Dear NMC Community,

It’s been just over a month since I’ve been on campus meeting with you to listen and learn about our college. These first weeks have been exhilarating and positive! Since my Intercom communication with you last week about the foundational importance of trust, I had the honor to attend Governor Whitmer’s State of the State address in Lansing, as a guest of our State Senator Wayne Schmidt. That night, bearing witness to the political process in action, I was reminded of how important constructive conflict is to healthy, vibrant communities and organizations. It has inspired me to reflect on that experience as a learning opportunity for us at NMC.

Remember, trust is foundational. Members of teams who trust one another are not afraid to engage in conflict around ideas that are key to the organization’s success. They do not hesitate to respectfully disagree with, challenge, and question each other, all in the spirit of finding the best answers and making great decisions. Too often, because of our fear of conflict, we seek artificial harmony over constructive passionate debate. Usually commitment suffers as a result. Let me offer two points for our college community to consider in how we might reframe thinking about and approaching conflict.

First, let me offer some thoughts about how we might reconsider team members’ expressing their doubts and reservations, by instead embracing dissent as constructive conflict. My views on the value of dissent have been shaped in part by my friend and mentor Peter Block. He is a teacher and author in the areas of organization development, community building, and civic engagement. Peter coached me to create space in an organization for people to say “no.” Why? It affords people an opportunity to express their doubts and reservations as a way of clarifying their roles, needs, and yearnings. Peter reminded me that genuine commitment begins with doubt and “no” is a symbolic expression of people finding their space and role. It is when we fully understand what people do not want, that we can fully design what they do want. It might sound radical, but Peter believes that refusal is the foundation for commitment. However, too often we shy away from dissent, because we have had bad experiences with unproductive conflict. I’d like to suggest that there’s value in constructive conflict around ideas. Obviously, the emphasis is on constructive conflict. 

Second, let me also suggest a possible reframing of how we typically manage disagreement and conflict, so we can instead think of conflict as curious confrontation. This past week I attended faculty member Caroline Schaefer-Hills’ visual communications class where the students pitched designs they created for next year’s NMC holiday card. Core to the practice of visual communications is design thinking. Design thinking is a way of leading with curiosity. It encourages embracing ambiguity, uncertainty, and confusion. In doing so, people come to understand the value of empathically listening to one another and allowing for the creative process of building one idea upon another. What these visual communications students learn through design thinking is to reconsider how they manage disagreement and conflict. No longer does conflict have a negative connotation. Rather, these students are able to reimagine disagreement and conflict as curious confrontation. They face differing ideas and mindsets with the desire to investigate and learn, not to act out a defensive routine

Together, let’s challenge ourselves to reimagine the ‘old tapes’ we play in our minds about disagreement and conflict. I ask us all to reflect and consider how might we, as adults in this college community, reframe how we approach disagreement and conflict? Specifically, might we reconsider dissent as constructive conflict and conflict as curious confrontation?

Together, let’s seek to transform conflict into an even deeper commitment to our college and our community of learners!