Moving Beyond Conflicts that Destroy Progress in Schools

Nothing prevents a school from moving forward more than troublesome relationships among faculty members and between faculty and administration. Hurt feelings and misunderstandings can cause an entire improvement process to stall.

We have all been a part of such interactions and have seen the devastating and demoralizing results of interpersonal conflict. Yet, if we are to improve the educational experience of the young people we work with so they are ready for college and career, we must find a way to work through such conflicts.

Creating a new path through educational conflict

Stephen Covey, the author of “The 3rd Alternative: Solving Life’s Most Difficult Problems,” provides food for thought for educators when they find themselves in situations of conflict.

"The 3rd Alternative" by Stephen R. Covey
Published by Simon & Shuster.

In typical conflicts, Covey explains, we tend to view alternatives in a “my way — your way” perspective. Even when the two sides are working toward solutions, they work toward a compromise. When two sides work toward a compromise, usually each side loses something. Thus, the solution to the problem offers satisfaction “but never delight.  The relationship is weakened, and too often the dispute just flares up again.”

Instead of settling for a compromise, Covey suggests finding a new solution — a third alternative — where the major goals of both sides are met. Although Covey calls the process of arriving at the third alternative synergy, he places some fundamental prerequisites on arriving at this point, unlike other models that discuss synergy.

Following Covey’s suggestions can help bring a faculty closer to understanding the attitudes and assumptions that stand in the way of working toward effective solutions to educational problems.

Steps to arriving at the third alternative

  • Step 1: I see myself.  As an individual I must humbly examine my motives, assumptions, and biases. If I am not transparent with myself about my own beliefs and past hurts, I cannot move forward.
  • Step 2: I see you.  It is not until I have come to terms with myself, that I am ready to value others and consider their humanity. Aside from the issue at hand, am I able to respect and honor the other party?

Too often we get wrapped up in good and bad thinking. Instead of examining issues, we mistakenly begin to see the people who agree as the good and everyone else as bad.  This type of thinking fails to separate the person from the issue. Respect for the other person is of utmost importance if we ever wish to move forward in solving larger educational issues.

  • Step 3: I seek you out. If we are transparent with ourselves and then honor the other person’s humanity, we will be more open-minded to go to the other person to understand her differing perspective.

During difficult discussions, we often are formulating our response instead of listening intently to the speaker in order to understand exactly what is said.  When we seek out another with an open-minded perspective, we desire to learn from her and see issues through her lens. We are not required to agree with the different perspective, but we are called to hear and understand the perspective.  This helps us to move toward the third alternative.

  • Step 4: I synergize with you.  If we are willing to open-mindedly accept the other person’s humanity and respect her differing opinions, we are then ready to ask if she is willing to seek out a third alternative, not a compromise.

Together, each party establishes the criteria they determine is mandatory for a successful outcome and then together begin to seek ways to reach a resulting solution that keeps intact both party’s essential criteria. The key to this stage is that both parties must be open and respectful toward the other.  Reaching the third alternative takes transparency and willingness to find a solution that is outside current thinking.

Replacing conflict with synergy

It is not easy to set aside past hurts. Our biases and personal perspectives make relationships complicated. However, we can work toward respect for those with whom we disagree. As professionals, putting aside past issues of conflict can lead us closer to finding solutions on how to meet the needs of our young people. If we are ever to find any type of peace in the world, we should begin by creating it within our schools. It takes courage to reach out to those with whom we disagree, but our students deserve our best efforts.

With over 35 years in administration and teaching in K-12 and higher education both in the U.S. and internationally, Dr. Nancy Cardenuto strives to cultivate creative and innovative learning paths. She is an adjunct professor in the master’s program at Concordia University – Portland, where she teaches courses in support of the Common Core State Standards. 

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