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Conflict Management in Higher Ed Report
printfriendlyVolume 5, Number 1, Sept 2004

Conflict Resolution, Negotiation
& Team Building: Reviewing an
Impossible Course that Worked

It was the review class for the mid-term test. I was going through the usual routine of highlighting the key ideas and arguments in the course, thinking I was covering everything important. Then a student raised his hand and asked, "But what is the connection between the social construction of reality and conflict resolution?" This became the defining moment in the course.

Institutional and Curricular Context

Ryerson University was founded in 1948 and is located in downtown Toronto, Ontario. It is dedicated to career-oriented education and has more than 18,000 full-time students. Historically, the Faculty of Arts has offered few degrees; its predominant role has been to provide various types of support courses to program departments that offer a wide variety of degrees in business, communication, design, community services, engineering and applied sciences. Changes to Ontario's post-secondary educational system, culminating in 2003, created new opportunities for curriculum development with Ryerson's Faculty of Arts.

In Ontario, until recently, high school included grade 13. When the provincial government eliminated this grade, it created a double cohort grade 13 graduates of the old curriculum and grade 12 graduates of the new curriculum entering university together in the fall of 2003. The resulting increase in demand for university spaces created circumstances for change within the Ontario university system. At Ryerson, the Faculty of Arts saw the situation as an occasion to develop a number of new Arts degrees. The first of these new degrees, called Arts and Contemporary Studies (ACS), was launched in fall 2003 with approximately 220 students entering the inaugural year of the program.

Arts and Contemporary Studies is intended to offer students an undergraduate program, combining the best elements of traditional liberal arts education with contemporary competencies to prepare them for the emerging workplace needs of the 21st century. The program begins with two common years which include a set of courses that study ideas that shaped the contemporary world and a set of courses that develop key skills and competencies that include reading precisely, communicating effectively, studying the relationship between economic, political and cultural groups, developing critical thought, ethics analysis, mediating conflict and working in teams. (See the ACS web site listed in the References.)

The course teaching dispute resolution, negotiation and team building (ACS 201: Dispute Resolution and Team Building) was designed to fit into the program's first year curriculum. This essay reviews the nature of the course and in some detail the student response to it. Based upon this explanatory review, the essay closes with a discussion about appropriate content at the first year university level and how it might be most effectively taught.

Conceptual Overview of the Course

When I was initially asked by the Dean to design, virtually overnight, a course in dispute resolution for a new degree program that was being developed, I thought I was being asked to make a small contribution to the mammoth bureaucratic task of guiding a major curricular proposal through a multi-layered system. The Dean's requirements included that the course enhance student competencies and include three main components negotiation, team building and dispute resolution. In initial discussions with the Dean, my strong recommendation was that the course have a more specific focus. When the Dean insisted the course have a more encompassing focus, I designed it, and momentarily felt a little sorry for whoever was going to have to try to teach so much within a thirteen week term.

When I was assigned to teach the course, I began to give serious thought to how "to do" it, that is, how to conceptually organize the course so that it made sense to me and so that I could explain it to the students. My main resource in thinking through the planning of the course was Campus Conflict Resolution Resources (see references). My approach to conflict, and much else in life, is influenced by sociology and various interdisciplinary studies in which I had engaged over the years. So, I developed a conceptual overview.

Human life is characterized by social relations. As social beings we construct, maintain and change the social worlds within which we live in part through negotiation, cooperation and conflict resolution. Conflicts are a normal part of our social relations and world construction. Conflict is as common as laughter, anger, love, sex and prayer, and no less important. Conflict can give voice to injustice; it can prod much needed change. It can be a source of personal growth and of social transformation. Yet, we often experience conflict as something negative. Because it is unavoidable, we need to learn how to respond to it productively. Principled negotiation, team building and conflict transformation are three of the ways we make productive use of conflict situations. To understand the range of possible responses to others, we need to recognize that individually and collectively in groups we make sense out of our experiences from different points of view.

Second, self-understanding is an invaluable foundation in negotiating, cooperating with others, settling our own disputes and assisting others to resolve their disputes. Moreover, working cooperatively in teams often means needing to talk about our differences and the conflicts that can arise out of them.

Third, while conflict is everywhere from within our families to a central element in human history it is more often described than analyzed. Conflict, like all human life, is often best understood as a narrative that has a beginning, middle and end. Negotiation and dispute transformation are two of the possible responses to conflict.

Fourth, everyday life is full of negotiations. They take place within, and on behalf of, individuals, small groups and large organizations, even nation states. Team building can be understood as a kind of group negotiation. The scholarly literature on negotiation distinguishes between positional and principled bargaining. The course provides a theoretical grounding for and experience in principled or interest-based negotiations. The goal of negotiations is to reach agreement wisely, respectfully, and efficiently.

Finally, conflict arises between individuals and between and/or within teams here "teams" is a metaphor for a wide range of social groups from couples to small work units to diverse populations within a region to nation states. Conflict is natural and ubiquitous. It can be viewed, not as a problem, but as an opportunity for moral growth and social transformation. Strengthening the persons who are involved in conflict increases their capacity to relate to others. Using the transformative model of mediation (there are, of course, many others), the course provides a theoretical grounding for and experience in understanding and transforming conflict situations.

The core ideas about social relations and conflict transformation emphasized in this course are not merely "abstract theories." They have been applied in a number of specific organizational conflicts. The usefulness of the theories is that they help clarify our own principles of action and can be used to guide our everyday responses to the conflicts in our own lives, from the interpersonal to the global.

Course Objectives

For the winter 2004 term, the course was premised on the idea that negotiation, group work and conflict are inherent in interpersonal and organizational relationships, and that it is possible to respond to conflict productively. The objective of the course, broadly speaking, was to develop and enhance knowledge and skills about negotiation, team building and conflict resolution.

The course was both theoretical and applied. It provided a comprehensive social constructionist framework for analyzing social life generally and, more specifically, for contextualizing and examining negotiation, team building and dispute resolution. Human life is inherently social, and the course argued that we participate in the construction of everyday life and its meanings. Conflict is also a normal part of everyday life, and those involved in conflict construct the meaning and resolutions of disputes individually and collectively. The course provided opportunities to practice negotiation, team building and conflict resolution skills. Most importantly, it provided the opportunity for students to become more aware of their own experiences how they conceptualize what needs to be accomplished, how choices are made, how one's choices affect others, and how to reflect on and evaluate these experiences.

The course provided an opportunity to develop and enhance professional skills and competencies and to consider a reflective (theoretical) understanding of these competencies. More specifically, in terms of professional practice, the course assisted students to:

  • enhance communication abilities
  • develop basic negotiating skills
  • become team members and work cooperatively with others
  • learn to respect and work with differences in others
  • develop basic mediation and dispute transformation skills.

In terms of theoretical understanding, the course assisted students to:

  • enhance their conceptual and analytical thinking
  • apply theoretical ideas to specific situations
  • learn and apply the principles of dispute analysis and transformation.

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