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Navigating Conflicts with Research Advisors, Mentors, or Colleagues


Teri Surprenant, MA, Managing Editor, Language Editing

February 2021

Communication is a necessary part of our everyday lives, but not every interaction with our advisors, mentors, colleagues, and even family members is pleasant and productive. We frequently have to navigate through trying conversations. The key to successfully engaging with individuals is in your approach.

Here are some tips on how to prevent conflicts and resolve them when they do arise:

1. First and foremost, remember to remain professional and respectful. Whether in the lab or in the office, we all encounter people from various backgrounds who have differing ideas on how tasks should be accomplished. Despite these differences, the common goal should be to treat others with respect and courtesy.
2. Try to deal with issues when they are “little” issues. The longer problems fester, the more trouble and resentment they may cause.
3. Focus on the topic at hand. While you and the other individual may have a history of disagreeing, you do not want to bring past problems into the current conversation. Engaging in this behavior will take you further away from a resolution.
4. Try to remain factual and stay on topic when conversations get heated instead of letting emotions seep into the discussion.
5. It is okay if you do not agree with a colleague’s suggestion or point of view but be sure to keep an open mind as you enter the conversation and try to view the issue from a different perspective. We can all learn from others. However, if someone is adamant about a certain aspect of your research being performed a certain way or refusing to budge on a deadline, take a step back (sometimes literally) from the conversation. Then do some research before you meet with them again so you are armed with data as to why a certain method would be better or figure out a way to come up with an amicable deadline that works for both parties. Sometimes reaching an agreeable solution requires out-of-the-box thinking, and being creative is a beneficial skill to have in any profession.
6. If you are dealing with an upset individual via email, do not immediately respond. While you do not want to leave them waiting too long for a response, you also don’t want to jump too quickly and inadvertently add fuel to the fire, ultimately making the situation worse. Depending upon the amount of time you can take to respond, you may want to try one of the techniques that follow. (a) Walk away from your desk so you can clear your head and address the message a few minutes later. You do not want to engage in an “email war” with anyone; it never ends well for either party. (b) If you have the time, type up a response in a blank document (not as a reply; you do not want to send your response—accidentally or intentionally—quite yet). Get all of your thoughts and frustrations out. Then, instead of hitting “send,” walk away from the computer. Make a cup of coffee, go for a walk around the block, or do something else to take your mind off of the conflict. After 30 minutes or so have passed, revisit your document. The initial feelings you had will have quite likely subsided, allowing you to focus on the problem at hand and enable you to put your personal frustrations with the other individual to the side. When you respond, you want to sound calm and polite. You do not want to echo back an aggressive attitude. (c) A slight variation on method (b) is to type up your response but send it to yourself instead of the intended individual. It gives you the pleasure of getting your frustrations out and off your desk quite literally, but you will not regret sending your message in haste. After you have taken a short break, you may choose to send an email, but it more than likely will not be the one you sent to yourself. Your future you will thank your current you.
7. After the problem has been solved, take some time to evaluate what you did right to reach a resolution and what you need to improve. How did your contribution to the conversation assist or detract from the final outcome? What did you learn from the experience?

It is helpful to remember the saying “You can’t control other people. You can only control your reactions to them.” Sometimes just reframing the interactions you have with someone helps. Keep an open mind and assume that the other person may have good intentions despite the way they are engaging with you. Maybe he/she is just having a bad day, maybe he/she needs an extra cup of coffee in the morning before being fully functional, or perhaps he/she is immature and still learning how to interact socially or professionally. No matter the cause of the attitude or behavior, remember that a calm strategy always yields the greatest harvest.

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