Managing conflict in the classroom

January 7, 2014

Facilitating difficult conversations on controversial topics is a common practice among instructors from almost all disciplinary backgrounds. When instructors incorporate proactive and reactive strategies for conflict communication into course content and modeling constructive ways of handling conflict, they can prepare students to learn to manage conflict associated with a variety of aspects of difference that sometimes arise in the classroom.

Conflict is stressful. Many faculty might wish to avoid experiencing conflict in their classes. When managed well, conflict can be an important learning opportunity for students. They learn how to manage conflict in appropriate ways. What is the best way to manage conflict in the classroom?

Prepare students to engage in discussions about conflicts in a professional and civil manner
Ask students to identify their approach to conflict and their conflict style (Wilmot & Hocker 2011). In this activity, students read through the following statements and identify which statement aligns with their views on conflict. Students gain valuable insights into their preferred communication mode— competing, avoiding, compromising, collaborating, and/or accommodating (Thomas & Kilmann, 1974):

  • I love peace and harmony and will go to great lengths to avoid conflict.
  • I sometimes will willingly engage in conflict, but only if I can see no other good choice
  • I like the give-and-take of a good verbal conflict and am not particularly wary of getting involved.
  • I enjoy constructive conflict. My adrenaline gets going, and I like to see what can come of it. I even seek out conflict at times.
  • I count on conflict to help clear the air, solve problems, and get us to a “different place.”

Ask students to identify constructive and destructive approaches to managing conflict
Ask students to think of a recent conflict they have had with a peer, superior, or subordinate. They should write down what the conflict was about and list several ways they might have handled this conflict. Finally, students identify how they actually handled the conflict and describe why this strategy worked or did not work. (This activity is based on Masters & Albright, 2002.)

Practice managing conflict in a role-play activity
A role-play activity is an effective method for generating helpful proactive and reactive strategies for engaging in appropriate communication during conflicts. Role-plays help students experience “stressful, unfamiliar, complex, or controversial situations,” explore and practice effective communication styles (Bonwell & Eison,1991). Students should reflect on the words and actions of each character in a role-play and evaluate whether the communication style used was effective in managing the conflict in their role-play scenario.


Bonwell, C C., & Eison, J. (1991). Active learning: Creating excitement in the classroom. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 1.

Masters, M. F., &.Albright, R. R. (2002). The complete guide to conflict resolution in the workplace. New York: American Management Association.

Thomas, K. W., &.Kilmann, R. H. (1974). Thomas-Kilmann conflict mode instrument. Tuxedo, NY: Xicom, Inc,

Wilmot, W., & Hocker, J. (2011). Interpersonal conflict (8th ed). McGraw-Hill.

This tip is based on teaching strategy submitted by Dr. Amanda G. McKendree, Assistant Director,Kaneb Center for Teaching and Learning, University of Notre Dame to the Western Kentucky University Teaching Issues Writing Consortium.

Updated: 06/24/14 tjf