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Help Your College Student Learn to Manage Conflict

Vicki Nelson

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Maya is upset because she’s fighting with her roommate all of the time. They can’t agree on cleaning up, having overnight guests, or playing loud music.

Sam is in a bad mood because he thought he'd made some close friends in his first weeks at college, but now they argue about politics all of the time and can’t seem to get past their different viewpoints.

Clinton just can’t seem to find common ground with his history professor. They disagree about what makes a good enough excuse for handing an assignment in late.

Toni and her mother argue on the phone almost every time they talk. Her mom wants Toni to come home on weekends and Toni wants to stay on campus to spend time with her friends.

All four of these students are experiencing conflict. They came to college to have new experiences and to meet new and different kinds of people, but negotiating those differences has created problems.

Conflict is a normal part of life.

One reason these students may be upset by the conflict they are experiencing is because they didn’t anticipate it. Conflict can be as simple as not agreeing with someone or as complex as an all-out, long-lasting dispute. These students need to understand that some conflict is inevitable.

According to psychologist and writer Kenneth Kaye, “Conflict is neither good nor bad. Properly managed, it is absolutely vital.” The goal is not necessarily to eliminate all conflict, but rather to see it as a natural, healthy process and to manage it.

If your college student is experiencing conflict — if any of the scenarios above sound even a little bit familiar — it is important to talk with your student about it

It’s all about your approach.

Sometimes, the problem isn’t the conflict itself, but how we approach it that can cause issues. Kenneth W. Thomas and Ralph H. Kilmann, two professors at the University of Pittsburgh analyzed five ways of approaching conflict. Your student may find that one of the following five approaches might help. The key is thinking about how much you want to get your own way (being assertive) and how much you are willing to let the other person get their way (cooperativeness).

  1. Accommodating (letting the other person win). This keeps the peace at all costs (you give up your side) and can work well for minor situations, when something doesn’t matter as much to you as it does to the other person, or definitely when you realize that you are wrong.
  2. Avoiding (keeping your fingers crossed that the problem will resolve itself). Basically, you ignore the problem. This may work well when the issue isn’t really important or worth the effort and it can give both people time to think of a more appropriate way to approach the situation later.
  3. Compromising (partially satisfying both people). Both people give up something that they want to find a compromise. This will lower levels of tension and stress and may be a good first step when people don’t know each other very well. It’s the approach we were most often taught as children.
  4. Competing (getting your own way, often at the other person’s expense). This is a zero sum game where someone is going to lose. You stick to your guns and force the issue. This may be necessary when a quick resolution is required or as a last resort when the issue matters more than the potential relationship with the other person.
  5. Collaborating (working together creatively to find a solution). This approach takes time and commitment to resolve the issue by confronting the problem (not the person) together. It requires a level of trust, allows both people to feel they have a stake in the outcome and helps build a long-term relationship. Both people have a shared responsibility for the outcome.

Think about these five approaches to conflict and how they might work in each of the scenarios above. There is no correct solution, but the outcomes could be very different.

Immediate strategies for managing conflict

Although it's important to talk to your college student about accepting some conflict as normal and about taking different approaches to conflict, it may also be necessary to help your student take immediate action. Here are some suggestions:

  • Cool off first. If you’re having an argument, choose your words carefully and think about what you do.
  • Talk about it with the other person — calmly. They probably want to find a solution, too.
  • Focus on behavior and events, not personality. (“When you leave banana peels on the floor, I slip and fall.” NOT “You are such a slob.”)
  • Listen to the other person’s point of view. Really, really.
  • Identify any points that you can agree on. This is a starting place.
  • Be specific about the cause of the conflict. What exactly is the problem? Don’t let it grow out of proportion.
  • Prioritize issues. If there are several things you disagree about, choose one to settle for now.
  • Brainstorm solutions together. Get creative. Think outside of the box. (Collaboration!)
  • Develop a short term plan together and agree to revisit later to see if it is working.
  • Be respectful and optimistic. Believe that you can find a solution.
  • Get help from a neutral third party (Residence Assistant? Academic Advisor?).

On the subject of respect, your student should be more formal in how they go about requesting a meeting with a professor and how they conduct themselves during a conversation than they might be when communicating with a peer.

Can conflict ever be a good thing?

Although we don’t like to see our students unhappy or stressed, a little conflict can actually be a good thing. Difficult situations can help students build communication and strategy skills, define their values more clearly, learn how to negotiate, and practice flexibility. Finding a solution to a difficult situation can be extremely satisfying.

Sometimes, students may just need to move on. They may need to make new friends, change roommates, take a class with a different professor next time, or learn to say no to family. As parents, when we encourage our students but stay out of the fray, we can take pride in watching them learn to take control of their own lives and continue to grow.

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Vicki Nelson has more than 35 years of experience in higher education as a professor, academic advisor and administrator. She also weathered the college parenting experience successfully with three daughters. She established her website, College Parent Central, to help college parents achieve the delicate balance of support, guidance and appropriate involvement as they prepare for and navigate the college journey with their student. Vicki also serves as co-host of the College Parent Central podcast.
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