Navigating Conflict within Higher Education

By: Aaron Peterson, MS-NCR ‘12

Conflict surrounds us every day. Some people enjoy the rush of proving their point. Others might prefer to pretend that it simply doesn’t exist. There is certainly a wide gambit of other individuals in between these two ends of the spectrum. There seems to be a resounding tone of how one should regard conflict. The simple truth is this: Conflict isn’t good. Conflict isn’t bad. Conflict simply IS. It is a natural part of our existence. If more people adopted this type of mindset, they might feel more empowered to effectively navigate the intricacies of conflict. The realm of higher education is certainly no exception to this concept. Whether it is interactions between students, faculty or support staff, conflict is ever-present. In my experience within the realm of higher education, I have seen many different situations that are worth exploring.

I have spent considerable time in the financial aid department for various institutions, and have discovered that both students and parents are very concerned about the monetary implications surrounding an education. And why shouldn’t they be? For many households, this is a major factor in determining where a student may study, or if they can even attend.

In my role, I produce the financial aid packages that students will receive, and I also help to interpret them. In many cases, I have discovered that conflict can arise during these types of interactions. The students or parents are frustrated because they think they are not getting what they should in financial aid. It can be something even simpler than this. Parents and students can become even more unnerved simply by trying to interpret the student’s award letter. When it becomes too difficult, they often call me. This presents an outstanding opportunity. Working within a college, I pride myself on promoting education in all facets, not simply the classroom.

Often times, I think we take for granted phrases, acronyms or jargon that is commonplace in our respective industries. For instance, I look at FAFSA’s, Federal Pell Grants, SEOG, and Direct Stafford Loans regularly. To students and parents new to the college journey, these can all seem foreign and intimidating. The way this information is communicated is crucial. On some level, many of us probably think we get our point across fairly well. The fact is, in general, people are poor communicators. It is important to be cognizant of this. I can usually pick up on this when I see vacant stares from an incoming freshman or many questions from a parent. When I get these cues, I usually check myself on how I have sent these important messages on figures involving dollar signs. Bernard Mayer says, “Communication is one of the greatest sources of both difficulty and hope in dealing with serious conflicts.”1 There can be frustration in this, but there is usually some degree of difficulty is learning new concepts. Once I see a student begin to understand their award letter, it is completely rewarding. Even if some interactions do not go as smoothly, I know that I can use these as experiences to grow from and continue to improve.

As stated previously, conflict isn’t good or bad. It simply IS. We can’t escape it. It is important to recognize its place on our interactions. The way we handle conflict and navigate through it with others will determine will ultimately dictate how effective we can be as professionals. Through my education and study in the field of conflict resolution, I have been better equipped to recognize my part in the interaction and to make it a more productive one.

1Mayer, Bernard. 2000. The dynamics of conflict resolution: A practitioner’s guide. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.