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

Developing Departmental Communication Protocols

The development of these “Protocols” has been effective in addressing both the reluctance of departments who are more comfortable with an initial indirect approach to problem solving, as well as, insuring that individuals returning to a department have a greater chance of making the implementation of their agreement successful.

Process for Development of a Communication Protocol

The manager of a department notifies those who will be attending of the time, date and location of the two to three hour session. The purpose of the session typically is described as follows:

The purpose of this session is for the group to develop a “Communication Protocol” for all employees in the department to use, when appropriate, for respectful communication and effective conflict management. Using material provided the group will develop a set of guidelines (Protocol) that reflects the culture and needs of each of us as individuals or those of our group. Once the session is completed, a draft will be circulated to the group for additional comment. Once this comment period has ended, the remarks will be incorporated, and the new “Protocol” will be distributed, posted on the department’s bulletin boards, and provided to all employees as part of their orientation. It should be seen as an evolving document that will be periodically revised on an annual basis to reflect the evolving needs of our staff.”

Normally, the session is mandatory, since it is during normal work hours, and does not take on involuntary discussion of any specific individual’s problems, complaints or grievances. The session is usually away from the regular work location. Casual coming
and going during the session is not permitted. This is particularly important regarding the participation by the organization’s management. Such behavior is typically seen as an indication that the session is not important.

The two or three hours session for developing a “Protocol” is divided into three subsections.

Protocol Process: Subsection One

The first subsection begins by asking attendees to “think of the name of an individual in your organization who causes problems.” After a brief period for reflection, the participants are asked “who has thought of their own name?” Typically no one has. This initial question begins a process for self-examination of how each person may contribute to problems in the organization. This is followed by a discussion of various definitions of conflict, ending with a customer service definition, suggesting that complaints are important “gifts of information”, necessary to allow for change. The soon to be developed “protocol” is described at this point as a mechanism or set of ground rules for “giving (or receiving) the gift of information”. The section then turns to a discussion of the “stages of conflict”. This discussion allows participants to see how conflict becomes individually and/or institutionally dysfunctional, including the development of “camps”. This latter point allows for a discussion of how mediation agreements are sometimes undermined by an individual’s friends within their camp, who may resist the reduction of conflict, if it is seen as devaluing the friendship, demonstrated by new behavior which is friendlier with the “enemy”.

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