By Katie Elyce Jones
A bossy note taped to the overflowing fridge in the office break room. An irate e-mail fired off to a teacher who issued a bad grade. A series of icy stares on the drive home from a romantic dinner gone sour. Conflict never fails to creep into our professional, social, and romantic relationships.
But what sparks conflict between people? How do they choose to communicate when upset? How do their decisions affect the quality of their relationships? These are the kinds of questions Courtney Wright, associate professor of communication studies, explores in her research at UT.
She asserts that conflict can actually be a good thing for relationships of all kinds—when it’s managed constructively.
“Conflict has potential for both opportunity and danger,” Wright said. “This paradox challenges us to develop the skills necessary to navigate the dangers of conflict, minimizing and avoiding them where possible, while embracing its opportunities.”
Wright specializes in interpersonal communication and conflict in close relationships and instructional settings. She is particularly interested in social confrontation and influence and in forms of communication—such as the silent treatment or teasing—that can be more destructive than intended. Through teaching and consulting activities, Wright also offers insight into managing conflict in the workplace, the classroom, and other interpersonal situations.
Not a Mind Reader
It’s no secret that romantic partnerships are often laced with conflict. But sometimes lovers don’t use words to express their feelings. As French author Victor Hugo once said, “When a woman is talking to you, listen to what she says with her eyes.”
Wright recently co-authored a study with Michael Roloff of Northwestern University that explored the impact of such unspoken communication, particularly when one partner expects the other to understand why they’re upset without being told. This concept is also known as “mind-reading expectations.”
The study, “You Should Just Know Why I’m Upset,” found that people who have mind-reading expectations often put their relationships at greater risk because they feel even worse when their partner does not recognize why they are distressed.
“To escalate matters, the person with mind-reading expectations is likely to turn to more destructive forms of communication like the silent treatment to make their point,” Wright said. This cycle may lead people with mind-reading expectations to have less satisfying relationships, because they feel their partner lacks empathy.
Adopting direct and constructive communication tactics can help partners avoid this dysfunctional cycle. Wright suggests expressing emotions with clarity by saying, “When you do X, in situation Y, I feel Z,” and communicating with openness rather than inflexibility or defensiveness.
Another relationship very familiar to Wright involves the interaction between faculty and students. “I subscribe to the perspective of teaching as an interpersonal relationship,” she noted. “And a positive relationship helps provide a foundation for dealing with inevitable difficult dialogues in the classroom, such as opposing points of view, individual differences (e.g., race, gender), or civility issues.”
Perhaps one of the most common and challenging dialogues in this type of relationship—capable of creating conflict and bruising feelings on both sides—is evaluation or grades. Wright is interested in examining factors that influence whether and how students discuss disappointing grades with faculty. Her goal is to discover the best ways to effectively manage these and other difficult exchanges while maximizing the learning opportunities within.
“College students’ educational attitudes and behaviors significantly impact how they attempt to influence faculty during grade conversations,” Wright said. Her research found that students oriented toward learning use constructive tactics. On the other hand, students focused on grades tend to use manipulative tactics that hinder learning opportunities and possibly damage the instructor-student relationship.
What about students who avoid confrontation? “Faculty efforts to assist students are greatly inhibited when students do not talk to them about disappointing grades. And research has generally overlooked these unique circumstances,” Wright said.
In her 2013 study, “Examining the Silence of Academic Disappointment,” Wright surveyed college students to develop a list of reasons why they chose not to discuss disappointing grades with faculty. Some cited personal reasons that did not involve the instructor, such as feeling unprepared for the assignment or not considering the grade to be important to them.
But other reasons were based on how they perceived their relationship with the instructor. Students submitted responses such as “He [the instructor] is extremely intimidating” or “Because I do not think my instructor likes me and any attempt to dispute my grade would cause her to like me less.”
Wright believes the instructor-student relationship treads a fine line between danger and opportunity. If a student believes discussing a disappointing grade could cause further stress to the relationship—potentially even leading to other disappointing grades down the line—they may choose to stay silent.
While it might work out temporarily, the long-term consequences of unconstructive responses to conflict—like avoiding difficult conversations, using manipulation, or punishing a partner with silence—may ultimately lead to missed opportunities and less satisfying relationships.