The evening before this year’s homecoming football game, I was involved in a conflict over power and face with a fellow member of We’re Offering Women Wisdom’s executive board. After a week of a lack of and poor communication in planning an event, I expressed a long list of frustrations I had with the leadership in our organization in such a way that caused a rift between the President and myself. The conflict was resolved within hours and the climate restored by the following morning.
We’re Offering Women Wisdom (WOWW) is an organization on campus that serves to provide mentorship and guidance for women-identified students of all ages. I joined WOWW the fall of my junior year, and by my second semester as a member, I joined the executive board as the Historian. Our co-presidents last semester were disorganized and it was frustrating for many of the upperclassmen. This fall, the new executive board took over. I maintained my position as the Historian, the Secretary and Merchandise Chair took over as President and Vice President respectively, and everyone else is new to the executive board. For the purposes of this paper, the president of WOWW will be referred to as “Anna” and the treasurer as “Maddie”.
WOWW planned to host a pre-tailgate breakfast for members and alumni in the Multicultural Center Hardge Forum at 8:00 AM on the Saturday of our homecoming football game. Friday at 6:00 PM, our treasurer Maddie texted me to ask if I could pick up the key to the Multicultural center before they closed that evening. This was the first time I had heard of needing a key to get into the building. I told her I would, and then returned to the homework I was working on. After I finished, I got dinner with some friends and completely forgot about it until later that evening. In a panic, I texted our e-board group chat asking what I should do. I became frustrated when people started suggesting we cancel the event, because it felt like we were giving up instead of finding a solution.
Finally, the Vice President suggested I call the Memorial Union and ask if they have a spare. I jumped through plenty of hoops with the front desk workers to obtain some sort of “master key”, having to surrender my student ID for the evening which meant I would be unable to get in and out of my room without RA assistance. I reported my solution to my group chat and expressed that I was frustrated that I was notified of this task so last-minute because it did not leave me any time to plan it around my schedule. I said that for events like these that require multiple people to help out, we should be prepared days in advanced instead of asking for help at the very last possible moment. Maddie texted an eye-rolling emoji and nothing else. Anna said something along the lines of the fact that we are all a team and need to work together and help out. She said it was frustrating that her and Maddie “do everything” and have to ask other people to help when they get stuck instead of us just stepping in.
Taking this more personally than I should have, I replied with a long message about how we need to plan better from the beginning in a way that involves everyone because good leadership involves delegation, not dictatorship. The conflict escalated from there into a one on one conversation between Anna and I. We began texting separately until I asked if I could just call her to work things out. After about an hour long phone call in which I directed conversation so that both of us could feel heard. We both apologized and made a plan to pick up the coffee and donuts together the following morning for our event. We decided to have an executive board meeting in the coming weeks to reaffirm everyone’s expectations and air out some frustrations in a productive manner. Anna and I agreed that it would be better for us to disseminate responsibilities for the coming week at every Thursday evening meeting and have a Tuesday afternoon check-in to see if everyone is able to do what they said they would or if they need some help. This solution was intended to avoid the last-minute rush and stress that was causing a rift in our personal relationships.
Pondy’s model of conflict can explain how this conflict came about in the first place. We began in a period of latency. There were issues boiling under the surface with the potential for conflict that were not getting addressed. We moved into the perceived conflict stage when I became frustrated with the events the night before Homecoming. I was the only one aware of the latent issues. It became a felt conflict when my attitude changed so that I became angry with Maddie and Anna. When I acted on these feelings and addressed our feelings of difference, it became a manifest conflict. In the aftermath stage, we had resolved our conflict and developed new strategies for future interaction. Our relationships were strengthened as we assessed and agreed upon our outcomes.
The Attribution Theory is useful in understanding how I acted in my conflict with Anna. This theory states that people interpret behavior in terms of its causes and we react based on that interpretation. Behavior is either interpreted as situational, meaning that the cause is due to outside forces of the conflict, or as dispositional, meaning that the cause is due to who the other party is as a person. My behavior can be explained perfectly by the fundamental attribution error. I believed that my frustration was right to express because the situation called for it, and that Anna deserved to hear my frustrations because the problem I wanted to address was due to her being a “terrible leader”. I immediately assumed that my faults were situational and that hers were dispositional. The self-serving bias factors into my perception of how I was able to help resolve the conflict. Since it went well, I attribute it to my own behavior, but I hesitate to say that any failures are due to the context of the conflict now that I know how detrimental these perceptions can be. What the Attribution Theory helps us to understand is people’s motivations in conflict and how responsibility is assigned. By thinking more critically about my own motivations and how and where I assigned responsibility, I am able to see personal areas for conflict resolution growth more clearly within myself.
