Executive Director, Association of Legal Administrators
I have been the biggest conflict avoider I know since I was very young. If I had a motto when I was asked my opinion, it would have been “I don’t care.” After all, it was always easier to go along with what everyone else wanted than to state my opinion or come up with a better solution. I was good at going with the flow. I am not sure when it happened, but I eventually discovered the flow was not where I wanted to go.
The major issue I had in making this transition was that I wasn’t used to speaking up. I had not practiced the most effective way to diplomatically state my opinion and occasionally engage in conflict. So I tried to quietly take part in constructive conflict as a way to make changes without making waves. At times, it could be borderline passive-aggressive. That was not the goal either, and it became a conundrum I struggled with for many years.
I eventually got unstuck when I began my volunteer journey with ALA. I would have never believed one of the benefits of saying “yes” to volunteerism would be how to get comfortable with and manage conflict.
It started out a little bumpy. I made the decision to “fire” a chapter volunteer when I was chapter president when other methods of conflict management were not achieving the desired outcome. (I still wonder if there were better resolutions for that one.) As I found myself in volunteer roles of greater responsibility, the opportunities for conflict increased.
“The key is to take on the responsibility of purposefully managing conflict, while bringing our humility along with us.”
I decided to watch and learn from others — as with most things in my life, I like to observe a little bit before I engage in action. I watched others engage in and manage conflict before I took the plunge myself.
One important thing I learned from my observations: Sometimes the conflict was not agreeing on what the problem was in the first place. I gradually became able to anticipate when the task conflict bled into personal conflict and vice versa. I learned which conflicts were worth engaging in and which were better to just let go of. You can certainly put these lessons to use in your day job, but there is something less risky about it when you are in a volunteer role.
Before I knew it, I consistently found myself in situations where I was managing conflict, which led to an epiphany: Conflict is not a dirty word at all. In fact, if managed correctly, it can be quite productive. The key is keeping it focused on tasks to move a solution forward, rather than falling into the trap of assuming all conflict has to be of a personal nature. I love nothing more than a good debate about the right way to get to a desired outcome when it ends up with everyone in the discussion leaving with a feeling of being heard.
But I have learned that you cannot solve difficult problems without having difficult conversations. And through those uncomfortable discussions, it’s possible to still respect everyone involved. The key is to take on the responsibility of purposefully managing conflict, while bringing our humility along with us. It’s why I believe the hardest problems are best solved when there is a group working together — and often through conflict — rather than a single person solving it on their own. How we choose to manage conflict has a great impact on the performance and cohesion of a team.
Managing conflict is just like everything else, in that as soon as you think you have it figured out, something else comes along to make you question it. That said, we do keep getting better at it, and without the ALA volunteer opportunities I had, I think it would have taken me a lot longer to learn all this. You never know what benefits you will get when you give of your time and talents!
Did this article give you the final nudge to volunteer? Great! You can still apply: The deadline for applications to serve on the Board or the CRT is September 17; volunteer applications for the committees and project teams are due October 12. Learn more at alanet.org/volunteer.