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Conflict Management in Higher Ed Report
printfriendlyVolume 4, Number 1, Oct. 2003


Developing Departmental Communication Protocols

A “Communication Protocol” is a set of guidelines for day-to-day communication and informal problem solving developed in a mediation context involving a group of co-workers. These “Protocols” are most effective when developed with the full participation of both staff and management. Although difficult to achieve, in academic units the chair needs to participate. The more inclusive the group, the more the “Protocol” will reflect the culture and norms of the organization.

Developing a “Communication Protocol” is typically done in a two to three hour session. The session is divided into three discrete subsections. The first consists of a 30 to 45 minute discussion led by the mediator describing various definitions of conflict, as well as, one description of the “stages of conflict”. * The emphasis is on helping individuals begin to focus on how they contribute to “conflict” in their respective organizational relationships. The second and most critical subsection is a group discussion of three questions posed by the mediator. This section takes from one to one and one half hours. The discussion eventually becomes the “Protocol”. The final subsection discusses the implementation process, which generally takes thirty to 45 minutes.

It is important to suggest that the group take some additional time subsequent to the session for reflection on the material developed. This additional time will insure the proposed implementation process does not in anyway disturb existing policy or union agreements. It will also allow those in the group, who need reflection time to compose and articulate their views, to do so.

Historical Development

The formal mediation program at UC Davis began in 1994. Although the Mediation program achieved a high percentage of agreement (90%), there were two problems that quickly emerged. The first was that many agreements fell apart rather quickly, when participants in the mediation returned to their workplace. The problems they had addressed in the mediation were typically generalized in their department, and the environment into which they returned was often very toxic. Immediately upon reentry various hostile “camps” would begin working to undermine the mediation agreement, very often successfully. The second issue was the reluctance of many individuals, or their departments to use mediation. They often wanted a more general problem solving approach that initially avoided any direct confrontation between individuals, or groups.

Rules of the Game

Have you ever gone to someone’s house to play cards or some game? As the game progresses, based on your understanding of the rules you announce “you win”. Suddenly the home owner announces with some annoyed astonishment, “oh no, you don’t win, that’s not how we play it here!” Nearly everyone’s reaction to the imposition of new unknown rules after the start of the game is typically somewhere between frustration and anger. The same situation arises in a work location when individuals with widely diverging backgrounds come together to work. Typically, basic assumption about “how to communicate respectfully”, as well as, “how to respectfully address problems”, is seldom if ever discussed. The result is not unlike the situation described above. If individuals interact, they are surprised, if not annoyed that their coworkers behave so badly. The assumption is of course, that there is some a priori understanding and agreement on “the rules of the game” for communication and problem solving. The manner in which people interact is so unacceptable that those involved become stuck on how they are communicating, rather than being able to focus on what the issues are about which they are concerned.

* For information see: Human Resource Management in the Hospitality Industry, Frank M. Go, Mary L. Monachello, Tom Baum; John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1996

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