Our View

Leading Through Conflict With Three Words
By THOMAS R. HUGHES AND FRANK D. DAVIDSON/School Administrator, February 2020

AS FORMER SUPERINTENDENTS now training fledgling administrators in Arizona, we are certain of three things: Conflict in education is more frequent, more complicated and more intense.

Though any amount of good that’s generated through committed leadership can be quickly derailed by discord, we also know preparatory programs still typically refrain from training administrators to deal with conflict proactively.

Reconciling Grievances
We frequently find ourselves coaching novice administrators how to deal with parental complaints. When complaints about any of us are registered directly toward us, we know why we did what we did, and we are well-positioned to respond. Lacking similar insight while learning to serve as an intermediary between other parties, however, presents developing leaders with a steep and often stressful learning curve.

It’s a given that we acquire many of our most valuable lessons through lived experience. As internship supervisors, we strive to provide our students with additional opportunities to experience the varied ways effective administrators navigate through conflict. We also have started to offer a straightforward strategy described below to help them in leading through conflict.

We promote three essential words: React, Reflect, Reframe.

Modeling Positivity
We remind future administrators it is natural to react viscerally in the midst of conflict, though we always should be aware of how we come across. We must not forget that others in conflict with us are contending with their own feelings and reactions.

Instead of attempting to voice something well intended such as “You shouldn’t feel that way,” which just as likely comes across as being dismissive, we recommend a new administrator try to maintain an open and accepting reaction. Rather than attempting to conceal our reaction, we should be deliberate in purposefully modeling our positive response for others.

Next, we tell new administrators to reflect. A natural extension of a model reaction, reflection that is immediate, active and open helps keep sides from digging in and simultaneously limiting constructive options. Active listening is important and incompatible with someone concentrating instead on what one intends to say next, a common error.

Equally important is the need to put some significant cards on the table. One highly successful and agreeable young school leader finally broke through in dealing with a challenging parent only after being coached to reflect on how they may not ultimately agree. Once they both recognized and then owned that, it was easier to move forward.

Productive Dialogue
The third word in leading through conflict is to reframe. Reframing a situation requires mental flexibility, insight and problem-solving abilities. It is a powerful skill that can move would-be adversaries a step closer to a shared problem-solving position that is again incompatible with maintaining a posture of conflict.

Offering a perspective that “we may not agree” was particularly powerful because it ultimately created a transition from reflecting to reframing. This facilitated further productive dialogue while strengthening the commitment to arrive at agreement.

Each concept builds on the others. Each skill can be discussed and practiced without incident and with experience can help shape powerful new leadership dispositions. Administrators we surveyed in Arizona confirmed they very much need meaningful conflict training. That said, leading through conflict with three words offers a simple but effective approach for early success and continued growth as “conflict-capable” leaders.

THOMAS HUGHES, a former superintendent, is an associate professor of educational leadership at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Ariz. Twitter: @TomHugh34300405. FRANK DAVIDSON, a former superintendent, is an assistant professor of educational leadership at Northern Arizona University.