We all know that person who always says, “I hate confrontation.” Or perhaps that person is you. The fear of how others will respond when we confront them or what they’ll think of us can be paralyzing, especially in an academic or professional environment. Will they think of us as rude, high maintenance or, worst of all, a “Karen”?
Fortunately, a large gap exists between each end of the confrontation pendulum. On one end lie the “Karens” who strut through life with an “It’s my way or the highway” attitude. This is the aggressive type. On the other end exist those who act unbothered by issues in public until they explode in private. They fail to properly address their issues, leaving them unresolved. This is the passive type.
Individuals should strive to swing graciously toward the middle in the assertive domain so that the other party’s feelings and dignity are a priority, but the issue at hand also gets resolved. Gracious assertion is a dance, and it requires a partner. Therefore, offenses and concerns must be presented to another person.
Each situation will not summon the same protocol, however. Here are a few example scenarios, both in professional and academic settings, to offer strategies for resolving conflict.
A classmate is not participating in a group project:
Email after email. Text after text. You cannot seem to get hold of one of your classmates regarding the team project that you’re working on together. With the deadline approaching, you’re faced with the decision to either do the entire project alone or only do your half and lose points on the assignment.
If you’ve already tried contacting them, reach out to your professor before the project’s due date. Waiting until the last minute makes it more difficult for the professor to accommodate you, but notifying them in advance will show that you’re trying to fix the situation diligently.
Present alternative ideas. For example, try suggesting a deal where you’re only required to do half of the work instead of the entire assignment. Or suggest that you join a separate, existing group. Options besides failing the assignment do exist. But remember to stay classy and avoid ranting about your project partner. Focus on offering suggestions in your communication with the professor instead.
A professor gives an assignment that you disagree with:
The professor is known for being controversial, but you need to take their class to get the necessary credits to graduate. One day in class they announce an uncomfortable assignment. Your eyes widen in shock. You scan the room to see if anyone else shows equal concern. “This assignment is not appropriate,” you think to yourself.
The first step is to breathe and not blow up in class. Confronting your professor out-of-the-blue, in front of the entire class, will not evoke the response you want. It will most likely embarrass the professor and cause them to react defensively.
Instead, schedule a one-on-one meeting with them during office hours to discuss your concerns. Present your thoughts clearly, but avoid accusing them of intentionally harming the class. Begin by giving them the benefit of the doubt, and assume that they did not mean to be offensive; this creates space for the both of you to be heard and potentially come up with a more appropriate assignment.
If, however, the professor is unfazed by your meeting, talk to your classmates and see if anyone else shares your concerns as well. If a group of you meet with the professor to express the same offense, they may see the weight of the assignment on the class.
Finally, if the professor still brushes you off, schedule a meeting between them, yourself and the dean of your department. Inviting an additional authority figure into the conversation may put necessary pressure upon the professor so that you’re not required to do an assignment that you and your classmates are severely uncomfortable with.
A professor grades or treats you unfairly:
Picture this: You sacrificed sleep and time with your friends to submit an assignment on time. You turn in your document right before the deadline and breathe a sigh of relief as Canvas celebrates your timely submission with confetti flying across your screen. You just know you’ll receive a good grade. The next day a notification reveals that you scored a 63%. 63! Surely you deserved better.
Do not wait to solve the problem. Immediately email your professor to let them know that you plan to attend their office hours to discuss your grade. Before your meeting, analyze the rubric with a fine-toothed comb to decipher what you think your grade should be. Bring this evidence with you to their office hours.
When you walk into the meeting, give them an opportunity to explain their grading system. Ask them questions about why you received the grade you did instead of telling them they’re wrong.
Once they finish, present your evidence for why you believe you deserve a better grade, based on the rubric. You may not come out of the meeting with the grade you requested, but the two of you may be able to compromise.
You are thrown under the bus for a team failure:
Your foot nervously taps as you sit in a staff meeting regarding a recent project your team was responsible for. The end result isn’t what you expected, but you know you did your part to the best of your ability. Suddenly, your team blames you for the failure — and your boss believes them. You want to scream, “IT’S NOT MY FAULT!”
First, do not scream. While in the meeting, state exactly which parts you were responsible for and how you think you did on them. Refrain from pointing fingers at anyone else for the failure of the project, though. Choose to take the high road.
After the meeting, sit down with those who accused you to ask them why they did so. They may try to justify their actions, but do not let them off. Calmly remind them of your responsibilities and how their accusations affected your boss’ perception of you.
Here’s the hard part: Unless they accused you of a serious offense, you may need to move on after you talk to them. They are most likely not team players, so your next step should be to move on and avoid working with them on future projects if possible.
You do not believe your pay is fair:
You open your laptop to do some research and find out that the average wage for your industry position and years of experience is well above your current salary. Or perhaps you find out that your co-workers in equivalent positions receive higher pay than you.
Instead of cornering your boss or going straight to HR, schedule a meeting with your supervisor to discuss your salary. Tell them what you discovered through your research and then ask them why your salary does not equal the industry standard. After they explain, confidently tell them the range you want to be paid. Do not approach the meeting with a sheepish or offended attitude. Instead, see the issue as something you and your supervisor can solve together.
If they brush you off, let them know that you plan to speak to HR about your salary. If you receive the same response from your HR representative, consider working for a new company. You know what you’re worth, so decide whether it’s worth staying in your current position.
Offensive jokes persist despite HR warnings:
Whether the jokes target you personally or are simply inappropriate, you want them to stop. You hate feeling obligated to laugh when Barbara from accounting makes a crude joke.
The first thing to do is research your company’s policy on such jokes or comments. Equipped with this knowledge, talk to your supervisor about what you hear from your co-workers and what the company rules state. You may need to present specific quotes so they know what you’re referring to.
Next, ask them what their course of action will be and trust that they will take the situation seriously. If no resolution occurs, go immediately to HR. But avoid waiting to address the offensive comments until you want to quit. You want your time with the company to be pleasant, not short.
Common themes in such conflict resolution scenarios are approaching the offender directly, allowing them to explain their side and speaking up as soon as it’s appropriate so the issue is not forgotten. Letting an offense fester for a long time before addressing it will confuse the person you’re approaching because they may not know why you chose to bring it up at that time. Resolving a conflict quickly gives them the opportunity to fix the situation rather than just apologizing for it.