Understanding Conflict and New Ways of Thinking
As a school leader, you’ve no doubt said it many times: “Sounds great, but we don’t have the time. Sounds great, but we don’t have the funding. Sounds great, but that won’t work for my students.” There’s no counting the meetings and debates you’ve participated in—and the times you’ve had to be the one to reject a new idea or initiative. After all, a big part of your job is saying no when necessary and pivoting your staff toward work that is both achievable and practical. But when does saying no get in the way of progress? When does hesitation start to do a disservice to you and your schools?
Questioning and reevaluating your knowledge is a way not only to stay curious, but to think more critically about why you hold certain beliefs—and how being wrong may just be an opportunity to discover something new. In Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know, author Adam M. Grant urges readers to “rethink and unlearn.” When we think about this concept in terms of schools, there are myriad applications. But daring to be wrong is just the tip of the iceberg. To become a leader who listens more closely, thinks more critically, and unlearns what’s holding you back, it’s vital that you understand how to overcome your natural hesitation to change your way of thinking.
Part of this hesitation comes from a fear of the unknown—and a fear of potential future conflict. This is especially true in our current climate of political scrutiny and debate in education. But by exploring new mindsets, school leaders can start to approach conflict with more boldness and confidence. This will benefit not just you, but also the staff members, students, and families you serve.
In our search for big ideas that could help school leaders shift their mindsets, we found a few inspiring—and surprising—philosophies. No matter your perspective, we ask that you lean into the unknown, open your mind, and dare to start your new thinking journey with us here and now. The results could be life-changing, for you and your schools.
Think like a scientist.
“If knowledge is power, knowing what we don’t know is wisdom,’’ Grant writes in Think Again. His book has been praised by countless writers, economists, and entrepreneurs as an essential guide to the art of rethinking. But what exactly does that look like in practice—especially for superintendents and other school leaders?
One essential takeaway Grant provides is to “think like a scientist.” “Rethinking is a skillset, but it’s also a mindset,” he writes. “We already have many of the mental tools we need. We just have to remember to get them out of the shed and remove the rust.”
Grant argues that because of the accelerated rate of change in our world—mostly due to advances in access to information and technology—we need to “question our beliefs more readily than ever before.” But he’s quick to point out that this isn’t an easy ask for any of us. “As we sit with our beliefs, they tend to become more extreme and more entrenched,” he writes. We’re quick to recognize when other people need to rethink their assumptions, he argues, but “when it comes to our own knowledge and opinions, we often favor feeling right over being right. We need to form the habit of developing our own second opinions.”
So how do you think like a scientist to combat your own deeply entrenched beliefs? It starts with daring to risk being wrong in order to learn what’s right. “If you’re a scientist by trade, rethinking is fundamental to your profession,” Grant writes. “You’re paid to be constantly aware of the limits of your understanding. You’re expected to doubt what you know, be curious about what you don’t know, and update your views based on new data.” Grant advises that you treat a new viewpoint or perspective as a “hunch” or “hypothesis” to be tested. “When you start forming an opinion, resist the temptation to preach, prosecute, or politick,” he writes. “We move into scientist mode when we’re searching for the truth: we run experiments to test hypotheses and discover new knowledge.”
Scientific thinking, then, isn’t just reserved for those working with Bunsen burners and microscopes. “Hypotheses have as much a place in our lives as they do in the lab,” Grant writes. “Experiments can inform our daily decisions.” Are you convinced that a new substitute training program will fail to get buy-in? Why not workshop it first? Experiment. Before you say no, dare to test your hypothesis.
Another suggestion Grant offers is to “define your identity in terms of values, not opinions.” This also plays into thinking like a scientist because it asks you to value curiosity and learning. It encourages you to be willing to pivot if new information presents itself. “It’s easier to avoid getting stuck to your past beliefs if you don’t become attached to them as part of your present self-concept,” writes Grant. One actionable piece of advice he provides here is to keep a list of factors that would change your mind as you form a new opinion on a topic or issue.
Lastly, Grant advises: “Seek out information that goes against your views.” It can be hard to challenge ourselves, and even harder to let our guards down enough to be authentically challenged by others. But Grant says there are many reasons we should. “You can fight confirmation bias, burst filter bubbles, and escape echo chambers by actively engaging with ideas that challenge your assumptions,” he writes.
