It Starts With Us: Conflict Engagement

Introducing the newest module in our series to help build a strong, safe, and supportive community

It Starts With Us

Learn more about It Starts With Us: an interactive series of presentations, round table discussions, and workshops.

Thank you to everyone who joined us on June 1st and June 8th, 2021 for our two-part event on Conflict Engagement. You can learn more about Conflict Engagement here.

Learn more about the two events, find links to view the recordings and transcripts of the events, and explore more resources below.

Conflict Engagement Part 1: Conflict Theatre

In this interactive event, audience members watched “Department Discipline” – a community-created play developed by UBC’s Conflict Theatre team – and had the opportunity to actively participate and try out different conflict engagement strategies to see how the outcome of the interaction can be changed.

About the play: At the Department of Excellence (where all of our plays are set), a department head must discipline a professor for making a racist ‘joke’ to a student. Meanwhile, another professor demands that a junior staff member in their probation period conceal an ineligible expense, but a senior staff member overhears this interaction and alerts the department head. The department head now has to decide what to do next.

View the recording.

Download the transcript here

Conflict Engagement Part 2: Fundamentals of Conflict Engagement

In this more didactic session, Ashley Moore (UBC Equity & Inclusion Office) and Tom Scholte and Roquela Fernandez (UBC Conflict Theatre) walked the audience through some models that can be useful when considering Conflict Engagement, and described some practical tools to use when putting Conflict Engagement into action. Download the presentation slides here and a template for the O’DEAR Model for approaching Conflict Engagement here. You can learn more about UBC Equity & Inclusion Office’s Conflict Engagement Framework here.

View the recording.

Download the transcript here

Questions & Answers

The Resistance Line is best thought of as a rough barometer for where a person, group, or organization is positioned in regards to the status quo or majority in terms of overt conflict engagement. It is not meant as a diagnosis of intention, impact, or severity of a problem.

It’s difficult to place these specific behaviours (e.g. bullying, microaggressions) on this line because there is lots of interpretation involved. First, there is interpretation inherent in these terms: we’d need to understand the objective facts of what happened (e.g. “someone said X and did Y”) and the context in which it happened (e.g. “to this person at this time”) to understand how one might arrive at the conclusion that it was bullying or a microaggression. That’s not to question the accuracy or importance of the interpretation, but rather to say that this interpretation is important to the assessment of the situation.

For instance, ‘bullying’ can describe a spectrum of behaviour from a colleague saying, “If we don’t get this done today, I’m not going to work on your project next week,” to groups of people threatening or even engaging in acts of physical violence. Clearly this objective difference matters a lot.

Another complicating factor is that the escalating concerns identified on the ‘Resistance Line’ are broad trends, not an exact science. Group members experience and engage with conflict differently at different times and how we define the group can also complicate matters. There may be a low level of group conflict, but some people maybe be experiencing often. In a different group or at a different time, the same frequency of micro-aggressions could escalate to open protest very quickly.

Sadly, this is a common and tough position to be in and none of the following approaches adequately addresses the great effort it takes a small group of people to turn pockets of dissent into a large-scale movement. Used in combination though, hopefully some of these suggestions can help.

  • As early and often as possible, bring your wisdom to the surface
  • Seek out allies and supports
  • Build power to engage, improve, or recreate not to destroy
  • Package your wisdom so it can be heard by those in power
  • Stay humble and open. Resist developing feelings of self-righteousness or moral superiority as they inhibit the honest dialogue required of broad-scale change
  • When a situation keeps you voiceless, if you have the choice, consider moving on

The best approach depends on a couple of factors. Conflict, by our definition, is simply a difference one party cares about. If the problem is simply that you disagree with your manager about something that matters to you, they are the most direct route for engaging with that disagreement towards a different outcome. If the two of you can have a respectful conversation about the differences, that is likely the most productive route.

If you are also experiencing difficulties communicating with each other, trying to have a conversation about that could be a productive alternative to involving a third party. Example: “Hey boss, we don’t agree on this topic and that makes it hard for me to talk about it with you because I’m worried about X” or “Hey boss, we agree on most things but it seems that when we talk about X, the conversation gets tense, or at least it does for me. How do you think we might we address that?”

If there has been a significant pattern of disagreement and poor communication between you, going to HR or your union is a great option, especially if you can catch the conflict in its early stages as they can offer advice or coaching. Involving them as an intervenor without trying to have a direct conversation with your supervisor first could still feel like a surprising escalation. Whenever possible, trying first to engage directly through a respectful conversation first will likely maintain a better relationship with your supervisor.

This is a great insight! We can get triggered by what is being said (validity, accuracy), with how it’s being said (helpfulness, productivity), and with who’s saying it (trust, credibility, intention). Try untangling these three factors to understand which aspects you’re finding problematic (it’s often a combination) and to set your priorities. Relationship conflicts often become the primary concern when there have been tensions have been left unaddressed over time. They are slow to rebuild and are best embarked on together and intentionally, with explicit opportunity to rebuild trust, establish credibility, and share good intentions.

