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Clair Canfield "The Positive Side of Conflict"

Conflict is unavoidable. At least, that’s what Clair Canfield, a lecturer in the Languages, Philosophy, and Communication Studies Department at Utah State University thinks. Luckily, he also believes that there is a way to overcome the problems that conflicts cause. The solution, according to Canfield, is to teach people how to have good conflict.

“I don’t know anyone who doesn’t experience significant moments and stretches of stress and conflict in their own personal lives, particularly in the relationships that matter most to them. And if they can have the skills and the belief that their ability to work through that is there, it’s going to change the overall quality of not only their relationships, but also their life,” says Canfield.

As a teacher, Canfield strives to help students develop the communication skills they will need to resolve the problems that arise in their personal lives, as well worldwide problems. Canfield has taught a variety of courses, such as Public Speaking, Interpersonal Communication, and Communication in a Family Context. But his area of greatest interest lies in conflict courses. He believes that teaching students here at USU how to resolve conflict can have far reaching effects.

“I think that you don’t have to look very far to see problems all around us. I think we can start to see a general pattern of people becoming more and more polarized and isolated . . . Things are growing further and further apart. We have world conflicts that have gone on for years and we have those just starting. I think that the world’s problems are significant and the ability to approach them in a way that gives the possibility of something other than coercion and destruction, that’s worth doing and focusing on,” he says.

Canfield’s interest in the impact of conflict stems from his experiences as a child. He says, “I got interested in conflict first because I was terrible at it. It was something that terrified me. As a kid, we would get in fights, and I was an instigator. I got in fights with my sister all the time. We did not get along. And as soon as that would happen, my dad would stop us and say, ‘You have to hug and make up,’ and then he would send me out to the garden to pick up a bucket of rocks . . . I learned that you want to avoid conflict if there’s a possibility to avoid it. It’s damaging and painful. I started to recognize that and knew that wasn’t how I wanted to be in my relationships.”

This realization led Canfield to study conflict more in depth. He became certified as a mediator and began teaching conflict courses. He found that conflict isn’t something to be avoided at all. Rather, when used properly, knowing how to have good communication skills in a conflict can actually build relationships.

“There’s something about conflict that really draws me in as far as its possibilities. It calls upon every facet and aspect of our communication skills and abilities. It tests them and pushes them more than anything else. I think it’s central to making relationships work. So that’s why I’m really interested in it. I want to help people get better at it,” says Canfield. And that is just what he is doing here at USU.

Within the classroom, Canfield has found that the way to teach conflict is through focusing on the process of an actual conflict. As a common classroom exercise, he helps the students to create a possible conflict and then act out the process of resolving it together. About one particular class, Canfield says, “The only way you learn conflict is by experiencing it. And so in the class, I focused constantly on process and it was really difficult for people at first. They were very resistant. It was hard to make that switch but without question I saw in the entire class a change. There were several individuals who made astounding shifts in the way that they thought about conflict, relationships, and about themselves and I definitely have seen it work in people’s lives.”

The success that Canfield sees from imitating the process of conflict within his classroom is one of the most gratifying parts of being a teacher. He plans to continue this exercise in the future classes on conflict that he will be teaching. For example, in his course on Communication in a Family Context during the fall 2014 semester, the class enacted a marital conflict about a weekend kayaking trip. Through having to act out the actual conflict, students learned that conflict really isn’t “about the kayak.” Instead, they learned to focus on the underlying issues behind every conflict.

“Nobody approaches conflict in exactly the same way, but what’s behind it is often very similar. Like it’s not about the kayak. Most people in their conflicts aren’t having the same conflict as the other person is. We think we know what it’s about-like we’re arguing about money, or we’re fighting about whether or not I’m going kayaking this weekend or I’m staying home. And whenever we focus on that, thinking we know what it’s about, we’re missing everything behind it. And what’s behind are very fundamental needs that everybody has for validation, for feeling competent, feeling that they can make choices, feeling that they’re likeable,” says Canfield.

Canfield has found that as students focus on ‘positions’ within conflict, they tend to lose sight of the really important issues behind the conflict. He uses classroom role plays to give students a hands-on way to learn how to better handle their own conflicts. Canfield believes that conflict is much more than a list of steps and skills, but rather, a strong emotional experience.

“It’s hard to just say, here’s a conflict, figure it out. It’s much easier for people to connect with it if they get to feel it somehow,” says Canfield. “Role plays allow people to put themselves into a situation and feel some of the same things they would feel in that situation…You have to put people in it so they can see what happens. In the classroom, that’s really helpful because they can start to get perspective. They can step back and kind of be able to see here how they handle things.”

In teaching conflict, Canfield’s main goal is to help students shift their previous viewpoints about conflict. He has found that most students tend to see conflict as something negative that should be avoided. As he involves students in experiencing conflicts within the classroom, he is able to see many students change this negative view.

“I see that most people go in to conflict with some fairly negative connotations about it and what’s fun to see change is when the students start to see the possibilities that conflict has. Conflict is inevitable, it’s going to happen and if you kind of accept that and see it as an opportunity to look at yourself and a relationship and move it in a different direction, that’s something that can be incredibly useful.”

Canfield began teaching at Utah State University in the fall of 2014. He has been teaching for fourteen years in various places. However, his experience at Utah State has so far been unforgettable.

“The kind of community that the department has created here at Utah State and the student body population, and the campus, all those things, I love them. I think they’re fantastic. I’m really happy to be here . . . I felt right at home, just immediately and I haven’t doubted my decision to come here for a second,” says Canfield.

Through teaching the public speaking course, Canfield also has opportunities to interact with teaching assistants of his own. He enjoys the opportunity this gives him to pass on the excitement of teaching. He says, “The process of teaching to me is fascinating and really exciting and rewarding. And so to be able to work with students and teach them about teaching, about how to create a space for other people to learn, and how to support the growth of students, again, is really fulfilling. I enjoy that a great deal…I love my TA’s.”

Throughout the various courses he teaches, Canfield emphasizes the importance of open interaction in the classroom. He finds that the best learning occurs through personal application. And this can only occur as students are willing to take risks, ask questions, and find their own personal answers.

“I don’t teach anyone anything, but what I can do is create a space that people can learn in. And I think to learn, you’ve got to have a space that feels safe, that there’s respect, that there’s a willingness to make mistakes and take risks and really push yourself. That’s where growth happens. But we don’t want to do those things unless we feel like we’re going to be safe enough to take a big risk. So my job is to balance creating a space that’s safe enough, while at the same time, pushing people to take what they’re doing and apply it in their lives and see what happens. I’m asking them to take risks. That’s very distinctly my style. I like interaction.”

By Crystal Zurcher