Even though we all like to consider ourselves informed and logical, we sometimes hold on to ways of thinking simply because we’ve been attached to them for so long. Grant argues that we should seek out the joy that comes from being wrong, from letting go of our attachments. When we can’t let go of the past, we sometimes can’t move forward. “That’s what keeps us from recognizing when our opinions are off the mark and rethinking them,” he writes. “To unlock the joy of being wrong, we need to detach. I’ve learned that two kinds of detachment are especially useful: detaching your present from your past and detaching your opinions from your identity.”
Grant’s book has many more practical takeaways and thought-provoking anecdotes that present a strong argument for rethinking and leaning into doubt. But especially as a school leader, being able to question your own opinions and viewpoints can help you create the kind of equitable, inclusive, and high-achieving school system all educators are aiming for.
Think like an activist.
You’re accustomed to keeping students and their families top of mind every day. It’s why you got into education in the first place: to make an impact. But what if fear of conflict is holding you back?
Another method of reframing your mindset can be found in a seemingly unlikely place—Kazu Haga’s Healing Resistance: A Radically Different Response to Harm. In this guide to understanding and resolving conflicts, Haga shares practices and philosophies based on the nonviolent teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. So what does this have to do with changing the way you think as a school leader?
Well, before you can change the way you think, it’s important to understand how you respond to conflict. Looking to those who have experience mitigating and learning from those conflicts—such as activists—is a great place to center your work. Keep in mind, though, that when we say conflict here, we mean that both externally and internally. Oftentimes, we are our own greatest hurdles. Learning how to approach different types of conflict and how to be comfortable with being wrong are essential first steps toward thinking that promotes progress, problem-solving, and harm reduction.
“Understanding what type of conflict you are engaged in gives you information about how to move through it,” writes Haga. In his book, he outlines the four major types of conflict that are vital for any leader to understand. “In the heat of the conflict, it is hard not to get emotional,” Haga writes. “This is why it is helpful to study the nature of conflict and understand how it operates objectively.”
The first type of conflict Haga defines is pathway conflict. This is when you have the same overall goals as someone else, but a different approach to reaching those goals. If you and your communications director share a goal of increasing parental involvement, but you have wildly different paths in mind to reach that goal, emotions may start getting in the way. “Emotions might get so heated that [you] may begin to feel that [your] path to get to the goal becomes even more important than the goal itself,” writes Haga. Reframing this kind of conflict, however, can keep you and your team focused on results and not emotions. “In pathway conflict, the most important thing you can do is to remember you’re trying to get to the same place,” he writes.
Next, Haga describes something a little more complicated: mutually exclusive conflict. This type of conflict occurs when you assume you share the same goals as someone you’re working with, but, in actuality, you don’t. For example, let’s say that as you’re working with a school board member on your district’s annual budget, you suddenly realize that you have different priorities. You’re most concerned with funding a new STEM program for your students, but the board member’s priority is to tighten up spending—leaving little room for new initiatives. You have to work together, but your goals aren’t aligned.
Haga argues that the first and most important step to addressing this type of conflict is to name it out loud. “We sometimes mistakenly think that different goals are mutually exclusive—meaning one goal has to be ignored to meet the other,” he writes. “In reality, there are often ways of working together so that even with different goals, we can both actually get closer to our goals than if we worked independently. We just have to articulate the mutual benefit we are gaining by working together.”
The third type of conflict, distributive conflict, rears its head when there are not enough resources to pull off a specific goal or initiative. But Haga warns his readers to look deeply and interrogate the actual situation they’re navigating. “Most distributive conflicts, especially at a social level, actually stem from the perception that there are not enough resources to go around,” he writes. “In a distributive conflict, what you want to look at are the ways that the resources are currently being distributed to see if there is a more equitable distribution that would solve the problem.” Haga even suggests a guiding question for leaders and decision makers to ask themselves during these types of conflicts: “What is enough?”
Finally, the last conflict outlined in Healing Resistance is values conflict. This is actually the most common type—and the most emotionally charged. Values conflicts show up when your values and vision don’t align with those of the people you’re working with, or even with an idea you’re trying to get behind. For instance, imagine that during the pandemic shutdown, one of your principals believed it was most important to ensure students were logging on to virtual classes, while you were primarily concerned with feeding hungry kids. That would be a values conflict. And even though it’s the most common form of conflict, it can be the trickiest to navigate.
“There is an element of a values conflict present in all conflicts,” writes Haga. “All conflict has some basis in what we value. But the opposite is also true: In all values conflicts there exists at least one of the other types of conflict.” Because values conflicts can elicit such strong emotions, reframing them through our understanding of other conflicts can keep us focused on our ultimate goals without raising tensions so high that nothing gets resolved.