There are plenty of competing definitions of gossip – the one we prefer is ‘talking about people who aren’t present’. From the research we’ve done on the topic, we’ve found that most gossip is fairly neutral exchanges of social information (personal narratives, self-disclosure, who’s doing what, etc.) but yes, some is negative or positive opinions of others. And while this might seem negative, it’s also been shown to have positive impacts on individuals by creating a sense of friendships and belonging, relieving anxiety, and lowering stress. In groups, it can communicate, promote, and informally maintain team norms, support vicarious learning, and warning others of exploitative behaviours. This isn’t meant to discount the negative impacts of gossip or its cousin ‘rumours’.  Talking about others is a normal, natural practice with varying impacts that would be well served through direct discussion.

For more on its positive impacts, here’s an easy-to read summary of some of the benefits of gossip and for peer reviewed articles, check out the 2019 “Who Gossips and How in Everyday Life” by Robbins and Karan or search the terms ‘positive gossip’ and ‘prosocial gossip’. The 2021 article "An Integrative Definition and Framework to Study Gossip" by Dores Cruz et al. talks about establishing a common framework that addresses the various definitions of gossip to improve research outcomes.

Institutions need strong resources dealing with conflict from three perspectives:

  1. Proactive conflict engagement resources like awareness building, education, and skills development
  2. Reactive resources for addressing specific incidents and issues (and the social and structural circumstances in which they arose) from a perspective that centres repair, healing, and growth
  3. Systemic approaches that seek to identify and address current gaps, limit harm, and promote accountability and prosocial growth through its mechanisms themselves (i.e. before or notwithstanding human involvement)

Some ideas of what these structures/processes might look like:


  • Train and support for all who supervise others to see disagreement as wisdom to be understood and incorporated, or conflict as an opportunity as well as a risk
  • Acknowledge and try to address power imbalances rather than denying their existence
  • Support an understanding that feedback, especially negative feedback, is an opportunity to learn and grow


  • Promote multiple pathways for addressing concern centring the needs of the parties involved. Institutions like UBC often under-support their community members simply because they are large and diffuse. Particularly when responding to an existing conflict (rather than preventing it), ensuring resources are available, timely, care-filled, and easy to access should be paramount. A practical example of this is that all leaders have the skills and capacity to actively listen, explore, follow-up on and/or refer conflict-related concerns as they arise
  • Ensure those with less power have informed and resourced avenues of advocacy and support
  • Follow the principles of restorative rather than punitive justice


  • Create or update policies to establish procedural fairness that protects the safety and dignity of all, especially the most vulnerable
  • Actively look to address the needs, barriers, and concerns of vulnerable, underserved, and underrepresented communities. This benefits everyone
  • Seek out and address the structures and procedures that perpetuate social inequities

There are many definitions of power - we commonly discuss it referencing Julie Diamond’s work, which talks about formal and informal sources of power.

Informal or personal power includes knowledge, skills, and experience, along with referent power (relationships and affiliations), psychological power (resilience, interpersonal skills, etc.), and spiritual power (a sense of connection with something transcendent).

Formal power includes many forms of legitimate power, such as organizational rank and position, but it also includes the capacity to reward and coerce. Power is also attributed or denied to people based on their social identities. There are historical, persistent, and systemic power imbalances based on race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, ability, and more.

For many reasons, faculty generally have many more sources of power at their disposal than students. This does not necessarily mean that the power will be exercised in problematic ways, but that does happen and the perception that it could happen cannot be erased.

This depends on the nature of the concerns and the nature of the response. Many of us, leaders included, can require more than one opportunity to engage with a difficult topic, especially if that means changing a deeply help opinion or perspective.

We should also consider how ‘safe spaces’ are defined. Some of our most difficult social conversations require us to step into uncharted territory, an experience beyond ‘uncomfortable’, that requires us to leave the safety of historically stable norms and structures.

That said, we shouldn’t feel compelled to step into conversations were we fear for our physical safety or where we’re concerned our basic human rights and dignity will be ignored or trampled. We shouldn’t fear that our perspectives or experiences will be used against us in disciplinary actions.

If this is the case or you’re still wary of speaking up, it can be helpful to turn to a trusted friend or colleague as a first step, or to your direct supervisor, union, or Human Resources representative. You can also receive support from the Human Rights advisors at the EIO for issues related to discrimination, the Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Office (SVPRO) for concerns of a sexual nature, or the Ombuds office for student concerns of procedural fairness. When in doubt, any of the resources above will point you to the appropriate office.

As a relationship builder, it’s generally helpful to offer some potential solutions when you’re reporting a problem, but some problems require concerted actions from those with more formal power. See also our answers to questions 2 and 3.

As you note, not all points are equal and, for this exact reason, we don’t keep score. Instead, after both sides are explored, people are invited to share their insights, or the points that resonated with them. We find that after this exercise, groups tend to be more aligned about the path forward, leaving only a few topics up for discussion or negotiation. If you end at a stalemate, it can be helpful to capture what has been agreed upon and which points requiring further discussion, and then take a break before returning to the issue.