Responding to Resistance

30 Strategies to Manage Conflict in Your School

By William A. Sommers (Solution Tree Press, 2021)

S.O.S. (A Summary of the Summary)

The main ideas of the book:

  • When managed poorly, conflict can consume huge amounts of school leaders’ time, energy, and resources.
  • With a wide-ranging repertoire of strategies for preventing and responding to conflict, school leaders can create more peaceful environments where precious time can be spent on teaching and learning.

Why I chose this book:

Chances are, you didn’t choose this job because you were hoping to spend your days enmired in conflict. You wanted to serve students, support teachers, and make a difference in your community. But in reality, your job includes tense meetings, angry emails, and district-wide controversies (and sometimes that’s just Monday morning).

I chose this book because I think it brings some hope to those days (or weeks) that feel like they’re overflowing with conflict. After you read this summary and try out the strategies and exercises, I believe you’ll find yourself stronger, more confident, and better prepared for whatever conflicts you face.

Get ready to pack a toolbox full of strategies to prevent, reframe, manage, and resolve conflict in your school or district.

The Scoop (In this summary you will learn…)

  •   4 foundational skills that can be applied to almost any conflict
  •   8 strategies for addressing (and preventing) conflict on small teams
  •   7 strategies to maintain good working relationships with individuals
  •   7 ideas for tackling large-scale conflicts that involve a school’s entire staff
  •   4 things to try when nothing else has worked
  •   The Main Idea’s professional learning suggestions for improving your conflict management skills


In education, conflict is inevitable. It’s just part of working with people. There’s always something to disagree over: new standards, new initiatives, budgets…pandemics. As a leader, you’ve raised your hand and said, “I won’t be a bystander.” You’ve stepped into the mess, and that means you’re going to have to find ways to respond to conflict effectively. With the right tools, you can address conflict, work through it in a positive way, and reduce the time that it takes away from instruction.

But first, what causes conflict?

  •  Change: It can feel uncomfortable to try something new. Honestly, you may feel uncomfortable trying some of the strategies in this book. You need to find healthy ways to deal with change because avoiding change entirely is impossible.

  • Power Imbalance: Parents or staff may feel powerless in comparison to you. They may want you to use your power to help them get their way. Try to avoid using the power of your position alone (“I’m the boss, so do what I say!”) When you can, it’s better to use your power as a person (your influence, your credibility, your caring) to guide others where you need them to go without destroying relationships.

  •  Mentality of Scarcity: Are teachers hoarding copier paper? Or toilet paper? This is a sure sign of the mentality of scarcity. Teachers may fear there isn’t enough to go around or that it won’t be shared fairly. Scarcity mentality can also be applied to leaders’ good graces. An “in crowd” who has your ear and an “out crowd” who doesn’t—that’s scarcity too.

  •  Diversity of Perspectives: Whose perspectives are you not seeking? Who is being left out of decision making? Do you know what students think? What about parents? Including them from the beginning will reduce conflict down the road.

  •  Incivility: If people treat each other poorly, emotions can get out of control. If they start shouting or name-calling, no one feels heard and conflict escalates.

All this conflict sounds really unpleasant. Any chance we can just…look the other way? Pretend it doesn’t exist? Sorry, but that’s not a good option for anyone in a leadership position. It’s your job to deal with it. Your community is counting on you.

It has often happened more that teachers have had complaints, but their principal didn’t listen and didn’t respond. The teachers didn’t have a healthy way to express their criticism, so they found others who agreed with them to hang out with. They isolated themselves. They started to dislike those who disagreed with them. They defended their own position instead of listening to other points of view. They retreated to their classrooms, closed their doors, and the school’s sense of community was destroyed.

Luckily, this tragic outcome is avoidable. When a monster of a conflict jumps out at us, we all tend to revert to some basic, instinctual responses: fight, flight, freeze, or appease. But these responses will usually make things worse, waste your time, and damage community. What you need is the emotional agility to sidestep your instincts and choose more effective tools for responding to conflict and resistance. You need a toolbox. And that’s what this book provides: 30 strategies to manage conflict in your school.