If you reframe the theoretical values conflict above as a pathway conflict, it starts to look more manageable. You and the principal both want what’s best for your students; you just have different ideas of what that is. So finding whatever common ground you do share is the first—and potentially only—way to move forward. “Naming the type of conflicts we are in is like being able to diagnose the conflict,” Haga writes. “It pinpoints and articulates exactly what the problem is.” Diagnosing a conflict, then, can help you reframe it, “giving you some choices about how to engage in the conflict in a way that makes reconciliation more likely.”
Think like an artist.
So far we’ve asked you to put on your scientist hat and your activist hat to reevaluate your ways of thinking. But now it’s time to get a little more personal. As a school leader, you are no doubt passionate and dedicated to your work, but leaders like you often become derailed by a need to always get it right, to be perfect at what you do every single time, with every decision you make. This, of course, creates fear and stress.
In Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, author Elizabeth Gilbert shares her insights into the creative process, asking us to think like artists by being more curious and facing our fears with creativity. While it may seem like an unlikely technique, thinking more creatively as a leader can not only relieve stress, but also open you up to the mental work needed to accomplish anything we’ve mentioned here. In the very first chapter of Big Magic, Gilbert offers her unique definition of creative living. “The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all,” she writes, “and then stands back to see if we can find them. The hunt to uncover those jewels—that’s creative living.” Gilbert poses a question to her readers upon which she believes all creative living hinges: “Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures that are hidden within you?”
It may all sound a bit esoteric at first, but Gilbert’s ideas can be translated easily into other realms of our lives—even work that is prone to conflict and big decision-making. And while much of her writing revolves around living a “more enchanted existence,” she’s careful to define what that entails. “When I talk about ‘creative living’ here,” she writes, “please understand that I am not necessarily talking about pursuing a life that is professionally or exclusively devoted to the arts. I’m talking about living a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear.”
Are you noticing a theme? Whether you’re reframing conflicts or thinking like a scientist, curiosity over fear seems to be an essential part of solving big problems—and, as a school leader, those are your bread and butter. When Gilbert mentions fear, she isn’t just talking about fear of the unknown. She asks us to confront our fears—which can often hide behind stubbornness and a refusal to be wrong. “I think perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat, pretending to be elegant when actually it’s just terrified,” Gilbert writes. “Because underneath that shiny veneer, perfectionism is nothing more than a deep existential angst that says, again and again, ‘I am not good enough and I will never be good enough.’”
We need to acknowledge that being wrong is sometimes the only way to learn the truth of a situation. Perfect, in Gilbert’s eyes, doesn’t exist. “It starts by forgetting about perfect,” she writes. “We don’t have time for perfect. In any event, perfection is unachievable: It’s a myth and a trap and a hamster wheel that will run you to death.” If you want to get off that hamster wheel and live more creatively within your role as a school leader, you first have to acknowledge and appreciate that you can’t always be right, and you can’t do it alone. You have a team for a reason, and every perspective matters when you’re in the process of testing hypotheses and navigating conflict.
So, thinking like an artist isn’t about what you create—it’s about how you work with others and your own inner thoughts to resolve conflicts and make decisions. It takes courage, sure, but it also takes a big, magic slice of humility. Then you can find the hidden jewels within yourself, your team, and the situations that you face. “You can resist the seductions of grandiosity, blame, and shame,” Gilbert writes. “You can support other people in their creative efforts, acknowledging the truth that there’s plenty of room for everyone. You can measure your worth by your dedication to your path, not by your successes or failures.”
Rethink like a leader.
Rethinking and unlearning aren’t easy tasks. We are creatures of habit, and in our culture we’re accustomed to avoiding conflict at all costs. But part of being a leader is understanding how to navigate tension and approach new ideas with an open and curious mind—not just because it will make your job easier, but because it will lead to results that better serve your students and your community.
Being expected to always have an answer must be harrowing sometimes, and we won’t pretend we’ve walked in your shoes. But by unlearning negative ways of thinking, reframing your mindset to approach conflict like an activist, and letting go of fear, you can grow into a leader who experiments and asks for help when needed. It won’t always be easy, but it could earn you the experience, buy-in, and support needed to make the biggest impact possible.
The next time something sounds great, but just may not work, why not dare to pause and rethink it? Interrogate your beliefs and hypotheses. Start unlearning what’s holding you back so you can find out how to move your schools—and students—forward.
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