Six Tips for Effective Working Relationships

Photo by olia danilevich on

By Luke Lara, Ed.D.

A version of this article was published for my college union’s newsletter as “Reflections in my First Year as Ombudsperson.”

People First: A Guiding Philosophy

I recently read an article about how employees are increasingly seeking personal value and purpose at work. It made me reflect on my 16+ years as an employee at my community college, and whether I have succeeded in attaining personal value and purpose. The answer depends on the day you ask me. While my college offers an abundance of professional learning and growth opportunities to help me be my best self (purpose and personal value), I do not operate alone or within a vacuum.

I am a human being who needs to work with other human beings. I am a member of a department, a division, a college, and an extended district community. I interact daily with other faculty members, classified professionals, administrators, and students to conduct my work, provide services, and contribute to our institutional mission. I am lucky to work in a department that supports my personal development and values my contributions. However, others may not be so lucky.

I joined my college’s full-time faculty union as the Ombudsperson because I wanted to serve my peers. In this role, I help other full-time faculty resolve issues from a neutral, independent perspective. I have a counseling background and am accustomed to helping others navigate tricky situations. In addition, I received mediation training to improve my ability to facilitate difficult conversations. In my first year, I have assisted over 17 faculty by supporting and representing them through investigations, listening to their concerns, facilitating conversations with peers, and providing guidance and resources. One of the most common conversations I have is with faculty who believe they are being treated poorly by their supervisors and/or their faculty peers. Keeping in mind that the Omsbudperson must maintain strict confidentiality, I aim to share general guidance that could serve as a gentle reminder for all of us to be kinder to one another, which is based on a “people first” approach that prioritizes people’s wellbeing.

Institutional Code of Conduct

When issues arise that meet the board policy definitions of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation, the institution is obligated to investigate. The full-time faculty union is there to represent faculty to ensure rights and due process are granted and upheld. Unfortunately, I have found that there are many behaviors that our colleagues engage in that do not rise to those definitions yet cause much grief and turmoil for the faculty complainant.

Many institutions of higher education have an institutional code of ethics, which provides a foundation for expected behaviors that promote a climate that enhances the worth, dignity, potential, and uniqueness of everyone within the college community. These codes of ethics often outline expectations to maintaining effective working relationships and promoting an environment of collegiality. Everyone has a responsibility, as colleagues and supervisors, to adhere to the principles outlined in the institution’s code of ethics. The advice in the next section applies to all parties involved in a situation (e.g., complainants and respondents).

Six Tips for Effective Working Relationships

Human relationships take a tremendous, conscious effort to develop and sustain. Any important relationship will have tension. Conflicts often arise when there is a difference in perception, beliefs, and/or values. As we strive for diversity, there will be natural tension. It is when this tension goes unaddressed for a long period of time that an uncomfortable situation becomes unbearable. The following are tips for establishing, building, maintaining, and repairing effective working relationships, will help you avoid the unbearable:

  1. Assume nothing, communicate everything: It is easy to get caught up in our egos and get lost in our expertise. Why not? We are discipline experts. The climate in academia perpetuates this myth and doesn’t allow us to be vulnerable and truly develop community. A simple rule is to assume nothing and to communicate everything. For example, when interacting with your department colleagues, establish guidelines for how you will engage each other by developing them collaboratively as a group.
  2. Call-in: Lean into that natural tension and address issues immediately. Use a call-in approach by asking clarifying questions. For example, if a colleague made a comment that seemed to be a microaggression, ask: “Can you clarify what you meant by…” This gives the other person an opportunity to apologize or clarify what they really meant. This approach requires curiosity and follows the “assume nothing, communicate everything” guideline.
  3. Use I Feel Statements: “I feel” statements communicate how you feel to help minimize the possibility of defensiveness and conflict in conversations. The statement begins with “I feel_______,” which helps the listener focus on you, rather than themselves. The second part of the statement connects the feeling to an issue, “I feel _______, when _______.” The last part of the statement includes a desired solution, “I would like______.”
    • For instance, if you have a scheduling conflict with your supervisor you may say, “I felt like my needs were disregarded, when I was denied my request for teaching this class online. I would like some guidance from you on how to arrange my schedule so that I can better balance my home situation and work, while also meeting the needs of our department.”
  4. Take a step back: Honestly, sometimes it’s not necessary to engage in a difficult conversation. Take a step back and observe how you reacted to a particular behavior or comment someone made. What was your reaction about? If it was a strong reaction, it may have roots in something else. While this does not excuse the behavior or comment that this person made, it does point to a deeper issue you may want to explore individually before you engage with or call-in the other person. You may benefit from talking about your reaction with a third party to get some perspective and clarity before moving forward.
  5. Be aware of power dynamics and potential bias: Power dynamics underlie many of the issues I have encountered. The most obvious power dynamic is based on roles (dean, chair, department member). Other power imbalances exist between classifications (faculty, classified professionals, students). Less obvious are the power imbalances based on characteristics and identity (gender, race, ethnicity, etc.). It is important to acknowledge power imbalances and whether implicit bias is at play. Take a step back and check yourself with the following questions:
    • “Is there a power imbalance in this situation?”
    • “Do I react the same way to this person as I do to others in similar situations?”
    • “What biases do I have?”
    • “How might my biases contribute to my thoughts and reactions to my colleague?”
  6. The only person you can change is yourself: Through my counselor training, I learned a valuable life lesson. In both personal and work relationships, I often found myself expecting other people to change for me to feel comfortable in the relationship. Once I learned I had agency and could make choices for myself, I was empowered to change myself. I gave myself permission to reframe issues, forgive others if needed, and let go of what didn’t benefit me any longer. When I changed, I found others reacted to me differently and indirectly changed behavior in other people. Ask yourself the following questions, “Is this behavior/thought/emotion working for me?” or “Is this behavior/thought/emotion still benefiting me?” If the answer is no, then you can choose to let it go. What does it mean to let it go? How does it reframe your thoughts and feelings about the situation? Allow yourself to make mistakes and to grow as a human being.

