Making Up Isn't Hard to Do

Brian Taylor

August 28, 2011

Some people learn early that they would rather not live a grudge-driven life.

One such moment of self-reappraisal came for an assistant professor in the middle of a faculty meeting. Across from her sat another junior scholar with whom she had never really gotten along. The causes for conflict were many: opposing research methods and ideologies, competition for the same shrinking departmental resources, even different musical tastes that clashed since their offices were adjacent.

But that day, one of them finally pondered the path they were heading down, prompted by an unpleasant scene unfolding before them at the same meeting. Coincidentally, two senior professors—perennial antagonists who would go after each other for any good reason, and many not so good ones—were engaged in a sour debate over a trivial matter. Suddenly the assistant professor saw her future and did not like it. After the meeting she cornered her counterpart, smiled, and said, "I don't know about you, but if we end up like those two it will be very sad. Want to get a beer?"

Would that more of us chose the path of amity rather than combat. Academe may not foster more discontent or discord than other professions, but the feuds seem to last longer. Even if they switch institutions, battling scholars can still find themselves rubbing shoulders and egos in the same small community of a discipline, with its habitual conferences and circumscribed publication venues.

In this, the last in a series of essays focusing on personal conflicts and the tenure track, I offer some suggestions about "making up"—that is, resolving personal or professional disputes that threaten your reputation, heighten your stress, and distract you from your research, teaching, and service.

Apologize. In my previous column, "It's Your Fault," I suggested that every academic should, in the words of Oliver Cromwell, "think it possible you may be mistaken." Whatever your reasons, rationales, or excuses, a feud with a colleague might be your fault. If so, and if you accept culpability, good for you. The next step is the hardest but the most rewarding: Make peace.

You don't have to apologize abjectly or penitently. No need for trembling voice or downcast eyes. Just stride into your soon-to-be former opponent's office and suggest a quiet word. Explain the context—why, perhaps, you got the wrong impression, which led to the wrong conclusion and then the wrong words. Make the case that a never-ceasing dyad of enmity helps no one. Offer a chat over coffee. Then sin no more. Move on, in mind and deed.

Negotiate a nonaggression pact. Some feuds can't be resolved by either or both parties. Perhaps the wounds are too deep, the resentment too longstanding. At the same time, antagonists can appreciate the sensible side of making up. The middle ground between declaring that your archenemy is now your BFF, and sniping at each other during curriculum committee meetings for 30 years, is agreeing to a practical peace. Try "Can we just agree to disagree"? Or even a horse trade: "That item is important to you; this one is important to me. So why don't we work together to both get what we want?"

If your problem person is either a fellow graduate student or assistant professor, then the argument for setting down your weapons is especially strong. In academe today, the margins of stupidity are really thin. It's a buyer's market in many fields. The tenure track is harder than ever. No matter who is right, neither of you have the mental manna or free time to screw around. Is whatever you are tussling about worth damaging both of your careers?

Stop the escalation. Some conflicts flare and then snuff out on their own unless either party provides new matches and gasoline. Is a particular argument that you had with a colleague still riling you? Are you continually thinking of new ways to bring it up again because your goal is ultimate victory of a kind?

Try taking the opposite tack. Does it really matter who officially won or lost the argument? Was it over something vital to your future? Is it something that could be dealt with mildly and better at a later time, or in another way?

A senior scholar in the humanities cited an argument he had had decades ago with a new colleague. At the time, he was incensed at his opponent's position, tactics, and tone. But over a summer, distracted by a major research project, he forgot about the controversy. A few months later, try as he might, he could not remember why the issue had been so infuriating in the first place. He concluded that it couldn't have been that important to him. By not escalating the dispute, and not bringing up the matter again himself, it subsided into a healed-over scar.

Even if your opponent seems to want to intensify the dispute, try indifference and nonresponsiveness. If you move on, perhaps, eventually, so will your antagonist. Grudges forgotten are grudges dissipated.

Ask for intervention or mediation. Just because you are an accomplished research chemist, Shakespearean biographer, or architectural theorist does not mean you are an expert in conflict resolution. So why not consider going to the experts on your campus who can help? Every college and university has administrators or staff members whose specific duty it is to try to resolve interpersonal disputes.

It can be difficult to go to someone and say, essentially, "I have a problem I can't resolve." But in practical terms, that is no different than calling an electrician or plumber for home repairs. Or, in a familiar campus dynamic, a scholar in one area may consult a scholar in another for collaboration.

A doctoral student in the sciences who had a conflict with her lab partner recalled how the ombudsman on her campus was extremely helpful in working out the dispute. It was a familiar scenario: Two people, both believing they were right, kept talking past each other. The neutral third party helped the two appreciate each other's concerns and move on toward research productivity, which was, of course, their mutual goal. Sometimes an outsider can help us see inside ourselves.

Resolving conflicts, especially those that have metastasized, is never easy. But the tenure track of the early 21st century is too demanding of your concentration, time, and energy for you to be distracted by personal disputes that are anything less than actual threats to life, liberty, or integrity.

That said, sometimes there is no solution. A rare minority on campuses love drama and conflict, or are so ingrained with passive-aggressive personalities that they absolutely "can't turn it off." Think you've thrown water on the fire? A few weeks later they will rekindle the blaze. In such a situation, you can resign yourself to the fact that there are difficult people in every workplace. A constructive philosophy is to see the antics of some colleagues through the lens of entertainment: They can't get to you if you find them amusing.

David D. Perlmutter is director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and a professor and at the University of Iowa. He writes the "P&T Confidential" advice column for The Chronicle. His book "Promotion and Tenure Confidential," was published by Harvard University Press in 2010.