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“Conflicts can lead to valuable discussions.”

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Published on Monday, 03 January 2022

Many people look at conflicts as something that needs to be avoided at all costs. “Conflict is not necessarily bad,” says Dr. Brent Epperson, the University’s Ombudsman. “In fact, conflict can be good for organisations because it encourages open-mindedness and creativity.” The key, in Brent’s view, is to learn how to manage conflicts effectively so that it can serve as a catalyst, rather than a hindrance, to organisational improvement. In this interview you’ll not only learn more about conflicts in the workplace but also a little more about Brent’s background and the reasons that led him to become an ombudsman.

Brent, you deal with conflicts every day, what’s your view on conflicts in the workplace?

We always say wherever there are people there's conflict. It's inevitable in the workplace where you have competing interests and values. But conflict isn't necessarily bad and it's not something we should fear. Conflicts can lead to valuable discussions, better ways of managing work, and stronger institutions. I've never seen a situation improve because people avoided conflict. Conflict avoidance can eventually lead to other problems. It's something we should accept as a normal part of long term working relationships. What matters is managing it correctly, having good mitigation processes in place, and having proper support services to help guide people through conflicts so that they can have a positive resolution. I think people should learn to manage conflicts well and by doing so learn to emerge from conflicts with stronger working relationships and self-awareness.

How do you help individuals to increase their conflict management skills?

During a personalised conflict resolution coaching session, the visitor describes the conflict, I listen actively, and after a thorough analysis I coach the visitor on ways to make the relationship better with the third party. As the expression goes Give a Man a Fish, and You Feed Him for a Day. Teach a Man To Fish, and You Feed Him for a Lifetime, the same goes with learning how to manage conflict in the workplace. If you spend some time working with someone to develop conflict resolution skills, that's something that they're going to benefit from for their entire career, whether they're a student or an employee, whatever stage they're at, it's something that will be useful going forward.

In my view if you help people develop better conflict resolution skills, it can help change the culture of any organisation. I can only imagine that handling issues and conflicts can be quite overwhelming at times. How do you keep positivity in life?

First, I want to say that I take great personal satisfaction helping people improve their working relationships and approach conflict more effectively. As I said, I think conflict is something that is an inevitable part of life, and learning how to manage it well makes for more enriching work and personal lives. Helping people to do that is something that I take a lot of satisfaction from.

That's not to say that seeing people down or angry can't have an impact on someone. We're all human. I believe that the body fuels the mind. I take my time for exercise very seriously and I make sure that the food that I eat contributes to healthy stress management and good general health. Finally, there are many professional ombudsman associations that an ombuds can turn to for advice and support. These associations provide a foundation for ombuds all over the world to consult with one another. The dialogues that happen within those associations are incredibly helpful; they're helpful for maintaining high morale among ombuds and also for promoting and learning best practices for all the situations that we might be faced with. I am a member of the European Network of Ombuds in Higher Education (ENOHE), the Association of Canadian College and University Ombuds (ACCUO) in my home country, the International Ombuds Association (IOA), and the California Caucus of College and University Ombuds (CCCUO). I have gained a lot from collaborations in these organisations.

It appears that few people set out to become an ombuds. Why does one become an Ombuds? What led you to choose this path?

The Ombuds environment is a real melting pot of different backgrounds and motivations. Many of my Ombuds colleagues are lawyers by training, some are psychologists. Many like me are researchers with social science backgrounds whose research topic or methodology led them to ombuds work. In my case, becoming an ombudsman was an unintentional shift. My first experience with mediation was during my master's degree when I was working as a social worker. I did training in mediation for foster families in order to learn ways to handle conflicts that may happen when children are placed by government in a foster family. Later, during my PhD, I was a representative in the student delegation, and was working on labour conflicts. And again, mediation skills became something important to develop in that role. Finally, during my PhD research on issue framing and media representation of public policy, I read about narrative mediation and decided to deepen my knowledge of mediation and communications in conflict. I pursued training parallel to my doctoral work. Then unexpectedly, an ombudsman position opened up at the University of Alberta where I was studying. I applied and I was selected for the Graduate Ombudsman role, working with graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and medical residents. I went on to do further training in best practices for ombudsman offices and restorative practices.

You worked in a well-established team of Ombuds at the University of Alberta in Canada, at the University of Luxembourg you’re starting from a blank page. How will this be different this time round?

Indeed, the University of Alberta is a much larger institution than the University of Luxembourg, hence the need for a bigger team. Institutional frameworks and cultures are different and an ombudsman has to be sensitive to that, but the methods that I employ as an ombudsman are largely the same regardless where in the world I live and work. 

For a new ombudsman, there's always a period of trying to increase community knowledge, making sure people are aware that the Ombudsman is available to help them. Throughout this year, I'll be doing a lot of presentations and workshops on campus to different audiences so everybody understands the added value of an Ombudsman and the ways I am available to help.

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