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Addressing Conflict Non-defensively

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Based on a qualitative interview study of forty-five department chairs, what follows is their collective wisdom regarding how to handle conflict in a non-defensive way.


The posting below gives some good pointers on resolving conflicts among faculty. It is by Sharon D. Kruse, chair of educational leadership and sport management at Washington State University. Email:, and is from The Department Chair: A Resource for Academic Administrators, Winter 2021 Vol. 31, No. 3. Copyright © 2021 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. For further information on The Department Chair, call +1 800 835 6770. For further information on subscribing and pricing, please contact Wiley Customer Service at +1 800 835 6770 or learn more at




Rick Reis

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Addressing Conflict Non-defensively



Chairing a department in higher education has been called “probably the most important, least appreciated, and toughest administrative position in higher education” (Buller 2012, 3). Being a department chair is difficult for a variety of reasons. Chairs regularly are called on to work closely with department members as well as college and university governance councils; be instructional leaders; address faculty and student matters, issues, and concerns; manage internal and external communications; and balance an often resource-poor budget. Simply put, it is expected that chairs lead and manage the totality of the day-to-day, semester-to-semester work of the faculty and staff who comprise the department. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that research about chairs has long suggested that they find the work stressful (Gmelch and Buller 2015; Gmelch et al. 2017).

Furthermore, success as a department chair is hard to achieve. One may perfectly balance their budget but fail to reach enrollment goals. A chair might find themselves well-liked by faculty and staff only to run afoul of the dean. Absent any real preparation for the position, they may find the relentless pace of the work overwhelming or be exhausted by the demands of faculty, staff, and students. Most likely, no matter how prepared for the job they may be, chairs will find themselves confronted by conflict. It is simply true that conflict is an unavoidable factor when it comes to leading

and managing people. Yet many people, including those who find themselves in the chair role, struggle with conflict and lack the skills to diffuse anger, redirect resentment, or express their own frustration in ways that prove productive rather than destructive. Based on a qualitative interview study of forty-five department chairs, what follows is their collective wisdom regarding how to handle conflict in a non-defensive way.

A word on the study. Forty-five sitting department chairs were recruited for the study with the intent to collect data about the experiences of chairs from the breadth of Carnegie classifications of colleges and universities (e.g., doctoral granting, master’s granting, associate and technical colleges, public, private). Recruitment efforts included invitations over Twitter and emails

sent to chairs identified by internet searches of institutions. In addition, efforts were made to include chairs across a wide range of academic content areas (e.g., education, business, psychology, medicine, the arts) through referrals from existing participants. The sample included chairs who had served as little as one year and as many as twenty, with an average length of service of 4.3 years. The sample included twenty-four men and twenty-one women. The study used a range of predetermined questions that were applied flexibly within each audiotaped phone call or Zoom sixty- to ninety-minute interview (Merriam and Grenier 2019).


Chairs suggested simple phrases and approaches that deescalate conflict by signaling non-defensiveness and without compromising relationships or one’s integrity. They stressed that being non-defensive was key to

effective conflict resolution. As a public affairs chair stated, “If I’m defensive, I’m part of the problem. If I can listen, maybe learn, I can be better at finding a way out.”

What matters? Being visible, as does active listening, so that issues can be clarified. Knowing when and how to be flexible and when to hold the line is needed. A sense of humor doesn’t hurt either, but more important

is one’s ability to diffuse emotion when the going gets tough. Each of these approaches— clarifying issues, diffusing emotion, and holding the line —are offered here as separate approaches. Yet it is important to stress that they are most powerful when used together, moving between each as the situation requires.


Clarifying Issues

Chairs were clear. Seeking to understand was, for many, the best way to diffuse anger and learn what the real issue at stake included. They stressed that when they approached alarmed and worried faculty, annoyed or indignant staff, or stressed-out students with the goal to clarify both the concern and what a potentially good solution would be, they were able to move beyond the conflict and focus on resolution. It is important to

stress that the goal of clarifying the issue is so that the concerned or angry party feels heard, has an opportunity to engage in identifying what a reasonable outcome might be, and that your relationship with them is

strengthened because of the interaction. As a chair of an English department stated, “Getting the details as they see them is key. Even if I think I know what’s going on, I don’t know it from their window into it. As I hear their story, I always learn something useful.”

