UNCA faculty stresses importance of conflict management


Grace Gosinanont

“Techniques for Conflict Resolution”, Information courtesy of North Central College

Hayden Bailey, [email protected], Arts & Features Writer

UNC Asheville psychology and student life experts said conflict among college students can be healthy when handled appropriately. 

“Dealing with conflict is really important. One thing we tend to do is avoid. If we think about what people do in therapy, a lot of it is often working through personal conflict to resolve that and move forward,” said Caitlin Brez, an assistant professor of psychology at UNCA.

Brez said social relationships are crucial in the lives of college students and being able to interact with others proves to be a very important skill for students to have. 

“From very early on in life we are primed and equipped with the ability to interact with others. This highlights the importance of social interactions in humans,” the psychologist said. 

Brez said in adolescence, students start to spend more time with peers. This blends into a period of development called emerging adulthood where college students fall.

“Time with peers increases through development. Relationships outside of the nuclear family become more important, especially for college students,” she said. 

Brez said decisions college students make and their sense of the world draws influence from the time spent with their peers. 

“One of the things students in college are doing is exploring. They are figuring out options, figuring out themselves. Sometimes that process is motivated by peers, being exposed to people with different backgrounds and different experiences,” she said. 

Brez said setting boundaries demonstrates healthy habits regarding dealing with conflict. She said there are times when we have to say no as well as times where we need to exercise the art of listening. 

“Being a good listener is really important. We have to understand other people’s perspective, especially when it differs from our own. We don’t always have to agree but being open is important,” she said.

Director of Housing and Student Life Operations and Interim Director of Residential Education Vollie Barnwell said conflict shows up consistently on college campuses. He said part of living together, growing together and learning together includes conflict. 

“What I have seen more recently is more and more students that struggle with conflict management and having effective ways to communicate,” Barnwell said.

He said some of the best learning happens when a little bit of conflict occurs, challenging students to think about others’ ideas.

“I can remember many conversations when I have met with students about roommate conflicts. Simple things like ‘my roommate’s eating my food,’ or ‘I don’t like that my roommate borrowed my jacket without asking me.’ I would say ‘have you talked to your roommate about that?’ They would say ‘well, I’ve texted them,’” Barnwell said. 

Barnwell said he sees more and more students struggling with conflict management and having effective ways to communicate. He said technology enhances this struggle and negatively impacts it. 

“I think people will say a lot of things over technology that they would never say to somebody in person. That is never a good way to solve conflict,” Barnwell said.

He said everything takes place through technology now, even communication itself.

“I see it so much here on the campus, even just going to Highsmith or the dining hall, people are eating together but everyone is on their phone. They’re together but they’re also checked out,” Barnwell said. 

He said there is something to be said for face-to-face conversations. 

“When you and I have a conversation face-to-face, I can understand by your tone, by how you say things, by your facial expressions, what you’re trying to communicate. When you send me an email, you can say the exact same words but how I take it is totally different,” Barnwell said. 

He said COVID-19 limited and restricted interaction during the past two years making learning face-to-face interactions difficult. 

“COVID created a whole new issue with conflict. People’s differing opinions about COVID, the world, then we add in the political landscape and other tensions that are in society,” Barnwell said. 

He said knowing when conflict presents itself that both sides are wrong and both sides are right becomes important. Barnwell said it boils down to perspective and how each person views the issue. 

“The best way to solve conflict is still to get people together face-to-face. Sometimes having a mediator that can be there is good but not always necessary. That’s what we really try to do, get people to talk it out,” he said. 

Conflict resolution relies on recognizing where another person’s life experiences have brought them and realizing people base situations on their previous experiences, Barnwell said.  

UNCA sophomore and student athlete Linge Steenkamp said being open with the people you have conflict with remains important. She said the conflict she has experienced ended up teaching her a lot. 

“It taught me to understand what others are going through and to be open-minded. It taught me if someone has an issue with something, listen to what they have to say about it and to talk about it,” Steenkamp said. 

The student athlete said it’s important to ask what is going on rather than letting conflict linger in the air. She said it could just be a miscommunication or misunderstanding. 

“If you don’t talk about it, it can even turn into anxiety or even depression,” Steenkamp said. 

Steenkamp’s college experience includes balancing many social relationships, including her family back home in South Africa. 

“It takes a lot of effort. I have to set out time when I call my family because they also have a life, they have a busy day, I have a busy day. When I talk to my family, I make it personal. I think it’s so important to keep it personal, because if it is just basic conversation, the relationship drifts,” the student athlete said. 

Steenkamp said people have different views and different values. She said it can be hard to accept those differences, but it is important.

“I think open-mindedness while sticking to what you believe in is an important thing. Listen to what other people have to say and also share your opinion,” Steenkamp said.