While I was at the University of Illinois, I had the privilege to participate in an organization called the Illinois Trial Team. The Trial Team was a mock trial organization whose members traveled around the country competing in tournaments against other schools. The twenty-eight-member organization was a great way to practice public speaking while learning a good amount of courtroom procedure, but, handily, the biggest benefit to me was what I learned as its president during the 2017-18 school year.
Managing Conflict in a Student Organization
The Illinois Trial Team is made up of a bunch of fake attorneys. The vast majority of its members are extremely argumentative (surprised?) and often quite stubborn (I’m not innocent). In short, it can be very difficult in even marginally touchy situations to get anything done without someone getting offended. In order to be an effective leader in that organization, he or she must tread carefully.
This delicate environment led to a great lesson in diplomacy. If I wanted to keep things as stable as they could be, I had to consistently meet with members of our organization, especially if I caught wind that someone was unhappy. Letting a negative attitude fester typically leads to worse problems in due time. If there was a complaint from someone, I would ask them about it. Typically, it would go something like this, “I’ve heard [insert lightly worded and watered down complaint]. Is that true?” Seeing a platform, especially after I had proven to them that I would actually take action to solve the problems, that person would usually voice their concerns without hesitation. They trusted me, even if they were not happy about something. But listening to member concerns was one thing; it was another to address them.
After discussing it with the person, we would look for a common ground solution. This solution would often be some sort of mutually beneficial adjustment; a person might have complained about their current role on the team and wanted something else, so we’d take steps towards giving that person a greater one in other, similar areas if the exact one they desired was blocked by someone else. The point was to always be moving forward so everyone would stay true to our mission of being the best pre-law organization at our school as we gained great experience in public speaking and basic trial advocacy. The changes needed to at least temporarily satisfy someone’s issues were often quite minimal, though they would have likely grown had swift action not been taken. The worst case scenario from a meeting with a member would be at least to buy time without making the situation worse for a little while.
That is a major key to solving any conflict: not allowing it to get worse on its own. In many cases, these things do not take care of themselves, and it is dangerous to assume that they will. On some occasions, a leader may have to moderate; on others, they might need to give advice for as to how the person can take action themselves. Either way, it is not worth it to let pettiness take the wheel and drive itself. Most conflicts are the result of something that, in the grand scheme of things, is rather silly.
A good rule of thumb is to never tell someone that they are wrong. Telling someone that what he or she is doing is petty or foolish, even if that person is clearly in the wrong, will only serve as a setback. That person may become angrier, and it will be harder to find common ground. It was very, very hard to resist doing this in otherwise annoying situations, but I got a lot of practice in remaining disciplined and calm.
My time on the team taught me the importance of keeping conflicts close to the chest. There is always some sort of positive action that can be taken to make a situation better. While some other things will always take priority, it is important to not disregard the little things since they are the ones that inevitably grow into the large ones in due time.