Chapter 1 – Foundational Skills

Let’s start with the basics. They might seem simple, but these foundational skills are essential for making the rest of the tools in the tool box work right. Applying these consistently will make every other strategy more effective.

Response Strategy 1 – CLARIFY ISSUES

Get specific with language in order to be sure everyone is talking about the same problem and the problem is clear enough that you can address it. Use targeted questioning to help others more clearly state the issue at hand. With the right questions, “Your school sucks” becomes “My son got an F on his last geometry test.” Complaints about “students” or “teachers” need to be narrowed down. Which students? Which teachers? Steer others away from generalizations about “nobody” and “everybody.” Avoid exaggerated labels like “worst” and “best.”

Response Strategy 2 – PARAPHRASE

When someone is describing a problem to you, paraphrase to show you’ve listened and also to check for accuracy. Use your own words to state the problem more concisely than the original speaker. If you go on longer than they did, you may lose a chance to really listen and make the speaker feel heard. If you copy their exact words, it might sound like you don’t really understand what they meant.


If you are wrong, if you caused the problem, or if you misunderstood the situation, you should take responsibility. As a leader, you may also need to share responsibility for others’ mistakes. Remember AAA for accepting responsibility: (1) agree with the person who’s bringing the problem to you, (2) apologize for the error, and (3) take action to make things right.

Sommers recounts an instance in which a student was about to lose credit for a course due to absences. When he learned that the student was homeless and juggling many challenges related to homelessness while attending high school, he agreed that the school’s policy didn’t adequately account for the circumstances of homeless students. He apologized for assuming the student didn’t care about school and took action to create an independent study plan for the student to resolve the credit issue.

Response Strategy 4 – SAY “I DON’T KNOW”

If you don’t know the answer, or you don’t have all the information, admit it. Offer to find out and share what you do know, but don’t pretend to know something you don’t. It’s dishonest and you’ll lose credibility.

Chapter 2 – Strategies for Working with Teams

After these foundational skills, we can move to some specific strategies for working with teams. Because you probably do a lot of your work with small teams like departments, grade-levels, or professional learning communities, you are sure to encounter groups of smart, well-meaning people who do not agree. The next eight response strategies are meant especially for those situations.


This strategy can help you understand an existing conflict and work to make a relationship better by drawing on the work of psychologist and marriage researcher, Dr. John Gottman. Gottman developed a four-stage framework for identifying unaddressed conflict. You can use his four stages of conflict to help you listen for and identify the degree of conflict on your team. Ask team members, “Which stage are you in now?”





  •  Letting problems build up instead of dealing with them

  •  "I was hurt by his actions, but I didn’t tell him.”


  •  Conflict becomes personal

  •  Looking for ways to get even

  • Refusing to give credit

  •  "Her faults are part of her personality.”

  • “I don’t respect him.”


  • No accountability

  • Lack of participation

  • Whining

  • Excuses

  • “Yeah, but…”


  • Nothing positive

  •  Molehills become mountains

  • “I left to calm down.”

  • “I’d rather stay silent than say what I think.”

In situations where team relationships have already deteriorated, something more than problem-solving will be needed to revive the team. Like the “date nights” that struggling couples may need in addition to counseling and conflict resolution, you can use proactive strategies to model good human relationships: say thank you, ask about team members’ lives, show care, and increase your rate of positive comments (Gottman suggests five positive comments for every negative comment). You can also proactively initiate positive interactions: joke around, find things to celebrate, start team rituals, or participate in a silly team activity such as an improv class.


While the previous strategy is meant for conflict that’s been brewing for a while, at times, you also may find yourself in the middle of a conversation that is turning into a conflict. Plan in advance how you will respond when an interaction starts to take a nasty turn.


  •  Calm down – Breathe. Prevent an adrenaline rush if you can. It can take up to an hour for adrenaline to return to normal levels, and when it’s elevated, you can’t do your best thinking.

