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Take that! New Connections Class Teaches Freshmen how to Fight Fairly

Thursday, Jul. 21, 2016

CHaSS faculty Clair Canfield and Matt Sanders

Clair Canfield, a lecturer in communication studies, and associate professor Matt Sanders will teach a new class for Connections freshmen on making the best of conflict.

It’s 2 a.m. One roommate is tapping to a vibrating bass beat. Another added a bowl and silverware to the teetering stack of slimy dishes in the sink. Mom just emailed that she needs you to come home this weekend, again. And you’re staring at the unfair, uncalled-for red slashes on your most recent English essay.

Welcome to college life.

Clair Canfield may not know the details about those first few weeks, but he’s certain about this: “Conflict will arise.”

That’s why Utah State University is offering, for the first time, a class in surviving conflict for those attending Connections, the three-day academic course that aims to help freshmen transition to campus life.

These college newcomers are often, for the first time in their lives, dealing with high-stakes conflict. Exhibit A: roommates.

Freshmen “will be facing one of the most difficult living situations they’ll ever have,” said Canfield. “They’re going to have more stress than they’ve ever had, they’re going to have issues they’ve never faced, and they often have unresolved conflicts at home, with friends or with past relationships.”

The Communications and Conflict Workshop is taught by Canfield, a lecturer, and Matt Sanders, an associate professor, both in communications studies in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at USU.

Lisa Hancock, director of Student Orientation and Transition Services, said that during the two-credit class, students “will be exposed to the reality that personal communication is a learned skill and important to all relationships.”

Canfield himself describes conflict as “an opportunity for change.” If other people see it as a situation punctuated by stress, possibly shouts, knee jerks and bruised feelings, they’re judging this human experience too harshly, he said.

Conflict “is not inherently negative,” he said. “It’s negative because of how frequently people deal with conflict in unhealthy ways.”

While a workshop can’t change behavior, Sanders and Canfield admit, they hope to show young people that the resolution of conflict starts within themselves.

Sanders is also known to USU students as the author of Becoming a Learner, which for more than five years has been distributed to the 2,200 or so students who attend Connections. This slim volume challenges freshmen not to be mere students, but to be learners.

Sanders teaches interpersonal communication, leadership and organizational communication, and he’s taken the idea of conflict resolution to schools in the Cache County School District, helping teachers who deal with all sorts of problems.

Canfield, for his part, is a Utah state-certified mediator who has studied conflict for nearly 20 years.

Conflict is what Canfield describes as “an inevitable part of relationships that weaves itself through day-to-day interactions.” Ignoring or downplaying conflict, however, leads to irreparable harm to relationships.

That’s because conflicts are rarely about what’s being argued. Many believe that a conflict is “a singular moment in time,” said Canfield, or that it begins when someone opens their mouth.

He encourages students to recognize that conflict is about more than the surface issue — the dirty dish or missed appointment that seems to be sparking the argument and heated words.

“In an iceberg, you see only the 10 percent that’s above the water,” he said. “But what is truly the mass of what drives the iceberg is all underneath the water. And that’s how conflicts are as well.”

During Connections, Canfield and Sanders will be talking about all the ways we handle conflict, such as “the justification trap.” The goal is to encourage students to recognize what role they are playing in this “drama triangle.”

In conflicts, said Canfield, “We start telling stories about how we’re a victim and that it’s someone else’s fault.” These victims, he adds, need a hero to fix things and a villain to blame. “Whatever role you take, you feel justified. The villain feels justified — ‘if the victim would just do what they’re supposed to, we wouldn’t have this problem.’ The hero feels justified because they feel like the other two can’t figure it out on their own. Everyone in that process feels justified, but it’s a trap. We just get stuck in the same cycles again and again.”

And while the justification trap mires the truth, “nothing will ever change,” he said.

Canfield and Sanders hope to demonstrate that, as Sanders says, “Conflict is an opportunity for change. It’s a signal that both parties want things to be better.”

In the end, though, there are no winners or losers.

“It’s not like a ballgame where the visiting team goes away,” Sanders said. “We still need to be able to live together.”

More information can be found at the Connections website. Openings are still available for the orientation, which is held the week before the semester starts. There are some classes during the semester, as well as times for non-traditional students.

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Writer and contact: Janelle Hyatt,

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