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A Little Toolbox Goes a Long Way

June 28, 2023


Written by Kate Carney, Institute for Conflict Management alumna

“I cannot tell you how many times I’ve used the tools you gave us,” said the email from Ian. “I’ve been so grateful for that during my first year in the field.”

The email came from a newly-minted speech-language pathologist who had just finished his clinical fellowship year. For two decades, I’ve been teaching a professional issues seminar on conflict management basics to the graduating speech pathology students at Vanderbilt. 

The seminar is called “Conflict Management: Ideas for Your Professional Toolbox” and it’s designed for young adults setting sail on a new career.

The ideas are basic:
  • Conflict is normal.
  • Conflict can signal an opportunity for growth and change.
  • Pick the best approach for your goals.
  • Use your active listening skills.
  • Accept the emotion.
  • Keep the lines of communication open.
  • Try to understand their interests instead of digging into your position.
  • Build options.
  • Take a deep breath.
  • Try not to panic.

Mostly they need to know that if they suddenly step off a cliff into a conflict, there are easy ways to get their footing back. “You already know how to do all these things,” I say. “You just didn’t know you could apply them in a conflict.”

Particularly during the pandemic years, when I was teaching over Zoom to a bunch of students in their pajamas, I have sometimes been uncertain whether anything I was saying was helpful. But when teaching live, there are always a handful of students who grab onto these concepts like a lifeline. Going into the professional world for the first time is scary and most new professionals are grateful for all the tips they can get. And the emails, like the one from Ian, reinforce my belief that these are good ideas to share. 

In the past few years, I have noticed an increased interest in conflict management from these graduating students. I don’t know if it stems from being in a generation raised in a social media environment, but they seem to be looking for more face-to-face interaction skills. I have always started the class asking “who feels comfortable with handling conflict and who doesn’t?”. This year, for the first time, everyone in the room described themselves as uncomfortable handling conflict. So I was particularly glad to share my little toolbox once again and watch them head off to their internships just a bit more prepared.

The Institute for Conflict Management (ICM) is designed to equip students with strategies to handle conflict when it arises. ICM houses the MA and Graduate Certificate in Conflict Management alongside Tennessee's Rule 31 trainings. The skills gained in each course are applicable in a variety of professional areas from counseling to executive leadership. 

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