I used the Theory of Reciprocity to my advantage when speaking with Anna. When I expressed how I felt, she would keep reasserting her own frustrations, and it felt like a never-ending cycle of complaints. I tried to make a shift towards a constructive path by introducing this concept of more productive turn-taking. I scaled back my own complaints and tried to trust that she understood me the first time. Instead, I tried to ask more clarifying questions and paraphrase what she said back to her to show I was listening. She began to do the same for me in a small way and it helped us out of the rut we were falling into.
Another valuable interactional theory which aids in explaining my conflict is the Social Exchange Theory. I started the conflict entirely self-interested. I wanted to create a change in the culture of WOWW without any cost to myself, so I unintentionally started a fight. Since it became exhausting and time-consuming, I decided that tactic was not worth it, so I changed my mindset. The fact that resources determine the worth of the conflict influenced me to alter the way I thought about it. Since it felt like costs were higher than rewards – and because I was getting increasingly more frustrated – I reevaluated my position and made the necessary changes.
I began the conflict by expressing my feelings of frustration to the group. After I saw that the conflict was escalating and no real solution was in sight, I moved the conflict to a one-on-one setting by texting Anna individually. I started by apologizing for the conversation getting “out of hand” and that my intention was to draw attention to my frustration so we could create more efficient solutions for the future. Anna took initiative in bringing up her feelings immediately. She told me that she felt I was disrespectful in the group chat and pinpointed the exact message which signified this behavior. Although she seemed aggressive, it was still an effective means of delivering her message.
The concept of face was significant in the communication patterns in this conflict. Anna’s face was lost when I made an attack on her leadership skills. Her retaliation was aggressive as she tried to save face in front of the group and then with myself. At first she reacted defensively which is a common practice in trying to minimize face loss. I implemented my communication skills to try to take control of the situation instead of perpetuating the cycle of defensiveness. In order to be more productive, I had to act without worrying about protecting my own face. I apologized for what I did wrong and expressed that it was more important to me that we work together instead of one of us coming out as “right”.
Consistent with the concept in our text, I knew not to enter the conflict with a specific strategy as it would make me inflexible. I decided to make a phone call to move away from our ineffective text conversation, but I did not have much else of a plan. I began with the tactic “assertiveness” when I wrote to my group chat complaining about having to give up my ID because we were too disorganized to plan ahead. This was a high degree of focus on myself without regard to others. I also used a high degree of activeness, characterized by my level of involvement in the conflict which actually helped us stay on track. I initiated the conflict, contributed dialogue, tried to control the dialogue, and made suggestions to bring the conflict to a solution. I moved to an empowerment tactic and gave Anna a fair amount of power in the situation, but I did so intentionally so she would no longer think I was trying to overshadow her. The tactic was not as effective because it only gave her the space to complain more, so I dropped that tactic and moved on. I became highly cooperative and flexible as we progressed and saw that Anna was receptive to the constructive tactics. What I did not do much of was self-disclosure. I did not think it was relevant to the conversation because our issue was over substantive topics even though it at first felt personal. Overall, my conflict style in this interaction was problem solving, characterized by high levels of assertiveness, cooperation, disclosiveness, activeness, and flexibility. There is no degree of empowerment in this style, and in the way I manifested it I did not rely much on disclosiveness, but I still think it was effective. My goal was a win/win and we were able to achieve such.
Climate & Power
The climate of this conflict can be characterized most by themes of authority and interdependence. Our discussion began as an issue of authority; the distribution of such was crucial to our dialogue. To Anna, it seemed like the distribution of authority between the two of us was unequal. Her main stance in the conflict was that I was not respecting her authority. Realistically, the authority was available to both people, but it felt like a struggle between us. The climate is also characterized by interdependence. After I made the conscious effort to switch my tactics to try to maintain the relationship, I prioritized our interdependence as something we can connect over. It was at first contrient in that it contributed to the escalation of the conflict, but it became promotive as the conflict progressed. Our climate was also characterized in part by relational identity. I made sure to emphasize that in the end, Anna and I are friends outside of this organization and that relationship label is something we should return to in order to keep us more productive. In order to de-escalate the conflict, I had to prioritize the relationship over my own needs to get us to work towards separating the person from the issue.