  •  Avoid offense/defense – Be aware of your body language. Try to appear neutral and relaxed instead of aggressive (leaning forward) or defensive (crossing arms, withdrawing). Use I-statements to help keep others from becoming defensive.

  •  Validate – Validate others by recognizing their positive contributions. Encourage them to do the same by asking, “what do you like or admire about the other person?”

  •  Try, try again – Some conflicts may take multiple interactions to improve. Don’t give up. Keep using your strategies. Ask an honest friend for help processing the situation when possible.

Once the volume is turned down on the conflict, you’re still going to have to facilitate a conversation that resolves or at least starts to resolve the conflict at hand. At this point, a deliberate conflict mediation process can help.


Ask the following questions in order, allowing each teacher a chance to answer. They should alternate who answers first.

  •  What are the issues between you that need to be addressed, and how do you feel about them?

  •  What is the worst possible outcome if we cannot solve the issues?

  •  What is the best possible outcome if we can solve these issues?

  •  What actions are you willing to take in order to make the best outcome a reality?

  •  What will be the evidence that we are making progress toward the best outcome?

  •  How often shall we meet to make sure we’re living up to our agreements?

Visit to find a free reproducible to guide you through this process.


Sometimes, a team may not function well because members have different working styles, and they’ve never figured out how to accommodate one another. There are many frameworks out there for helping team members reflect on their own work styles, but one that your teams might find useful is Brinkman & Kirschner’s four basic work styles.


Get it right – This type attends to detail and avoids mistakes, but tends to over-plan and over-prepare.

Get it done – This type is task-oriented and gets results, but can also be too impulsive.

Get along – This type prioritizes relationships, but sometimes gets more talking than work done.

Get appreciated – This type works for approval, but can lose motivation if they’re not given credit.

While these types may not naturally appreciate each other’s styles, they need each other for balance. As a leader, you can help team members recognize their own and their teammates’ strengths. With practice, they may learn to lean on one another for balance.

Response Strategy 8 – DEVELOP TEAM PLAYERS

Just as you may need to help a team find its balance, you may at times find team members who need your help to develop into better team players. Encourage a reserved person to speak up more often. Guide the assertive teammate to listen more. The one who avoids challenge may benefit from being coached into a leadership or mentor role. 

Response Strategy 9 – ACT LIKE A TEAM

In other words, do the things great teams do, and do them consistently.

  • Speak up – Everyone needs to feel comfortable being honest, seeking feedback, asking questions, and talking about problems. Assuming positive intentions goes a long way toward building this comfort level.
  • Collaborate – Share information. Focus on what the group is learning.
  • Experiment – Try unproven things. Aim for a fast feedback loop that allows you to learn more and learn faster.
  • Reflect – Normalize talking about mistakes and learning from them.

This is a proactive strategy you can use whether you are encountering conflict or not. Being a great team in good times will help protect you against the worst outcomes when conflict arises in the future.


We all have ways we think or act some of the time that are just plain NOT helpful. Be wary of statements, thoughts, or actions that indicate these unhelpful mindsets.


“There’s only one way to play the game.”

“There must be winners and losers.”

“Time is running out (so there’s no use in trying).”

“Rules cannot be changed.”

“I’ll say whatever I need to satisfy someone else.”

“Let’s run down the clock instead of really trying.”

“I won’t tell you what I’m planning. It will keep you on your toes.”

You might notice these paradigms in yourself at times as well as in others. While they might contain a grain of truth, they’re rarely the whole truth. Try to coach teams past these ways of thinking and onto something more productive. Proactively set norms that will create a safe environment for everyone to express their best thinking.

Response Strategy 11 – ARGUE IDEAS, NOT PEOPLE

Phonics vs. whole language. Mathematical thinking vs. computational skills. There are many ideas over which smart and talented educators might disagree. The trick to keeping things civil is making sure the conflict stays focused on ideas rather than people. Use data, talk theory, criticize abstract concepts, but don’t get personal. Statements like “he’s so stubborn,” or “she’s always negative,” take reasonable disagreement into much more difficult territory. Make sure to proactively apply the foundational skills described in Chapter One (clarifying issues, paraphrasing, etc.)


