5 Questions College Students Should Ask for Making Conflict Work

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As a college-age student, you are in a perfect sweet spot for conflict. Relationally, you are entering some of the most intense personal and romantic relationships of your life, not to mention separating from your parents and high school friends. And you have biology working against you too, because cognitively and emotionally, you are not quite fully equipped for conflict, as your prefrontal cortex (the area of the brain responsible for problem solving, foreseeing consequences of our behavior, and modulating our emotions), is in fact not fully formed and functional until you turn 25! This is why minors are viewed as less responsible for their actions in the U.S. legal system; they are neurologically less able to inhibit impulses, think long term, and make the connections necessary for sound, moral decisions. And hormonally they are in high gear.

So how can a cortex-impaired, hormonally ravaged, relationship rookie navigate the many inevitable new conflicts they will face with parents, professors, significant others, and new friends?

Our research on conflict and decision-making has shown that the following five questions—in this sequence of importance—can make all the difference in your life.

1. How important is this conflict?

There is no point to engaging in conflict if you have nothing to gain. You have to want something. A fair grade. Respect. Justice. Meaningful conversations. Something. Without a goal, conflict is just idle argument, ego, or noise. Clarifying your goal in a specific situation is the first step.

2. How important to me is the other person?

Okay, so you disagree with someone. Maybe a peer, a professor, or your new roommate. How much do you need this person in this specific circumstance? Do you want to maintain or enhance this relationship going forward? Can you walk away from this situation without consequence? If you have no need to remain in this relationship (for example if it is a one-time encounter), there is little point in engaging in conflict. Why expend the energy and angst? Conflict engagement is best reserved for situations where you need the other person. If you don’t, you can sidestep the disagreement and pursue your goals independently through other means. If you do need the other person, you need a strategy.

3. Is the other party with me or against me (or both)?

Are they on your side? Do they share your goals and concerns? Are they likely to help or harm you? Can you trust them? In other words, are there grounds for cooperation? Or is this a purely competitive conflict where you have to play hard and play smart to win? Or is this some combination of both?

4. Am I more powerful than the other party, less powerful, or are we equals?

Who is in charge here? Do they have real authority over you? Do you have power over them? When equal, a crucial conversation may suffice: establish safety, talk it out, resolve it, done. But if you have more power or less, it will take additional skills to get to the real issues and achieve your goals. If you have less power, you risk overstepping your bounds or inviting abuse. If you have more power, you risk eliciting dishonesty or sabotage from the other disputant. Ignoring power differences, and lacking a strategy for them, is always unhelpful.

5. What strategy fits this current situation?

Once you answer the first four questions, you are ready for the big decision: what should you do? Conflict situations are addressed most effectively when the strategy fits the specific situation. New research has revealed a menu of effective options for making conflict work, namely, by employing pragmatic benevolence, cultivated support, constructive dominance, strategic appeasement, selective autonomy, or principled rebellion. The key is in knowing when and how to employ each.

To learn more, visit www.MakingConflictWork.com, or read Making Conflict Work: Harnessing the Power of Disagreement by Peter T. Coleman and Robert Ferguson.

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