Managing Conflict

Conflicts sometimes arise for graduate assistants, whether between Research Assistants in a lab, between Teaching Assistants and their students, or between assistants and their supervisors. Managing conflict productively and respectfully is an important personal and professional skill. When they find themselves in conflict, all members of the UWM community are urged to reflect on the positive values described in the Code of Conduct, and to work toward a resolution while upholding those values.

The majority of conflicts should be addressed directly by those in conflict. Often the best path forward is for parties to meet in person or online to discuss the conflict and try to arrive at a mutually satisfactory resolution. This meeting should occur at a time and in a place that feels sufficiently safe, comfortable, and private to both parties. It’s also important that the purpose of the meeting is clear to all involved, so that neither party feels “ambushed” by a conversation they weren’t expecting about a conflict they weren’t aware of. Many people find that it is not productive to try to resolve conflicts by email or text, and at a certain point written exchanges can even escalate conflicts unnecessarily; without the cues of tone of voice and facial expression, these written exchanges are more apt to be misread.

Resolving a conflict requires commitment on both sides. During the meeting, both sides must be willing to let the other side have their say, and to listen openly and actively. Both sides should work toward mutual understanding of the real source of the conflict, which may or may not be the same as the occasion that sparked it. Frequently, incidents of visible conflict are caused by underlying patterns of miscommunication or interpersonal tensions, and these underlying patterns must be repaired for the conflict to be fully resolved.

Sometimes a third-party facilitator or mediator can assist in resolving a conflict, especially if initial attempts to resolve the conflict have failed. At times, if a power imbalance exists between the parties in conflict, the presence of a neutral facilitator can shift the power dynamics enough for a more honest and productive conversation to occur. For graduate assistants, a facilitated conversation might mean that a Research Assistant and their supervisor would sit down with the department chair or some other person that both sides trust. For a Teaching Assistant who has a conflict with a student, it might mean having a joint meeting with the instructor of record for the course.

The Dean of Students can also help assistants navigate conflicts and mediate resolutions. For instance, if a graduate assistant has a conflict with a supervisor or major professor, they might want guidance on how to approach the matter most diplomatically. To consult the Dean of Students, assistants can write to

Styles of Conflict Management

Everyone brings a style of conflict management to each occasion of conflict, although most people have not reflected on their own conflict styles, or tendencies. Some models of conflict management identify five styles.

  • The style of competition is assertive and insistent and those who practice it try to take charge of the situation to advance desired goals or their own interests.
  • The style of accommodation is unassertive and highly cooperative, and those who practice it assume that relationships are important, and will give up their own goals or preferences to preserve relationships.
  • The style of avoidance is unassertive and nonconfrontational and those who practice it will withdraw from the conflict rather than engage it directly.
  • The style of collaboration is assertive and cooperative and those who practice it value both individual goals and relationships. Collaborators engage conflicts by trying to negotiate new solutions that will meet everyone’s needs.
  • Finally, the style of compromise is a middle-ground approach; compromisers typically seek a solution that will give everyone some part of what they want.

Just knowing that one has a tendency toward a certain style of conflict management can make conflict easier to navigate. And having a sense for the various possible options can help people be more intentional and adaptive in how they approach a particular conflict. None of the styles above are purely good or bad; rather, each one offers certain advantages and disadvantages. In some situations, a competitive style might be the best way to effectively achieve an important goal, while in other situations, the relational cost of this style might be too high. Similarly, while a collaborative style is sometimes the best way to maintain relationships and negotiate mutually satisfactory solutions, this approach requires more time and energy. So in some situations, more pressing time constraints might mean that compromising offers the best way to quickly reach a short-term solution.

Those interested in learning more about their conflict style are encouraged to take this brief online Conflict Styles Assessment offered by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP).

Conflict in the Classroom

Handling conflict in the classroom is easier in a climate characterized by respect, trust, and responsible care for everyone present. Even then there may be conflicts to manage, but in general an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

The Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning has excellent Guidelines for Classroom Conflict Transformation, which can help foster a classroom climate in which disagreements about issues are less likely to escalate into personal conflicts.

Still, when conflicts emerge it is the instructor’s responsibility to respond, usually in the moment. This can be uncomfortable for instructors, especially when conflicts erupt over hurtful remarks or harmful behaviors. Few instructors feel completely confident in these moments, so it can be reassuring to know that even experienced instructors find this stressful too.

The CETL website has good advice about dealing with heated conflicts in the moment: “At a minimum, pause and acknowledge the tension you’re feeling. It is better to respond with imperfect words than to try to ignore or avoid the conflict.” It can help to acknowledge the discomfort by saying something like, “Whew, it seems we’ve really started addressing some painful topics,” or, “I can really feel how passionately people feel about the different sides of this issue.” If a student uses derogatory language or directs a hurtful comment toward another student, it’s important to interrupt that behavior immediately; you might say something like, “Personal attacks or language like that is not okay in this classroom. We can disagree, but we need to treat each other respectfully.”

Pausing the discussion may let the pressure subside. You might say something like, “We’re into this pretty deep. Maybe we should take a moment to pause and let our thoughts catch up to our words.” Like a timeout in a basketball game, even a very short break can help everyone regain their composure. Another strategy that may helpfully de-escalate the conflict in the room is to give students a few moments to write about what they’re experiencing, feeling, or noticing. This offers students a different way to process what’s happening and may help them engage disagreements more constructively.

It can also help to know that Teaching Assistants are not expected to have all the answers, or to have the power to make conflict go away. An instructor might say, “These are really tough conversations, and I don’t always know how to talk about this either.” When conversations get heated, gentle reminders can also bring down the temperature: “In tough discussions like this one, I try to pause to remind myself that I never have all the answers, and that we’re all trying to figure it out together.”

When conflicts are long-running, such as students who disrupt class with ongoing feuds or who behave disrespectfully to each other, private interventions might be needed to help those involved adopt more respectful and productive approaches. Teaching Assistants concerned about conflicts should always consult their supervisors. If assistants need additional support or have other questions or concerns, they can also contact the Dean of Students for guidance at