Dealing with conflicts during the PhD period

This is the title of a workshop that I attended lately, which I considered very insightful and worth sharing with you. It was chaired by Dr. Silja Schoett, research associate at Leuphana university with training in mediating and coaching, and comprised a small group of 6 people. While the course was officially embedded in a mentoring program for PhD students at this university, it soon turned out to focus on conflict resolution tools that are useful in every stage of life.

Image (c) Chris Slane

To start with: What is a conflict? According to Oboth (2005), an individual can have a conflict with him/herself, for instance on how to develop personally (i.e. “what career should I enter?”). Besides, conflicts can occur between individuals and an organisation/institution, or in relation to another individual. In mediation, conflicts are clearly inter-personal and may result from the behaviour of one/several individual(s) that is perceived as impairing by another individual (Glasl 2004). They are the expression of unfulfilled needs (Rosenberg, cit. in Oboth 2005). Needs, overall, are the central aspect of conflict resolution. Needs and interests serve one’s personal life; for instance: “Because I wanted to have a secure job, I became a civil servant.” Needs, feelings, and the personal identity are thereby closely linked. If your personal needs are fulfilled/ respected, you’ll have a positive feeling. If not, this may lead to a negative feeling. In mediation it is argued that there are three basic necessities, namely security, relationship (partners, friends etc.), and autonomy. In the course we argued that we would add estimation/ appreciation. We did some exercises that supported this observation. Some participants felt they lacked the estimation of their supervisor for their PhD work, resulting in frustration and reduced productivity. I guess this link may be true for all kinds of jobs..


People express their feelings either directly or indirectly. To this end, we articulate our feelings and necessities usually through a position/ point of view (see fig.), which can be considered a shield. Usually we wouldn’t say “I’m hungry (i.e. I have the need for food), that’s why I’m aggressive at the moment (= feeling)”, but maybe rant at somebody who then doesn’t know what’s going on. Why do we rather rarely express our needs directly? We may not be as self-conscious/ reflected. Or we worry about being harmed. So often it seems easier just to let off steam, instead of explaining oneself or behaving proactively.

What can we do to uncover our needs, and find strategies to clarify our position, in order to avoid conflicts and articulate them ‘nicely’? Helpful in this respect are the ‘four steps of non-violent communication’ by Bähner et al. (2008), illustrated by one example from the workshop:
(1) My perception/observation of a situation; example: An important deadline is approaching rapidly.
(2) My feelings/ my mood, i.e. what do I feel about my observation?: I’m scared I won’t keep the deadline.
(3) My need (i.e. in general, without referring to a location/time/others): I need more appreciation/ support/ encouragement, etc.
(4) My specific and compliable request (i.e. specific, with time/ location/ support of others): appreciation/ support by person XY, friends, the partner, etc.

You can think of a conflict (personal/ interpersonal), and go through these stages- it’s quite eye-opening! Last but not least, how to behave to prevent or solve a conflict? For instance, a colleague is accusing you indirectly in front of the whole team (e.g. “somebody here always talks without being asked!”). Following this example: If you were to approach this colleague, firstly (try to) reflect the situation (‘what’s just going on?’), and don’t insult him/her or be aggressive (“I know you’re talking about me, stupid!”/ “Why on earth are you accusing me?”), but rather try to take his/her perspective (‘why is s/he annoyed’, ‘are there other reasons for her/him to behave like this?’). In general, it might be useful to ‘mirror’ your counterpart to prevent conflicts, thus to repeat/summarize the behaviour of your counterpart (“You said..- did I get that right?” or “did you want to express.. by stating…?“)

I am aware that everybody is different; some are more introverted or extroverted, some are more reflected/ open to critique/ whatsoever, and everybody (re)acts differently in various situations/ conflicts. Some just bury their heads in the sand when faced with conflicts (ostrich-like behaviour); others bristle (the hedgehog), bare their claws (the lion), or are totally serene (the snail). Anyway, I found the above mentioned tools very helpful to reflect on (internal/ inter-personal) conflicts, and to develop ways/strategies to tackle them. What do you think?


References (German)

Bähner, Christian/Oboth, Monika/Schmidt, Jörg: Konfliktklärung in Teams & Gruppen. Praktische Anleitung und Methoden zur Mediation in Gruppen. Praxisbox. Junfermann: Paderborn 2008.

Glasl, Friedrich: Konfliktmanagement. Ein Handbuch für Führungskräfte, Beraterinnen und Berater. 8. aktualisierte und erg. Aufl. Bern u. a.: Haupt u. a. 2004.

Oboth, Monika/Seils, Gabriele: Mediation in Gruppen und Teams. Praxis- und Methodenhandbuch. Konfliktklärung in Gruppen, inspiriert durch die Gewaltfreie Kommunikation. Junfermann: Paderborn 2005.

3 thoughts on “Dealing with conflicts during the PhD period

  1. Very nice! One thing that I learnt (perhaps not so structured as you wrote it here) is to always try to start your sentence with “I felt…” instead of with “You said/did…”. I learnt it from a good friend and it really works to not enter into conflicts while expressing your opinion. Thanks for sharing this!

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