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How to resolve conflicts and handle confrontation at university?

James Davis

Careers Commentator
Butting heads during a group assignment? Here are a couple of ways to handle confrontation and resolve conflicts arising from the tussle.

You won’t be the first to disagree with someone (or them with you)... and you certainly won’t be the last! 

It might be comforting to know there are plenty of ways to deal with problematic individuals wherever you may find them. Like any skill, resolving conflicts and handling confrontation will take practice. As long as you keep at least some of the following considerations in mind, you’ll have taken your first steps into becoming a true professional. 

But first…what is ‘conflict resolution’?

Funnily enough, it doesn’t mean punching them in the face, dropping the mic and walking off! When people talk about resolving conflicts, they often mean an amicable agreement, compromise or promise that satisfies all aggrieved parties to at least some extent. It’s an attempt to arrive at a mutually beneficial solution, which inherently requires at least some degree of empathy. This can make it tricky, particularly when emotions are running hot or if it’s very difficult for you to understand the other person’s position. This failure to find a resolution can instead lead to confrontation.

For the purpose of this article, we see confrontation as the escalation of a conflict to an emotionally charged state. This can be when faces are getting red and excited onlookers nervously hit ‘record’ on their phones. Even before it gets to this state, it can also be when argumentation becomes hostile, irrational and generally unproductive. If you get here, it can be almost impossible to de-escalate the situation, but it’s vitally important to try.

Now we know exactly what these things are, let’s break down some things you can do to turn the ship around and make an otherwise tricky situation into something positive. A lot of it comes down to mindset and making the interlocutors (people invested in the discussion) feel understood. 

Always keep an open mind and listen

Have you ever been caught between two mates having an argument? You may have noticed they just weren’t listening to each other. We’d bet they were just waiting for their turn to talk. This is such a common way for conflict to turn into full-blown spit-spraying confrontation. Think back to the last time you had a spat and you’ll likely realise you did the same thing. Don’t worry! We’re all like this. We all just want to be heard after all. Nothing’s more frustrating than being completely misunderstood or unheard by the person we’re talking to, because it means we’ve wasted our time thus far communicating with them in the first place! So we urgently feel the need to correct them. Nine times out of ten, they’re feeling the same way. 

Staying respectful 

One of the most powerful things you can do is put aside your own grievances for a while and listen. Really listen and consider what they’re saying carefully without judgement. The goal here isn’t to slam them like it’s a Ben Shapiro video. Let them say their piece in full, even if they’re talking for ten minutes straight. At the end of it, summarise their position to demonstrate you’ve listened, put yourself in their shoes and say you totally get why they’re angry. If you don’t get why they’re angry or why there’s a conflict, don’t lie. Just ask for clarification. 

The ‘steel-man’ approach

Ensure you express their position in the strongest way possible. Philosophers call this the ‘steel-man’ approach; if your interlocutor isn’t particularly good at expressing themselves, do them the courtesy of restating their position using the most charitable interpretation. You don’t need to explicitly say, ‘your way of expressing this is rubbish; here’s a better way’ or any remote mention of what you’ve done! Simply come up with a brief, accurate summary, ask if it’s accurate and if they say yes, move on. This can be really difficult on the fly and takes some practice. Just do your best. The fact you’re asking your interlocutor(s) if you’re on the money is a great failsafe against any inaccuracies or misinterpretations on your part. 

Acknowledging the good bits

Next, find some of the merits in what they’re saying and make positive value judgements where possible. This is your chance to give some honest, positive feedback about their opinion, which is a great follow-up after showing you truly get what they’re saying. If you go straight to praising what they’ve said after all, you may trip up and praise them for an opinion they don’t have, which can make things worse! 

Make your interlocutors feel secure by following these steps to keeping an open mind. If they’re angry, this will help them calm down. If they’re calm, you’ll put them at ease and show you’re on their side at the end of the day. So what’s next?

Respectfully state and argue your position

At this point you might think we’re asking you to be a doormat. Not quite. Once you’ve been able to…

Summarise their position back to them in a way they agree with to demonstrate you understand,

Understand why there’s a conflict, and

Express the merits of the interlocutor’s position,

...you’ve put yourself in a position to be heard yourself. This is your chance to interact with their position or grievances respectfully. What does ‘respectfully’ mean?

Stating your position without demeaning theirs

Any kind of condescension can rock the boat. Do your best to just state what you think for now. Statements beginning with ‘unlike [what they said]...’ or even expressing their position neutrally next to yours can hurt the conflict resolution process and may lead to confrontation. 

Pitting the best possible interpretation of their position against yours

This is one of the trickiest things to pull off, because you still need to remain assertive and stick up for yourself. Even if they aren’t trying to be charitable with your position, it pays to be the bigger person and be as fair as possible toward theirs. 

It also pays to use question-oriented dialogue. This means probing what they think about your positions frequently so they get a chance to pitch in, rebut something you’ve said, clarify a point and overall remain a part of the dialogue. This can also mean asking questions about what they think of your positions… and perhaps shed light on any inadequacies in theirs. One of the most profound teaching techniques is getting someone to understand something on their own. Simply stating a doctrine just isn’t enough. You’ve likely noticed this already if you’ve begun university. Your lectures can help in a pinch (maybe more if you have photographic memory), but tutorials and the preparation you do for them are what really consolidate that knowledge. Basically, we’re applying a similar principle here. Asking questions helps them to empathise with you, even if they aren’t aware of this article! 