Make sure you and your teams talk about the tough stuff, too. If your meetings are all sunshine and puppies, the secret truth might be that you and your team have “undiscussables.” Maybe team members believe it to be taboo to disagree with one another or with you. Maybe group culture so strongly favors the status quo that everyone feels uncomfortable bringing up anything new. Maybe there is an unspoken agreement to keep problems…unspoken.

It is well-documented that the engineering flaws which led to the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster were known in advance of the explosion, but the individuals who knew did not bring the problems to anyone’s attention. The pressure to conform and protect their own reputations and the organization’s image was high and, in this case, resulted in the deaths of seven astronauts.

Ask your team:

  • “What are our undiscussables?”
  • “Do we have any information that contradicts our beliefs?”
  • “What did we not talk about that we should have?”

Chapter 3 – Strategies for Working with Individuals

In addition to to the strategies for working with teams, there will also be times when you will need to deal with resistance from an individual. When individual interactions become intense, it’s important to be able to manage emotions and maintain respect.

Response Strategy 13 – GIVE IN OR DIG IN

A parent comes to you with a demand. You may sense that they intend to pressure, manipulate, or emotionally blackmail you in order to get their way. Their message is, “Give me what I want, or I will make your life very difficult.” There is no one right answer here. Sometimes it’s best to dig in and refuse to budge. Other times, it may be better to give in so everyone can move on.

Don’t let the manipulator make the decision for you. Decide for yourself whether you would prefer to deal with the consequences of digging in (they may go above your head to the superintendent), or giving in (others may find out you caved and it may weaken your stance in the future). Decide and act in a timely manner to prevent the situation from spiraling out of control.


Sommers relates a story of an extremely effective teacher on his staff who was reluctant to take on any leadership roles. He was able to draw her out and help her to become a leader by figuring out what motivated her. Below is David Rock’s SCARF model which describes five areas, based on neuroscience, that motivate people.

It will reduce conflict to keep these five domains in mind when interacting with staff:

  • Status – wants to feel important
  • Certainty – wants to feel the future is predictable
  • Autonomy – wants control over their own situation
  • Relatedness – wants safety and belonging with others
  • Fairness – wants to participate in an equal exchange

In Sommers’s anecdote, he determines that this teacher values status. He helps her to feel noticed by talking with her more often about education and what she is working on. Once she felt recognized for her expertise, it was easier to engage her in leadership roles.

Response Strategy 15 – MAKE OTHERS FEEL HEARD

In challenging conversations, people tend to make judgements quickly about the other’s meaning or intent. Frequently, we respond to our own judgements and expectations about the other’s meaning instead of responding to what they’ve actually said. This can lead to an unproductive loop in which no one is really listening and no one feels heard.


Do Ask:     “What is it that each of you need?”                         

                   “What would you like to request of others in relation to these needs?”

Don’t Say:  “I think you should…” (advising)                      

                    “That’s nothing…” (one-upping)

                    “This could be positive if you just…” (educating)

                    “It wasn’t your fault…” (consoling)

                    “That reminds me of the time…” (storytelling)    

                    “Cheer up. Don’t feel bad.” (shutting them down)

                    “You poor thing.” (sympathizing)                     

                    “When did this start?” (interrogating)

                    “I would have called, BUT…” (making excuses)  

                    “That’s not how it happened.” (correcting)

While these kinds of statements may have their place, they are not effective ways of making someone feel heard. They tend to dismiss the speaker or refocus the conversation onto yourself.

Response Strategy 16 – TURN NEGATIVE TO POSITIVE

When someone comes to you with an idea you disagree with, you can turn the conversation in a positive direction by structuring your response with the “Three Fs” (Felt, Feel, Found).

