Academic Advising Resources

“I HATE Working with You!”: Conflict resolution for academic advisors


Authored by: Ashley BornigerAshley Ransom, and Claudia L. Treviño


It’s a typical Monday morning as your first advising appointment arrives. You begin by asking a few questions of the student. “How are your classes?” “Have you thought about what you want to take next semester?” “Have you thought about a major?” All you get from the student is silence and a blank stare. Eventually, the student answers, “I don’t know. Isn’t it your job to tell me what to do?” The conversation continues like this for a half hour as you try to somehow engage the student. Finally, when it is clear that the student will not participate, you dismiss her with a homework assignment to take an online career assessment before her next appointment. The interaction leaves you disappointed; you were not able to tend to this student’s needs.
Next, it’s off to your weekly staff meeting. Your supervisor closes the meeting by asking for suggestions for this month’s staff birthday celebration. “I think we should hold a potluck,” you say. “Um, why would we do that?” asks one co-worker. “Clearly someone should just bring in a cake and a card,” another replies. Everyone snickers and you leave embarrassed, once again, for voicing an opinion at a staff meeting. It’s not even noon, and your day is already full of frustration.

In an academic advisor’s world the above scenarios are all too common. When we work with so many people each day – fellow advisors, students, parents, transfer coordinators, instructors, and college staff members – conflict is, unfortunately, inevitable. This article explores how we can resolve conflict in the workplace and provides suggestions for how to avoid fostering conflict.
Identifying Conflict Management Styles
Blake and Mouton (as cited in Callanan & Perri, 2006) delineated five conflict management styles: accommodation, competition, collaboration, compromise, and avoidance. These five styles affect the  levels of assertiveness we use to attain our goals and influence how much we consider the other parties involved in a conflict.
How we behave during conflict is generally a result of our views on conflict: “Is conflict a contest to win, a problem to solve, or an opportunity to learn?” (Withers & Wisinski, 2007, p.14).Our conflict management styles can change according to the situation or the environment (Callanan & Perri, 2006, p. 132).
Individuals with an accommodative style are willing to give up their goals in order to preserve relationships. The style is less assertive and focuses on maintaining harmony. Accommodative individuals view conflict as something that can damage relationships, and as a result, they can provide valuable insight into the consequences that actions may have on others (Withers & Wisinski, 2007, p.15).
The competitive style is the opposite of accommodation. People who use this style view conflict as a win-lose situation. Their high goal orientation can cause them to overlook the effects of conflict on relationships. However, these individuals can bring momentum to a stagnant group and help reorient people toward achieving goals (Withers & Wisinski, 2007, p.14).
The collaborative style is dedicated to reaching goals and maintaining relationships. Collaborators view conflict as an opportunity for individuals to come together to solve problems and improve relationships. The focus for a collaborator is the search for a perfect solution that will keep everyone happy, but this style can be detrimental when a solution is needed quickly (Withers & Wisinski, 2007, p.17).
Compromise is similar to collaboration in that both styles place value on relationships and goals. The difference is that individuals who practice compromise are willing to sacrifice something to reach a solution. Compromisers participate in give-and-take and are flexible and adaptive; their focus is on short-term goals and temporary solutions which can make them appear unsure of what they want (Withers & Wisinski, 2007, p.16).
The opposite of collaboration is avoidance. Avoiders believe that conflict is difficult to solve and thus are willing to give up their personal goals and relationships to avoid it. If allowed by the group, avoiders will become outside observers and must be asked for input. However input from these individuals can provide valuable feedback (Withers & Wisinski, 2007, pp.15-16).
As advisors we should consider these five conflict management styles in the situations we encounter. Is there a quiet person in the group? Does someone dominate the conversation? Is there someone who is so busy smoothing things over that they forget to talk about the issues? How we identify individuals’ conflict styles can help us appreciate them for what they can contribute to the group. This analysis can help us learn new techniques for working together.

Preventing Conflict

Understanding the conflict management styles of those with whom we work or have personal relationships can greatly improve our interactions and productivity.  Beyond that, there are other methods advisors can employ to mitigate conflict. Don Miguel Ruiz’s (1997) Four Agreements lays out a method to avoid unnecessary stress or drama. The four agreements are: Don’t take things personally; don’t make assumptions; be impeccable with our words; and always do our best.