It also pays to keep it impartial. Don’t ever attack your interlocutor directly. Just talk about how they arrived at their conclusions, how certain they are and the ideas themselves. There’s no reason to bring personal attacks into conflict resolution. In fact, it can cause a lot of extra harm. 

Now to put all this into practice.

Let’s say you’re in a group assignment for a marketing project. Your goal is to determine budget allocation for an ad campaign selling designer shoes. You want to spend most of the budget with online advertising and they want to go with TV. Your reasoning: market research reveals an insatiable market for designer shoes among affluent twenty-somethings. This demographic doesn’t watch much TV. Your interlocutor has separate market research regarding the purchasing habits of 40+ year-old professionals, who watch a lot of TV. You both want to spend 80% of the budget on your respective outlet. 

What’s actually true isn’t relevant for the purpose of this exercise, but let’s assume some things.

  • You’re fairly certain online marketing is better because it lets you monitor relationships between your marketing efforts and increased purchases with greater ease.
  • You think affluent twenty-somethings should be your target audience.
  • You’re demonstrably correct in both cases (again, this could be wrong in reality, but for the purpose of the exercise we’re saying it’s all true).

However, in a pinch, you can concede:

  • There may be excellent, maybe even superior, methods of establishing causality between TV ads and purchases you aren’t aware of.
  • There is indeed a 40+ market for the shoes.

You could be wrong about your judgement of who the target audience ought to be. 

What shouldn’t you say?

“Unlike TV, online outlets let us monitor cause and effect between seeing the ad and getting a purchase!”
“I don’t think you’re correct about who our demographic should be.”
“Do you realise your study is out of date? Mine is more current.”
“Look at my study. It says you’re wrong!”
“That’s cool and all, but let’s just do it my way.”

What should you say?

“That’s a compelling study. However, I found something a bit different that makes me a bit uncertain. What do you think of this one?”

“You’ve definitely got a point about the demographic. Pretty interesting. I’m going to go home and look into it more. In the meantime, do you think the twenty-something demographic carries any weight?”

“I’m prepared to go ahead with the 40+ demographic. I think it’s a cool idea. I’ve just got some other questions before I’m completely sold. Can we have another skim over the data?”

“What method did you use to determine TV advertising to be the highest priority?”

“Do you think my proposal has any merit?”

Whatever you can do to distance yourselves from each position emotionally speaking is valuable. It doesn’t help if each person has some personal stake in the game. “This is what I believe! This is my argument.”

If this happens, people can then start to feel personally attacked when their ideas are criticised. Simply treat conflict resolution as a realm of disembodied ideas that nobody has ownership of. If you can keep a question-oriented focus, you can help all parties concerned to keep cool and come to the right conclusion. That’s after all what the goal is, right? It ultimately doesn’t matter who had what idea, so long as you’ve all done your best to find the best one. 

Keep a level head throughout

Aside from the aforementioned tricks, just remaining centred is key to making this work. It’s all well and good to state what an ideal conversation looks like, but in reality not all people will cooperate or even understand what you’re doing. Some people will become offended and there will be nothing you can do about it. As starship captain Jean-Luc Picard once said, it’s possible to make all the right moves and still lose. It’s just life. So don’t be afraid to just take a breather when you need it. Excuse yourself to have a walk, go to the bathroom or get a coffee. Heck, maybe even call it for a few minutes and ask them to walk with you, making sure to talk about something else.

If they’re an assignment group member you’re not particularly familiar with personally, this could be a chance to take the edge off and get to know each other a bit. Talk smack about Nicholas Cage movies. Ask what their favourite Pokemon is. 

This is all optional of course. If you’re finding their company intolerable for now, just stepping out is fine. Of course, if you find the whole affair spiralling out of control, you may find yourself in a full-blown confrontation. The aforementioned techniques will work wonders for calming things down, but in case they don’t…

Start to de-escalate

One of the most vital parts of de-escalating a confrontation is being aware of how your thoughts are racing, how your anger may be rising and how your breathing might be accelerating. In this moment of awareness, you must control your breathing and try to stay objective. Try to replace aggressive thoughts with empathy. Do your best to understand their concerns impartially and without diagnosing if they’re warranted or not. Your only goal is to understand them, and at the boiling point that’s all there’s time for. The primary goal is to centre yourself so you’re able to show you’re on their side and understand. This can be exceptionally hard, especially if they’re throwing insults at you. 

Keep your tone of voice at normal conversational level too. One of the worst things you can do is yell back at them and get caught up in the heat of the moment. There’s no way back if that happens. It’s very difficult to stay angry when everyone around you is calm. 

Finally, don’t ever say “calm down”! Like we said, your goal is to understand them, not make value judgements regarding their conduct! It’s unlikely they’re in the mood for introspection at this point, so save that zen commentary for later. If you do all this and still don’t get the desired result, rest assured knowing you’ve done all you can to de-escalate. 

You should now be much better equipped to resolve conflicts and handle confrontation at university. You’re unlikely to encounter violently intense confrontations, but these principles can be applied quite successfully to just about any level where there’s a dispute, even if it’s just deciding what you should have for lunch with a mate. Now go! Use your new powers for good and have fun with your next group assignment. We’ll be right here when you need us.