Here’s How to Make Conflict Productive

Mike Powers wants you to use your imagination.

“Picture this,” he started his best-of-track session titled “If They Would Just Listen to Us.” “The phone rings in a busy office. The person answers. A professor is on the line. He has a picture of his favorite students under a tree. And he wants it posted on the homepage. Henceforth.”

It is a common challenge for many communicators in higher education — balancing communications goals with the needs and wants of external stakeholders.

Mike shared that communicators often feel their expertise is ignored in these situations. It often is. And in many cases, faculty or administrators’ authority is disregarded. They don’t have the same understanding of communications issues.

“We’re not listening to each other,” Mike said.

While some may not understand communicators’ work, or see them as “brand police,” Mike believes communicators on campus are something more — collaborators.

Mike stressed that collaboration is not free of conflict. Stakeholders and content producers are often concerned about different things. But he said communicators’ role is to provide the structure to make conflict productive.

He suggested five-part model. Here are a few elements from each part:

Know who the decision maker is

  • Find out who the key people are in the process and get them to the table.
  • Don’t call it a “meeting.” Try calling a “decision-making session” instead.
  • Set project goals together in order to increase buy in and engagement.

Find the real problem

  • Take a moment to stop before you react; try understanding where someone else is coming from.
  • For perspective, try translating what someone has requested into into the reason for their request.

Manage conflict

  • There will be disagreements; expect them to happen.
  • Plan for conflict ahead of time by finding ways to expose it early in the process. For example, Mike shared the idea of using content strategy “Mad Libs” to learn more about how each person on a communications project feels about any given challenge.

Be authentic

  • Take what your collaborators say seriously. You want them to know you are listening.
  • For content creation, Mike suggested pair writing. It can save time and help all parties feel like they own part of the finished product.

Embrace the theater

  • Be dynamic. Find ways to get people up, moving and involved in meetings they may not otherwise be with creative exercises such as BrandSort.

Mike finished his talk by encouraging attendees to “flip the script” and reach out to people on campus they know are likely to need their support. Make that call first, send an email or have lunch.

“The worst part of this model,” he said, “is that you need to use it in meetings.”