Restoring Civility in Faculty Interaction

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© 2019 William A. Bledsoe

It’s inevitable that people working closely together in any environment are going to have disagreement and conflict. Disagreement is healthy. It’s how new ideas are tested. It’s the lifeblood of progress. Conflict can be constructive too when it’s addressed with civility, respect, and consideration.

Working through conflict collaboratively helps us discover and address underlying relationship issues (personal and professional), affirm individual and collective needs, recognize and establish boundaries, and better understand ourselves and each other.

But if there is no consistent and constructive way to move through conflict, the conflict can go sideways and underground. The lack of resolution can result in unreconciled hurt feelings and residual tension. People feel unsatisfied and unsafe. Negativity, passive-aggressiveness, sarcasm, and cynicism degrades day-to-day interaction. Gossip becomes the medium where perceived injustices are voiced, blaming occurs, and polarization happens. People take sides or feel pressured to do so. Lack of resolution can foster unconstructive and even harmful ways of interacting in other areas as well (e.g. team meetings, decision-making, information-sharing, etc.).

This is how unresolved conflict and unconstructive interaction becomes entrenched, and the workplace culture and climate sours. Collegiality dissipates. People’s morale suffers. Trust is broken.

Faculty start looking for other schools or just silently resign to protect themselves, withdraw from interaction and avoid talking about what’s happening. New faculty sense this almost immediately. Unresolved conflict – especially when there has been harmful interaction – is a spirit killer, both personally and collectively. It extinguishes some of the deepest reasons why teachers teach – from a place of joyfully applied craft.

What’s missing?

COMPASSION

We have to have compassion for teachers and administrators. External pressures put on educators from parents and districts/boards are real and constantly felt. We place so much emphasis on academic performance and student experience that we often fail to recognize or address faculty emotional and psychological well-being. Teachers and administrators need moral support and compassionate regard if we want our children to experience the same in the classroom. That’s been my experience as a teacher, and my observation after working with educators for over twenty years. We expect our educators to be social-emotional developers as much academic instructors. We ask them to “be caring” and this often leads to empathy fatigue.

TRAINING

Second, we need to realize that conflict management is not a core requirement for a teaching degree. University teaching programs and departments simply don’t equip teachers with the communication skills or methods for resolving conflict between colleagues in the workplace. Administrators may receive some training, but that training is usually conceptual. When I go into schools to implement restorative practices, I’m struck by how much faculty and staff would benefit from learning some basic restorative mediation and language skills, and having a reliable process to turn to consistently for resolving hurt feelings.

ACCOUNTABILITY

This leads to my third point. When it comes to school conduct policies, we fail to include the adults. We build restorative policies, programs, practices and procedures for student conduct – but don’t use those same principles, sensibilities, skills or processes to address adult antisocial behavior which impacts both collegiality and the learning environment. This includes both teachers and staff, as well as parents.

This is one of the main reasons why I advocate so strongly for a “whole-school (whole-community) restorative approach.” When adults work through their conflict with the same expectations and processes as students, the students witness/experience consistency (and fidelity). Adults need to model restorative engagement to resolve differences as much as profess it.

I consulted at one high school where it was clear that the most destructive conduct was happening between longstanding teachers. The toxicity was so profound that recently hired teachers were leaving in tears after only one or two years. There was zero-accountability for how faculty members spoke to and about each other.      

What’s the Restorative Response?

When destructive interaction is happening between faculty (and parents) how do we respond? There are two core requirements for transforming conflict and harmful interaction between faculty members in a restorative way: the personal and the collective.

THE PERSONAL

Accountability for how we communicate with others is “an inside job.” Restorative communication is intentional communication built on certain principles of respect (*read the 7 Principles of Restorative Communication). This is not achieved through enforcement. It is a capacity and a choice that comes from within. Growing this capacity organically requires looking at our own nonverbal and verbal communication behavior, as well as having a clear understanding of our own conflict life-history.

One of the most powerful components of our faculty/parent training is doing a conflict inventory. How was conflict and harmful behavior handled in your family? What were the conflict styles you witnessed? What is your own “go-to” style? What is the story you tell yourself when there is conflict or harmful interaction?

What triggers you?

This inventory helps us to recognize the roots of our triggers and reactive thinking, core beliefs and attitudes. The outcome of this inventory is self-compassion, and developing the skills to remain centered in a moment of challenging interaction with a colleague (student and/or parent).

Learning how to respond restoratively in a moment of conflict is both a disposition and a language skill. Like any language, the more we use it the more fluent we become.

Another pillar of our training involves understanding what our brains are doing when we experience hurtful interaction and unconstructive conflict. If we understand how our brains function in moments of conflict, stress, anxiety and defensiveness, we can “work with our brain” to both self-regulate and co-regulate our emotions and nervous system. I think co-regulation is one of the most powerful empathic communication skills we can learn. This is especially true in trauma-responsive situations.

The neuroscience of communication confirms that there are specific nonverbal and languaging skills that can shift how our brain processes a crisis moment and deescalate a conflict. I’ve found that this understanding gives us some perspective about the emotional and psychological impact of conflict, but more important, helps us to become more understanding and empathic with ourselves and each other.

THE COLLECTIVE 

When conflict happens and harmful communication occurs, individuals need help unpacking what happened, expressing how they were impacted, exploring why it happened and what needs are being neglected, and creating an agreement for both repairing any harm and preventing it from happening again. This is the restorative process in sum.

When the process is established as “the way we do conflict”, individuals can relax into it and trust that the interaction to reconcile the incident (or pattern) will be non-retributive, based on mutual respect, empathy, and accountability.

Importantly, the resolution of conflict incidents is not left to any one individual. In schools and organizations this task is accomplished by a trained Restorative Council. When an incident of conflict and/or harmful interaction occurs between faculty, staff or parents, the Restorative Council is enrolled to respond immediately, engage, support, and facilitate reconciliation and resolution. This is how a community/school takes ownership of conflict between adults, and prevents patterns from developing or continuing. It’s a systems approach.

The only wrong way to do conflict is to not address it with directness, integrity, honesty, and compassion.

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