  1. Honor the other person’s point of view. Empathize with the idea and share if you once felt that way, too.
  2. Promote a new thought or plan. Tell what you feel now that is different.
  3. Provide new information that reframes the issue. Explain what you found out (evidence) that led you to change your mind.

Sample Response: A group of parents thinks P.E. should not be a requirement so students can have more room in their schedules for academics. Leader Response: I felt that way once too—that physical education and health were not as important as academics. But now I feel P.E. and Health classes are essential because I found out they lead to better mental health outcomes, better cooperation with others, and better decision-making on topics like alcohol and drugs.


People often have roles they play when conflict arises, and roles are not usually productive, especially if they become too fixed. If you know your staff well, you may be able to recognize their typical roles and plan specific interventions to help them stop playing their roles and start participating more productively.



The Placater – will do or say anything to smooth over or avoid conflict

Ask directly for their ideas in team meetings. Don’t allow them to take responsibility for everyone’s feelings.

The Blamer – pins every problem on someone else

Closely monitor the blamer’s words and body language. Ask someone else at the table to summarize what they’re saying in order to remove blaming tone.

The Computer – looks to data for answers and is low on social-emotional skills

Honor the use of data alongside social-emotional considerations. Ask them to help with social-emotional learning for students, thus exposing them to the material.

The Distracter – brings up additional issues, which distract from the main issue

Assign them the job of keeping the group on task and following the meeting agenda.

The Leveler – believes in a dynamic of winners and losers and is trying to win

Give them time to write a response first in order to tame the aggression of their initial reaction.

Response Strategy 18 – MANAGE UP

Like the teachers and staff members who report to you, the person you report to is also an individual. Learning and working with their style can make an enormous difference in your day-to-day work.

  • Speak your manager’s language – Communicate the way they prefer. This could include the mode (such as picking up the phone instead of sending an email). It might also include other idiosyncrasies. Sommers tells about a former superintendent he reported to who loved athletics. If Sommers approached him to talk about “data,” the superintendent tuned out. But if he introduced his data with a sports metaphor (“you’re the quarterback and the principals are your linemen”) it was much easier to keep his attention.
  • Offer information regularly – This can be especially useful if you work for a micromanager. Try a “five-fifteen” report. Take fifteen minutes to write a bulleted summary of the past week as well as up-coming events. Aim for something your supervisor can read in five minutes. This practice can help to head off the out-of-the-blue requests for information that leave you scrambling.
  • Build trust through communication – Even if your manager is not your favorite person to talk to, you still need to communicate with them in order to do your job well. The more your manager learns to trust you, the more pleasant your job will become.


There will come times when you need to have those truly difficult conversations when performance is not meeting expectations. Informal chats and less intensive strategies have not worked. You are not quite to the point of a formal disciplinary procedure, but you fear you may get there if this person doesn’t improve. It’s a good time to use the FRISK model. The model keeps the conversation on track, makes sure you cover your bases, and keeps you consistent.

  • Facts – Share evidence of the problematic conduct. You can include feelings as well because if one person is upset about another’s actions, then that feeling is a fact that will ultimately make it more difficult for the two to work together.
  • Rules – Explain any rules, norms, and expectations you have for their work.
  • Impact – Describe how this individual’s behavior has impacted their team or the school as well as what you believe the results will be if the behavior doesn’t change.
  • Suggestions – Make suggestions for how they can improve and clearly state the behavior you expect to see in the future. This step is crucial for moving forward to a more formal disciplinary procedure if that is needed.
  • Knowledge – Ensure the employee knows their rights and options in the situation. They may have the right to involve their union or association. You need to know this and tell them clearly. Ensure this step is fair so you can move to formal action if you need to.

Chapter 4 – Strategies for Working with Large Groups

Hopefully you’re feeling well-equipped for those challenging team meetings or moments when an aggravated individual shows up at your office door. But what about those big… bad… meetings where the entire staff seems to have taken sides on some issue and tension or even angry voices fill the school auditorium? While this chapter doesn’t have the power to make those meetings disappear, it can set you up with seven more tools you can use right out of the box to stop conflict from ruling the day.


