Training Conflict Management in the Midst of a Conflict Storm

by Mark Patterson, University Ombuds, William & Mary

"Like putting a band-aid on a wound that needs a tourniquet,” the anonymous feedback read.


Just hours before, I had finished an energetic two-hour workshop on working with difficult people. The tools presented were simple and accessible. And I was pleased with the level of engagement from participants. In short, I thought it went really well. So the feedback caught me by surprise.

I knew the department I was meeting with had been mired in controversy--I had worked on and off with members for months. Department leadership had invited me to present at the department’s winter retreat to help deal with these very challenges. I developed some simple slides with basic concepts and a number of improv-based exercises to get the group working together collaboratively.

Wanting to be transparent, I noted at the outset of the workshop that my goal was to help the department start needed conversations. I said my workshop was not going to “fix” the department’s problems.

I thought I was prepared. And I thought I had prepared my audience.

Judging by the feedback, I failed on both counts. And the criticism did not end with the “band-aid” comment. The next day, I received feedback that read, “the underlying problems ... in our department were not only unaddressed but actively obscured.”

The same day, I received yet another feedback response that read, "I don't think all the struggles of our department are just interpersonal, but rather reflect the ways in which some groups continue to be marginalized."

Where did I go wrong?

As a relatively new ombuds coming from years working as a lawyer, and as a white male, I failed to connect with these participants in several ways. First, I thought words of explanation were enough to make the group receptive. I also assumed everyone instinctively shared my confidence in informal tools for conflict resolution. And finally, I assumed that individual empowerment was a context-neutral tool.

Building a Storm-Break

Although I openly acknowledged that conflict existed in the department, I did not address the fear and anger that people may have felt as a result. Studies show fear impacts our thinking and decision-making in negative ways. Similarly, anger “short-circuits” our thinking, pushing us to rely on mental heuristics in lieu of analysis.

During the workshop, participants appeared calm and seemed to engage enthusiastically in creative group activities. But under the surface, feelings of fear and anger (or both) may have limited their willingness to consider the concepts as applicable in their own lives.

Participants knew I had been invited by leaders whom some distrusted and felt anger toward. They may have heard me say I was independent and impartial, but what those who provided feedback (and probably others) felt was a dismissal of their feelings. They wanted to hear an apology or at least an acknowledgment of impact from leadership, not a discussion of DIY options from a guy speaking at the department’s invitation.

Although I may not have been able to speak on behalf of the department as an independent ombuds, workshop participants who felt fear and anger were not going to start problem-solving until somebody in authority publicly “owned” their contribution to the conflict and indicated a willingness to address it.

A Leak in the Informality Lifeboat

One of the reasons I became an ombuds was to help people maintain autonomy over their outcomes in conflict. Maybe it’s my Appalachian ancestry, but I am pretty fierce about personal autonomy. Emotionally, I want to believe hard work and dogged determination will get anyone through any problem or conflict.

Because of my life experience as a white male privileged with access to education and opportunity, I have been largely blind to the dangers of teaching self-help without context. I know self-help tools often bring about change incrementally and slowly and I warn my visitors of this. But I have not appreciated how my approach to self-help could be harmful to those with different backgrounds, if taught without context.

For example, one recent Duke University study showed that people who receive a DIY empowerment message regarding problems of gender discrimination in the workplace without a complimentary message about structural barriers are “more likely to believe that women are responsible for the problem--both for causing it, and for fixing it.”

In a nutshell, my critics were spot on. To the extent identity and demographic marginalization are happening in the department in question (and I have no reason to doubt they are), I may have contributed to the problem rather than help set the stage for improved dialogue as I had intended.

Staying in the Harbor Is Not an Option

Sometimes, I see an ombuds office as a sort-of “coastal rescue” team, rowing out to help struggling members of the community when organizational conflict storms rage. In that view, figuratively standing on the shore while an organizational ship sinks is not an option even when the waves are high.

But pulling a conflict-exhausted sailor into a lifeboat and handing her an oar may not be the right move either.

I have also come to appreciate how as an ombuds I need to assess a visitor’s capacity for autonomy in conflict management. If capacity is low, I need to address that before I begin teaching the tools of informality. To continue with my sea rescue metaphor, it does no good to provide a life preserver to a person unable to hold on because of injury.

Facing the Storm Again

My false start notwithstanding, I still believe in the tools of informal conflict resolution. Lifeboat crews are often forced back by waves breaking on the shore. Yet, they regroup and surge forward again. Once the lifeboat crew gets past the surf, they row toward the stricken ship in earnest (although the going may still be hard). As an ombuds, I can enter the surf again with a goal of empowerment beyond the breakers of distrust and anger.

In my case, I believe getting past the breakers will take three things: 1) creation of a safe space for sharing experiences and feeling heard; 2) acknowledgment of feelings experienced; and 3) expressions of optimism about a conflict-healthy organization. And these messages must come from department leaders in addition to me.

In talking about his relationship with Mick Jagger, Keith Richards once said: “The only things Mick and I disagree about is the band, the music, and what we do.” More than 50 years have passed since the Glimmer Twins got together and the Rolling Stones are still making world-famous music.

In my situation, the good news is that all the parties want to see the department thrive and produce great work. Some may feel like they could never work with certain other members, and some may even want to see others punished. But historically, some of the most stormy collaborations have produced some of the greatest work. With preparation and perspective, the informal tools of conflict management can play a vital part in keeping the band playing on...or helping the ship’s crew get back out to sea.

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Comments on "Training Conflict Management in the Midst of a Conflict Storm"

Comments 0-15 of 4

Judit Revesz - Monday, February 18, 2019

Mark, thank you for sharing your reflections!

Christina Sabee - Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Thank you!! It’s great to hear about your experience and reflections - helps me think differently about some similar situations where I work.

Mr. Mark H. Patterson - Friday, February 01, 2019

Thanks, Nicole. It was hard, for sure. But a real growth opportunity for me that I wanted to share.

Nicole Klein - Friday, February 01, 2019

Mark, it's so helpful to hear an analysis of a workshop gone "wrong" and how you dug into the feedback to examine your own role and assumptions. It's brave to share your lessons learned with us--thank you. Very helpful.

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