supposed to work, the team may be able to make progress.

Try different protocols: Two protocols that we’ve found effective in resolving the most troubling controversies are “trading places” and “uncommittees.” In trading places, members of each group assume the opposite stance. In our case study, restorative justice supporters present the views of swift-and-sure-consequences defenders, and vice versa. 

The “uncommittee” temporarily adjourns the committee, with a mandate that each member seek feedback from as wide a stakeholder group as possible, for the purpose of eliciting new ideas that can help the group address the current stalemate and move the discussion forward. While the information is being gathered, leaders also take time to reevaluate logistics, as such seemingly unimportant details as the shape of the table, seating arrangements, or the time set for the meeting can be obstacles on the road to solutions. 

High-Impact Questions

We distinguish between genuinely inquisitive questions and statements disguised as questions. The following questions posed by a “conflict-agile” leader can move a group forward.

Questions that clarify

  • What basic point are you trying to make?
  • What is the greatest driving force right now?

Questions that isolate consequences

  • What are the many and varied outcomes you expect? 
  • What might be unanticipated or unintended consequences?
  • What would happen if...?

Questions that prompt a change of perspective

  • Here’s how some others see it...
  • Why might they look at it that way?
  • How can we...?
  • What would we do if money were no object? (By brainstorming without financial limitations, the group is able to identify ideal outcomes. In other words, to dream a little.)
  • What haven’t we explored? What are we not thinking of?

Questions that address the group process

  • If you could wave a magic wand, what is one thing you would change? 
  • Why do you think we are feeling stuck?
  • What’s not being said that needs to be said, or, what’s the elephant in the room?

Turbulent seas test the skills of any sailor or school leader. Navigating choppy waters requires adept leadership equipped with a variety of strategies that can make headway even when progress seems stymied. The process may be messy and frustrating, but once collaborative problem-solving is established as a norm, transformative solutions become possible.

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