All school leaders will have to deliver bad news at one time or another. Budget cuts are coming. Staff positions will be eliminated. Maybe you didn’t make the decision, but you’re responsible for communicating it. Timeliness and honesty are key here. Show staff they can trust you, and don’t let the rumors start to swirl. Set the meeting quickly, and get ready to deliver the news well using the power of non-verbal communication to depersonalize the information and distance yourself from it.


  •  Provide visuals – Get the news, the data, or whatever other information you have up on a screen, board, or chart where everyone can see it clearly.

  •  Stand off to the side – Position yourself at a 90-degree angle to the displayed information. The audience can see the information and you, but you are not in the direct line of fire. Don’t face the audience or stand in front of the information. That conveys vulnerability. Don’t turn your back to the audience either. That looks like you’re hiding.

  •   Direct attention with your eyes – When talking about the bad news, focus your eyes on the visual display. When talking about the process or the solution, focus on the audience to convey your positive relationship.

  •   Speak in the third person – Say “the data” or “the budget.” Don’t say “my data” or “my budget.” 

  •   Separate problem and solution – When you are done delivering the bad news, take a few steps away from it, then turn to look at the audience. Say “we” (gesturing to indicate the audience and yourself) “are going to figure out how to deal with this” (point to the display) “together.”

  •   Talk credibly about the data – Lower your voice, get closer to monotone, pitch your voice down at the ends of sentences, and use few gestures.

  •   Talk approachably about the solution – Modulate your pitch up and down to convey friendliness. Use an open stance and hand gestures.

  •   Be specific – Don’t say “we’ll need to cut some staff.” Instead, say “we are cutting 3.6 full-time equivalents.” Specific numbers and dollar amounts can head off rumors and panic.

Note: These same non-verbal strategies can be used on a smaller scale when delivering bad news to a parent. Place low grades or negative behavior reports on an easy-to-read print-out that can sit on the table between the two of you. The bad news is the report, not the student. You can look at the report when discussing the problem and at the parent when discussing the solution.

Response Strategy 21 – FIND A COMPROMISE

Compromise sounds like a great way to solve a problem, but it can be tricky to find one in the midst of a real-life conflict.

Here are 5 mini-strategies that can help two parties reach a compromise.

  • Swap points of view – Ask each person to present the other’s case as an experiment.
  • Focus on interests, not positions – Imagine two sisters who both want the same orange. They finally agree to cut it in half, only to discover that one wanted to eat the fruit, and the other wanted to grate the peel for a recipe. If they had discussed their interests (or reasons for wanting what they wanted) they could have come up with a better solution.
  • Invent new options – Get away from the zero-sum mentality by thinking outside the box. A new initiative may not need to take money away from other budget items if a new funding source can be found. Outside grants or alumni gifts are just one way that new options can be created.
  • Use objective criteria – Two teachers advocate different instructional strategies, both backed by research. How can you evaluate their suggestions fairly? One strategy is to find some objective criteria for evaluation, such as examining the research behind each method. Maybe one study was more robust (larger sample size, etc.). This could give you an objective reason to tip the scales.
  • No-Deal Alternative – If no deal can be reached, what will happen? Before negotiations begin, it’s a good idea to know at what point you’d be willing to “walk away.” For example, you might go in knowing you’d be willing to resign rather than agree to something you consider morally wrong.


Anyone in education knows it’s not uncommon to go to a meeting or a workshop, learn about a new theory or approach, nod in agreement, even think to yourself, “I should do this…” only to return to your classroom or office, put the handout in a file drawer and forget about it. Why do we do that? We don’t always say our reasons out loud, but here’s what they might sound like if we did.


  • “Who made these decisions? Not me…”
  • “Meetings, meetings, meetings…it’s all talk and no action.”
  • “I don’t have time for new stuff. I’ll stick with what I know.”
  • “I’m not trying something new. If it doesn’t work, I might lose my job.”
  • “There’ll be a new initiative next year, and the year after that. So, what’s the point?”
  • “I better focus on test scores because they get measured. No time for stuff that isn’t measured.”