While the tips above seem to place the heavy lifting on relationship building on the complainant, this advice applies to both the respondent and complainant. As the saying goes, “It takes two to tango.” Everyone is accountable to each other.

I hope this article is helpful in dealing with colleague and supervisor relations, but more importantly, let this article be a reminder to everyone to be kinder to one another. Listen to your colleagues when they call you in. Be open to feedback when you are a supervisor. Own your part in an issue and be accountable to seeking solutions together. If you take a people first approach, being kind is easy. Everyone is trying to seek purpose and value in their employment.

Mediation – A tool for Successful Relations

by Luke Lara, Ed.D.

Ever wonder why conflicts exist? I do not shy away from conflict, yet I’m not a fighter and my instinct is to freeze in intense situations (e.g., disagreements). However, I am willing to dive deeper to understand what is at the heart of the issue. At the crux of all conflicts is a difference of perception around resources, needs, or values, based on any number of factors such as beliefs, values, cultural traditions, religion, education, ideology, and lived experiences. Conflict is natural and when we are stuck in conflict, we may need a bit of help. Mediation or “facilitated dialogue” is a tool to support successful relations with others.

As a trained counselor, I developed strong great listening skills and the ability to help people problem solve. Counseling is often done with individual clients. Mine happen to be college students. Their conflicts were personal (e.g., negative self-talk, meeting basic needs, navigating college) or issues with others (e.g., a teacher, family member, employer). In contrast, mediation involves two or more parties. While mediation and counseling may share similar aspects, the goal of mediation is to reach agreement on future behaviors that address underlying needs and interests.

I recently completed a mediation training hosted by the National Conflict Resolution Center. They provided a week-long, interactive institute with highly skilled facilitators. I learned a great deal about mediation and how it can be an incredibly rewarding tool for bringing conflicting parties into agreement. Mediation, while a legal tool, has roots in collectivist societies (e.g., African Societies, Indigenous groups) as a means of justice and community healing. Mediation, at least in California, has the added benefit of being a confidential process.

I’ll use the metaphor of an iceberg to illustrate what a conflict represents and how mediation can improve strained relationships. Imagine an iceberg representing a party’s perception of a conflict: a frozen piece of ice protruding from the cold ocean’s surface. Most of the ice formation lies below the surface. It may seem as though there are two icebergs set to inevitably collide (e.g., in the case of two parties). The protrusions represent the solid positions (e.g., statements) each party stands firmly upon (e.g., “We need to focus on Equity,” “I have a right to Academic Freedom”). Each statement seems mutually exclusive and completely in opposition. Yet, what lies underneath the surface are the underlying needs and interests that motivate these positions. By diving below the surface, we may find that the two seemingly distinct protruding tips are formed of a common foundation of needs and interests (i.e., the same iceberg).

Image: CC-by-sa 3.0 by Uwe Kils (iceberg) and User:Wiska Bodo (sky).

The real work of mediation is to understand the underlying needs and interests. The mediation process is not about changing people’s minds. It is about helping conflicting parties understand each other’s perspectives, identify the intersecting interests, and empower the parties to be future-oriented to find a resolution. Author William Raspberry wrote, “The opportunity for cooperation is there, even in our most vexatious disputes, if we’ll only bother to look for it.” In other words, if we look under the surface to understand the other party’s needs and interests, we may find an opportunity to cooperate. This is not to say that the interests are in common, but that through cooperation, a mutually beneficial resolution can be achieved.