Chairs suggested the following phrases as ways into a deeper conversation:

• Help me understand.

• Tell me more. I’m not sure I understand what you’re concerned about.

• What does that mean for you?

• What would be a good outcome here?

• Have you considered the XYZ implications of what you are proposing?

• [EH3] How do you plan to resolve those?


Diffusing Emotion


Chairs stressed that it is impossible to solve conflict when emotions are still running high. They emphasized that, as much as they were able, they sought to acknowledge and validate the feeling being expressed. In other words, they suggested that the act of naming the feeling and admitting that it was real, no matter how outsized it seemed, helped diffuse the situation. As an education chair noted, “People want to know they matter. If I can let them know, even for a few minutes, that what they’re experiencing is seen, they

usually calm down.” These phrases were suggested as straightforward ways to demonstrate empathy without escalating conflict:

• It’s regrettable you’re upset. That was not my/the intention. I’ll wait …

• I feel your concern. This would upset me as well.

• I’ll take the hit if it helps you to make this decision.

• I encourage you to try to not let it drive you crazy.

• I know this is hard, but you’ve got this.


Holding the Line


All chairs highlighted the point that sometimes there is no way to a solution in that moment or in any given situation. In these cases, they stressed that it was important to be able to signal when a conversation was over. Yet they also noted that it was important to be clear that they were listening and

invested in working through whatever the issue might be. As a chemistry chair shared, “Face it, you can’t always agree. Sometimes they’re flat-out wrong … or asking for something absurd. It’s important to have a way to get them out of my office, if even only for that day.” The following statements do just that—they move resolution to another day, buying you time to find a solution that benefits both of you as well as signaling that you are not simply willing to give the concerned party anything they want:

• I’m sure you see it that way. I (or another person) see(s) it this way …

• I understand that you would like it to be that way. Regrettably, XYZ 

  doesn’t allow me to do that.

• I’m not prepared to make a decision now. I will be able to respond …

• Until I speak with XYZ, I can’t be sure what I can promise or do.

• I’m not able to negotiate on this matter right now. I’ll let you know when I 

   think I can return  to this topic.


“Know yourself ” was the most common response to my question about advice for someone seeking the chair position. Knowing yourself included being honest with yourself and other people about what you can do and what you cannot when confronted with conflict. Simply put, the chairs who reported the most comfort with conflict and who felt that they had the best

ways to resolve it were the chairs who had put time into thinking about how to best do this work. They had developed an approach that allowed them to understand another’s concerns while not losing their own sense of

self in the process. They made a concerted effort to be non-defensive when confronted. They had worked to learn their role in resolving conflict and understood their own place in that work. Make no mistake—no chair said they enjoyed conflict, nor did any of these chairs claim to seek it out. Instead, they had made peace with its enduring role in their lives and made a real effort to find ways to diffuse that which confronted them. As a chair, they all said, doing so made them happier and more effective in their role. ▲



Chair Tip

How can chairs cope with stress? Being a chair is a tough job. You’re frequently at a level where you have to enforce policies that you didn’t develop and that you may not even agree with. You hear instantly about problems, but you often don’t have the authority you need to address them. You’re expected to be an enrollment manager, a fundraiser, a master scheduler, a budgetary authority, a counselor, and a mentor—all at once. In addition, you frequently have requirements for teaching, scholarship, and service because you’re a faculty member too. And some of the same people about whom you’re making decisions today are going to be making decisions about you someday, when they become your successors as chair. So, you have to be honest, but you also have to be diplomatic and politically astute. —Jeffrey L. Buller is a senior partner in ATLAS: Academic Training, Leadership, and Assessment Services.




Buller, Jeffrey L. 2012. The Essential Department Chair:

A Comprehensive Desk Reference. 2nd ed. San Francisco:



Gmelch, Walter H., and Jeffrey L. Buller. 2015.

Building Academic Leadership Capacity: A Guide to Best

Practices. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Gmelch, Walter H., Drew Roberts, Kelly Ward, and

Sally Hirsch. 2017. “A Retrospective View of Department

Chairs: Lessons Learned.” The Department Chair

28 (1): 1–4.


Merriam, Sharan B., and Robin S. Grenier. 2019.

Qualitative Research in Practice: Examples for Discussion

and Analysis. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.