To help teachers overcome the gap between knowledge and action, leaders can…

  • Share “why” before “how.” Why is this new initiative worth time and energy?
  • Emphasize action AND send a message with your own actions. Visibly spend your time on the priorities that matter most.
  • Cultivate collaboration, trust, and safety. Demonstrate that it’s okay to make mistakes. That means you’re trying!
  • Measure what matters. Staff prioritize what leader measure. Make sure you’re communicating the right priorities.

Response Strategy 23 – PREVENT MOBBING

While you may normally think of bullying as a problem among students, it can happen among staff too. A group of teachers decides they dislike a certain staff member, and they gang up on them by ignoring them or intentionally misinterpreting their actions. For this to work, the “mobbing” teachers must also be able to convince other staff members to join in or at least tolerate their behavior toward the victim, and management must silently condone it.

Two ways you can counter bullying as a leader:

  • Encourage positive values based on a school-wide vision statement. Include a promise of a psychologically safe environment. Communicate the vision and demonstrate your commitment to it on an on-going basis.
  • Have clear procedures for recognizing, reporting, and confronting bullying, including investigation and consequences. Involve human resources, and be sure to confront the main antagonist directly.

Response Strategy 24 – USE AN ASSET-BASED APPROACH

Even when a problem seems widespread in a school, there are always outliers. If the majority of teachers are unable to raise student test scores, it is natural to focus your energy on investigating what they are doing wrong. But what about the minority of teachers who are successfully raising scores? Try using an asset-based (rather than a deficit-based) approach, and ask, what are the successful teachers doing? How are they getting better results? By investigating the positive outliers, you may find answers that can help a floundering majority. Perhaps the teachers getting the best results can even help to teach their colleagues new strategies.

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Sommers describes a scenario in which a new principal arrived at a school already deep in controversy. Should they move to block scheduling or keep their six-period day? The staff had divided into factions. The new principal had to make the decision (and live with the consequences). In cases of large-scale disagreement like this, a leader needs to skillfully facilitate the decision process in order to avoid breakdown of community and positive working relationships among the staff.


  1. Listen to all stakeholders.
  2. Be transparent about how the decision will be made. For example, if there will be a vote, clarify how large a majority is needed.
  3. Thoroughly investigate. Are there other schools who have made the change under consideration? What obstacles have they encountered? What success have they found?
  4. Present discoveries to all stakeholders.
  5. Use the pre-established process to arrive at a decision.
  6. Make the decision public along with the reasons it was made.

Response Strategy 26 – VALUE YOUR OPPONENTS

You probably know who your allies are—those teachers who trust and respect you and tend to agree or at least go along with you on most things. But how would you describe your relationships with other staff? Organizational consultant, Peter Block presents a framework for considering your relationships with various staff members.


“Bedfellows” (high agreement, low trust)


They’re with you when they agree with you, but against you if they don’t.


Do: Check their “temperature” on new initiatives, reach agreements where you can, set clear expectations, and be aware others may try to “win them over.”

“Allies” (high agreement, high trust)


They respect you, and they’ll probably be on your side most of the time.


Do: Maintain the relationship, and ask for their feedback and concerns.

“Adversaries” (low agreement, low trust)


They don’t trust you, and they’re unlikely to agree with you no matter what you do.


Do: Make sure you understand their position. State your reasons and your plan then move forward. Don’t let them waste your time.

“Opponents” (low agreement, high trust)


They trust you, but don’t necessarily agree with you.


Do: Maintain the relationship, check their perceptions and opinions on new projects, ask them to work with you, and don’t mistake them for adversaries.

Chapter 5 – Strategies for When Nothing Seems to Work

Even with a toolbox packed full of strategies, there will be times when none of your tools are working. Some problems involve two conflicting sides, which are interdependent. Some issues are on-going and simply cannot be solved for good. They must be continuously managed. Here are four last strategies, specially designed to address the most difficult problems.