A skilled mediator is a neutral party and facilitates dialogue while listening carefully, uses tools including, acknowledging feelings, identifying interests, summarizing/paraphrasing, translating, identifying expectations, caucusing (e.g., private meetings), and asking questions. Mediators must set a tone of hope through neutral language that reframes and builds connections. Through facilitated dialogue, mediators become the conduit through which communication is jumpstarted and nurtured, helping the parties stay resolution focused.

Mediators facilitate the process, and the parties are responsible for the content. A well-facilitated dialogue can empower the parties to creatively address their issues and come to an agreement on future behaviors through SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound) goals. Not all mediated issues result in a resolution. However, the communication skills learned in the process can still help those involved grow as a person, employee, and/or a leader. The parties can always agree to enter mediation again later.

Don’t let conflict stop you from preserving important relationships (personal or professional). Let mediation help you before issues escalate. It helps if all parties are willing to engage in the mediation process. Next time you have a conflict with a colleague, a neighbor, a friend, or a family member, consider a neutral mediator to facilitate a dialogue. Many employers, city offices, and community groups offer free or sliding-fee-based mediation services.


Reflections on Leadership Communication Styles

Placeholder Image

by Luke Lara

I spent Thanksgiving with immediate and extended family. Two family members (husband & wife) are both executives in the banking industry. The wife (I’ll call her Carla) started sharing how her husband (I’ll call him Pedro) is having a rough time at work because of his boss. Pedro is a nice guy, knows the industry, and is well respected by his team. His boss (a man) takes his ideas, gives poor direction, and has little regard for anyone but himself. His boss reports directly to the CEO ( a woman). Carla argued that Pedro is not approaching the situation correctly. She gave examples of how her husband has argued with his boss (i.e., let his emotions get the best of him). Carla also stated that Pedro isn’t building a relationship with his CEO.

At this point in the conversation, I agreed with her that arguing with your boss is not a wise strategy and that building a relationship with the CEO is a wiser strategy. However, Carla began to give an example of how the CEO went on vacation and posted a picture of herself on the beach. What I mean by a picture of herself on the beach is just a frame showing her toes. The unspoken expectation is that people in the office should “like” her pictures. Pedro said he didn’t “like” the picture. I agreed, in fact, that seemed to me like the CEO was creating a hostile work environment and potentially leaning into sexual harassment territory. Carla, and another female family member (also in a leadership position in another industry) began to argue that “liking” the picture of the toes must be done to play the game of politics.

Where do you draw the line? What does politics at work mean to you? Is it different in higher education? What have you done, just to play the game of politics? What are you not willing to do?

Another story came about this interesting Thanksgiving dinner. Carla shared that her leadership style is about the people. To back this up, she gave the following example: One day she came to one of her branches and saw a teller with a wrinkled shirt. She immediately went across the street and bought an iron. She pulled the worker aside and said, “Take this iron and go to the break room and iron your shirt. The good thing is that you now have an iron.”

I asked her, “Was that your employee?” She replied, “No, but technically he works under me.” (She is the boss of the branch managers). Someone at the dinner table said, “Oh, that sounds like you were trying to mentor that fellow.” I think it was said, to reframe the conversation because it was a little awkward there for a minute.

Is that mentoring? Is it micro-managing? Maybe there were more details to the story. Maybe several glasses of gin and tonic may have distorted the facts?

In any case, both of these stories made me think about my own leadership communication style. That night, I tossed and turned, thinking and thinking. I came up with the following acronym: L.A.R.A. That is my last name. Believe me, I didn’t do it on purpose. I also have a counseling background, so it does mirror my counseling training and my understanding of mindfulness communication. It stands for the following:





So, L.A.R.A. leadership communication begins with listening. That is something I didn’t hear in the stories above. We need to listen, gather information by asking questions, and hear the message behind the message. Listen to learn.

Second, after listening, we need to acknowledge what we’ve heard. Repeat it back to get clarification. Summarize the speaker’s thoughts and reflect it back. Acknowledge to respect.

Third, after acknowledging the message, we must reflect on what we’ve heard. Is it true? Do I need to apologize? What is it that I am being asked to do? How has what I’ve done impacted this person? How can I reply with mindful communication? Reflect to take responsibility.

Lastly, after reflection, we need to act. Through this mutual and collective dialogue, we have listened, acknowledged, and reflected. Now it is time to act respectfully, to commit to an action that represents the appropriate culmination of this process.