The conflict began because I made a direct bid for power when I reached a breaking point of frustration over WOWW’s leadership. I was hoping that Anna would endorse my bid based on legitimacy of knowledge and expertise, so I tried to send a message that was stern but also included language that helped me to appear like a knowledgeable leader. Her response was another direct bid for power; Anna reaffirmed that she is the president of the organization thus relying on social categorization in which her power is inherent to the fact that she has the title of president without any formal verification of said power. A better idea for myself would have been to make more of an indirect bid for power as to not appear as confrontational. In doing so, I could have avoided disrupting the group while also getting my point across. I would have been able to exert relational control instead of enacting an imbalance of power which escalated the conflict. The power did evolve and go more in this direction as I realized that Anna and I were on the escalator of destructive conflict. At times, making a virtual direct bid for power was effective because it did not require as much effort but still allowed me to be clear. A specific example is when I promised Anna that if we could plan ahead more for events, I would be the first to volunteer to help out. By saying so, I provided an incentive for Anna do to what I wanted while also acknowledging what she wanted: more participation from the group. It allowed me to feel like I had a fair amount of control over the situation without being forceful, and Anna saw that I was validating her thoughts regarding the conflict, so it helped us to reach a wise outcome.
Getting To Yes: What Do I Do if the People Are the Problem?
In my conflict, the people involved were a large part of the “problem.” Anna’s leadership style was one that clashed with mine dramatically. I value a leader who prioritizes efficiency, organization, and a strong team dynamic. From a few weeks of interacting with her, I saw behaviors that seemed to be more along the lines of a self-serving bias. Her idea of efficiency was to cut people off mid-sentence to rush through topics in meetings, which in turn harmed the team dynamic. My first approach to addressing this issue was ineffective. In an attempt to make a bid for power by expressing my experience as a successful leader, I ended up making a threat to Anna’s face as the elected leader of WOWW. Her defensive response showed me that I had approached the interaction poorly.
As expressed in Getting To Yes, and something I did keep in mind, it was important for Anna and I to maintain our relationship. The first piece of advice in the book is to “build a working relationship independent of agreement or disagreement” (Fisher and Ury, 2011). Anna and I had to return to a place where we could work productively through conflict so that we would be able to move forward in our professional relationship. When we spoke on the phone, I worked to use my tone of voice and direction of the conversation to separate the facts from the emotions. Fisher and Ury call this disentangling the substantive from the relationship issues and note it as a crucial part of strengthening the working relationship (2011).
The second major theme from the chapter that was useful in my conflict is to negotiate the relationship. After separating the substantive from the relationship elements, I worked to try to make requests for specific and concrete changes without passing personal judgement. The first few times Anna would continue to express why a certain request made her feel attacked, but by repeatedly redirecting the dialogue back to substantive issues and reinforcing that the relationship issues were not the problem, we were able to have a productive conversation.
As much as I would like to attribute the success of the conflict to my budding communication studies expertise, I cannot take all the credit. Anna must have been willing to resolve the conflict as well, otherwise it could have been never-ending. History played a key role in this conflict’s development and resolution. The fact that multiple instances of a similar issue occurred without me addressing it allowed frustration to pile up in my head and thus make me even more upset than I would have been if this were an isolated incident. Our history was also important because Anna and I were able to rely on the fact that we were friends outside of WOWW to refocus us on being kind to each other and tough on the issue.
In the future, I would not want to use impulse to respond to a conflict. Although I was inconvenienced and felt entitled to my feelings, voicing them via group message was not the most constructive tactic in that moment. My first recommendation for the future would be to wait to act until after the immediate feelings subside. What one says while overcome with emotions is typically not the most productive. Second, this is a conflict that should have been handled entirely face-to-face. It was alleviated by a phone call, but even with that form of synchronous communication it was still challenging. I should have structured the conflict for a different day, with a BATNA in mind, and without trying to create an ineffective strategy. Third, it would have been a much less dramatic encounter if WOWW as a group had set expectations for each other and the group more concretely at the beginning of the semester. I cannot be entirely sure of how Anna felt after the conflict, but I did ask her multiple times “how do you feel about this?”, “does this work for you?” and “how does that sound?” not only to demonstrate my level of interest in her point of view, but to coax productive feedback out of her.
At the end of the negotiation, I can say I am completely satisfied with our agreement, and it seemed like Anna was too. Even though it was challenging in the beginning of the interaction, I do feel like we converged on a wise outcome that best supports both of our goals and the goal of our shared organization. At the time, I felt like having spoken for about an hour was exhausting, but it was actually quite efficient. It is commendable that we were able to start and end a conflict all in the same evening. Finally, we did not damage the relationship. We were able to speak about the implications of this conflict on our relationship and in turn it helped us to work more productively. Overall, I felt like the dialogue worked out successfully. This conflict took place about three months ago, but sometimes there are still latent feelings of this conflict in our group. It is not enough for another full-scale intervention, but it can be concerning. The next task is to figure out how to maintain the agreed upon conditions of a conflict negotiation weeks and months after it has been resolved.