Response Strategy 27 – BALANCE POLARITIES

Sommers presents a thought exercise for understanding polarities: Imagine a person who is excellent at inhaling and very bad at exhaling. On average, they’re an okay breather. But average doesn’t matter in this case. The reality is, the person would die. Both skills are essential and neither can operate well alone.

Here are a few more examples of polarities that pop up in schools: tried-and-true methods vs. fresh ideas, independent student work vs. students working together, top-down leadership vs. shared leadership, whole language vs. phonics. These and other polarities cannot be solved by choosing one or the other. They must be balanced.


It is tempting to believe you can always change someone’s behavior through a combination of caring and coaching, but that’s not true every time, and the consequences for their team can be devastating. Researchers Sutton and Rao demonstrate that one “bad apple” on a team reduced productivity by thirty to forty percent. There may be instances when you need to remove someone from the staff for the greater good of the school.

  • Don’t delay. Once you’ve made the decision, move forward. Procrastinating will only make things worse.
  • Be clear and resolute. Work with your superintendent and human resources. Follow the appropriate process, and clearly state the reasons, the corrective plan undertaken, and the results. Put this in writing and refer to it if the meeting becomes emotional
  • Be respectful. Do not degrade the individual. Focus on the negative impacts on the team, not their failings as a person. If you can, offer some recommendations for the future.


When there is a power differential between groups or individuals, conflict can turn into abusive interactions. As a leader, you must immediately address any instances of abuse you become aware of. It may also be helpful to keep in your toolbox a set of appropriate, professional responses you can use if someone becomes abusive toward you in a workplace conversation.



Yelling or aggression

“You’ll be sorry you ever crossed me!”

“I won’t tolerate being yelled at.”

Character attacks

“Did you know she was drunk?”

“There’s no need to spread rumors or make character attacks. That’s not relevant to what we’re discussing.”


“I know some things, but I won’t tell you.”

“I’m tired of this one-sided conversation. Tell me what you’re thinking.”


“I know my way is better than yours.”

“We have a difference of opinion. You have your reasons, and I have mine.”


“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Stop discounting my opinion.” “Listen to my reasons, and take them seriously.”

Disguising abuse as a joke

“I was just messing with you.”

“I don’t want to joke about serious matters. Let’s talk when we can be direct.”

Blocking or diverting

“I’m not going to listen to this!”

“Give me the respect to listen to my suggestions.”


“It’s your fault nothing ever gets done.”

“Please stop accusing me. I don’t like being talked to that way.”


Sommers tells of a high school teacher with thirty years of experience who was a nice man but had become a boring teacher. His classes were under-enrolled, and he was unwilling to change his teaching methods. While no one wanted to fire this teacher for being boring, the principal did want to get more energy and creative ideas into the class. Ultimately, the principal was able to reassign the teacher by creating a new position for this teacher to supervise in-school suspension.

When considering what to do about an underperforming teacher, remember MOVE for multiple options to consider. The person could be moved to another position. Outplacement, including career counseling, could be used to help the teacher find a new direction. A teacher might voluntarily exit if you can help remove logistical barriers. If all else fails, and dismissal is appropriate, you may need to eliminate a teacher from the staff (see Response Strategy 28 for tips on getting this right).

So, now that you have your 30 strategies for dealing with conflict, what’s next? Take a deep breath and a moment to feel good about the learning you’ve done. You have increased your ability to provide a safe environment for your teachers and students. That’s no small thing! In fact, this is one of the most important aspects of a school leader’s job. By effectively managing conflict, you are allowing teachers to spend their precious time and energy on what really matters—teaching students.

From here, start with what feels right. Try out a strategy or two that appeals to you. The other strategies are there for you when you need them. The work of a school leader is often an exercise in improvisation – Sommers even recommends taking an improv acting class if you can! The more strategies you have at your fingertips, the better you can handle whatever comes at you in a day.

THE MAIN IDEA’s PD suggestions that go along with this book are not included in this html link. To see those ideas, go to and download the full book summary.