How To Succeed At Conflict Resolution Without A MBA

By John McCord, DPM

I never enjoyed the yearly planning session with my undergraduate advisor at the University of Washington. It was the beginning of my senior year and the advisor was disturbed at my lack of a life plan. He noted I had taken a lot of science courses and had done well. I explained science to me was like reading a cookbook and my roommates were pre-med. No, I had not considered applying to medical school. I admitted dodging the draft was my main interest in college. My advisor suggested a business class called Conflict Resolution. It was a graduate level course and didn’t interest me at all. He was determined that it would help me in the future and signed me up. The class was full of MBA candidates. Most of them were already dressing the part with dark suits and black horn-rimmed glasses. I entered the first day of class in my blue jeans and flannel logger’s shirt with a ratty Army surplus backpack. The small group sat around a conference table waiting for the professor. He finally entered the room in his dark suit and horn-rimmed glasses. He spent five minutes fiddling with his pipe trying to get it lit and then started the class. We all introduced ourselves and told why we were in the class. I admitted my sole reason for being in college was the war. The class received a workplace conflict to analyze and solve. Two nurse managers in a large hospital didn’t get along and their fighting was disrupting the process for other workers. We were to develop a plan to resolve the conflict. We were expected to discuss our solutions during the next class. All the dark suited MBA candidates had pages of analysis and solutions in their attaché cases for the next session. They took turns blathering on about the psychology of conflict and how to make both sides feel like winners and all that stuff. Then they got to me. I told the class I could solve this problem in 10 minutes with a roll of duct tape and a pair of pliers. I would tape the two managers together face to face and begin loosening their toenails one at a time with the pliers. They would soon start seeing eye to eye and learn to work together. The dark suits stared at me with blank faces. The professor asked to see me in his office after class. The professor’s office was as dull as I imagined with plain gray furniture and his diplomas hanging on the walls. He sat fiddling with his pipe for a few minutes before he acknowledged my presence. “Mr. McCord, you seem to observe a problem without analysis, then overstate the obvious and offer a ridiculous solution.” I told him in the real world the old bags would have been canned for creating trouble. He was not impressed. “Mr. McCord, if you want to pass this course, you need to analyze the problem and present a solution to the conflict.” I stifled a yawn. “Use this formula, McCord, for every problem and I will pass you with a C. Don’t use it and you’ll fail the course.” I thought about my college draft deferment that would disappear with an F and agreed to use the formula. The professor placed a sheet of blank typing paper on his desk and drew a line through the middle, dividing the paper into top and bottom halves. He told me to give each person in conflict a blank sheet of paper and ask the two parties to summarize the conflict on the top half and write two solutions on the bottom, one solution from that person’s point of view and the other from the opponent’s. You then sit the two down to negotiate a solution acceptable to both. It seemed too easy. I used it for the rest of the course and got a B. Thirty-six years later, I have been appointed Chief of Surgery for our hospital. The surgeons are either constantly at each other’s throats or they are fighting with the nurses and anesthesiologists. It is my job to make them get along and keep the process of orderly surgical care going. Conflicts pop up daily. I listen briefly to each side and then give both a blank sheet of paper divided into top and bottom parts. The overly competitive surgeons try to come up with the best solutions to conflicts with their colleagues. Everybody feels like a winner. I wish I could remember that professor’s name. I still don’t wear a dark suit. I never have and I never will. Dr. McCord (pictured) is a Diplomate wtih the American Board of Podiatric Surgery. He practices at the Centralia Medical Center in Centralia, Wash.

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