The first agreement – to be impeccable in our words – reminds us to think before we speak. Words can enhance or destroy a person’s reputation. People can cause more harm when they gossip. To be impeccable with our words, we must speak with integrity and say only what we mean. We should avoid words that reflect negatively on ourselves. When we do so, we invite others to judge us as well. In the end, to evade conflict, we should use our words only to promote truth and encouragement (Ruiz, 1997, pp. 29-50).

The second agreement – don’t take things personally – cautions us not to take anything said to heart. Most of the time, few things people say or do is about us personally; their thoughts are rooted in their individual perception. Others should not control our moods. We must maintain a positive image of ourselves so that others may not tear us down; conversely, we should not depend on compliments to build us up. When we take things personally, we subconsciously agree with what was said about us; this can make us feel offended and prompt us to defend ourselves, possibly creating unnecessary drama. By not taking things personally, we immunize ourselves to others’ efforts to manipulate our emotions or beliefs, and in turn, we experience less conflict (Ruiz, 1997, pp. 53-66).

The third agreement – don’t make assumptions – can be a challenge. We all are prone to seeing what we want to see and hearing what we want to hear. Assumptions become a problem when we believe that what we assume is true thus fostering a larger cycle of drama. One reason we make assumptions is that we are afraid to ask people to explain what their comments really mean; sometimes we are afraid of appearing ignorant, so we make assumptions. The solution is to communicate and ask questions. It is important to remember that we have the right to ask questions to make sure everyone is understood. Ultimately, to avoid conflict, it is better that we ask questions and be clear instead of assuming the answers when we are unsure (Ruiz, 1997, pp. 69-80).

Finally, the fourth agreement – always do our best – can be applied to all areas of life. Our personal best is always changing. On some days, we are in a better mood and thus accomplish more than on other days; this is normal and we should remember to let ourselves have the occasional off day without being too hard on ourselves. It is a noble goal to do our best for ourselves, not for the reward. There is little to be gained when we hold onto things in our past that, in our minds, do not reflect our best. These events cannot be changed and focusing on them takes away time and energy from the present. To steer clear of conflict, we should remember to give others a break if they say they have done their best (Ruiz, 1997, pp. 83-98).

Advisors can use these conflict management techniques to break through to confused students like the one in our opening scenario.  Do not assume that students have already mapped out their future.  In our hypothetical, the student wants to avoid conflict and instead wants you to provide her with all of the answers.  Instead of jumping to the bottom line—What are you going to major in?  What classes will you take next semester?—focus on the process of arriving at these decisions.  Guide the conversation with avoiders by asking simple questions:  What do you like about this semester’s classes?  What don’t you like?  What are your hobbies?  What are your values?  These questions will allow avoiders to discover their interests on their own.
In the case of difficult co-workers, recognize that you are working with competitive individuals.  Try not to take their comments personally; these co-workers just have a particular way of handling conflict.  On the other hand, if these situations are recurring, look for a collaborative solution so that everyone in the advising center feels valued.  For instance, to handle office birthdays, work with your colleagues to plan monthly celebrations that advance both your goal of doing something thoughtful and your co-workers’ goal of doing something quick and easy.
Applied to students, co-workers, or others, these techniques can improve advisors’ ability to communicate and relate.  The authors of this article challenge all advisors to use the conflict management styles and Ruiz’s Four Agreements at work and in our personal lives. Consider the styles of the people we work with and those close to us to see how we may adjust to avoid future conflict. The authors hope that the information in this article will help all advisors have happy, stress-free, more productive work environments and personal relationships.


Authored by: 

Ashley Borniger

Academic Advisor

Butler Community College


Ashley Ransom

Academic Advisor

Texas State University-San Marcos


Claudia L. Treviño

Academic Advisor

Texas State University-San Marcos



Blake, R.R. and Mouton, J. (1964) The Managerial Grid as cited in Callanan, G. & Perri, D. (2006). Teaching conflict management using a scenario-based approach. Journal of Education for Business. 81(3), 131-139.


Callanan, G. & Perri, D. (2006). Teaching conflict management using a scenario-based approach. Journal of Education for Business. 81(3), 131-139. 

Ruiz, Don M. (1997). The four agreements: A practical guide to personal freedom. San Rafael, CA: Amber-Allen Publishing, Inc.


Withers, B. & Wisinski, J. (2007) Resolving Conflicts on the Job, 2nd Edition. AMACON.


Cite this resource using APA style as:

Borniger, A., Ransom A., &Treviño, C. L. (2011).“I HATE Working with You!”: Conflict resolution for academic advisors. Retrieved from NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources Web site

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