Mediating Conflict in
Your Student Chapter
A Guide for Student Chapter Leaders
BY JESSICA ROBERTS
As a leader of an ACS student chapter, you probably felt excited and, hopefully, prepared to take on the responsibility of your role. Whether you are planning events, hosting chapter business meetings, or con- tacting speakers, you probably have a list of roles and
responsibilities that came with your position. One role you might
not have expected to fulfill is that of a conflict mediator.
In almost every group, conflicts are bound to arise as people
disagree over how to tackle a given problem or task. These disagreements can be exacerbated by differences in personality
and communication styles, and they can be difficult to overcome. As a leader, you might have to step in to help your members find a resolution to a problem in order to keep the chapter
on track for success.
As an example, let’s say your chapter is planning an outreach event for Chemists Celebrate Earth Day (CCED), and the
two heads of your outreach team, Nadia and Matt, are not getting along. Nadia is fairly free-spirited and prefers to communicate face-to-face or using the group text. She wants to think
outside the box this year and move beyond her chapter’s traditional Tree Planting Day. She proposes doing a green chemistry demo at a local school. Matt, in contrast, likes traditional
activities and prefers to communicate official ideas in e-mail
so that he has a record. He is a bit shy and likes the idea of
continuing to plant trees on campus, perhaps even extending it
to a cleanup of the nearby river as well. Matt feels like Nadia is
being pushy with her idea, and Nadia feels that Matt is unfairly
shooting down her proposal.
When to step in?
This is perhaps the hardest question to answer because it is based
on a unique set of circumstances for each chapter. Conflicts can
often trigger a “fight-or-flight” response in people, ranging from
loud arguments to passive–aggressive actions to avoidance. As a
leader, it’s probably best to step in when the approaches to resolving issues are not working, or, at least, when one party indicates
they are having difficulty working with another party.
In our example, the situation escalates when Matt finds out
that Nadia has, without consulting with him first, announced to
the rest of the outreach team that the chapter will be doing green
chemistry demos. Upset with Nadia, Matt has come to you, the
chapter leader, to air his grievance.
How to respond?
If someone comes forward with a concern, you should make
sure they feel heard and understood while remaining impartial.
It’s often best to offer advice one-on-one first without jumping
straight into mediation. If that fails, or if you’re coming up on a
deadline for planning an event with still no possibility of a resolution, it’s probably time for mediation.
When Matt comes forward to you with the issue, you should
acknowledge his frustration and ask what he thinks would help
solve the problem. While mediation is usually the last thing
people want to do, it is often a more successful method for
resolving future problems than having chapter members speak
through you indefinitely. So although Matt may indicate he
wants you to talk to Nadia on his behalf, it may still be best to
sit down with both of them to help them discuss how to work
through this issue together.
Starting a mediation
Setting up mediation can feel extremely awkward, especially
if one party doesn’t realize there is a problem, which, unfortunately, does happen. If possible, talk to both parties one-on-one
and in person, and let them know you’d like to have a meeting to discuss the issue at hand. Avoid blaming either party;
instead, offer your help in finding a resolution.
Meet in a place where everyone feels comfortable, like a
club room if you have one, or a quiet corner of campus. Ideally,
everyone should be sitting at the same height, so that no one
feels like they are being overpowered.