Conflict resolution coaching is a new tool to help UC Merced staff members and managers resolve divisive or unproductive work situations. The Human Resources program is built on a partnership model in which the coach encourages and inspires positive change.
Luke Wiesner came to the university in January from Bellingham, Wash., to become UC Merced’s first conflict resolution coach. Wiesner holds a dual Master of Science degree from Creighton University in conflict resolution and negotiation, and in organizational leadership. He has spent most of his career in community, workplace and family conflict resolution. He’s also a diehard baseball fan and roots for the Seattle Mariners.
Director of Talent, Learning and Human Resources Services Fabiola Elizalde said she is thrilled to offer conflict resolution coaching to university staff.
“Luke has been methodical in the design and build of this program. He has established the framework critical to its success,” she said. “I truly believe this program will empower our staff to effectively navigate challenging workplace situations.”
We asked Wiesner about the program and his thoughts about the conflict-resolution coaching process.
What attracted you to the conflict resolution field?
As an idealist in my early 20s, I was concerned with many issues in our world. I was struck by how political disagreements or philosophical differences divided families and friends. I believe we have more knowledge, wisdom and potential together than alone. That said, the differences between us often overshadow our shared values and our common ground, which impacts our ability to work together. For us to take advantage of our collective potential, we need to know how to navigate these differences and use them to our advantage. I got into this work to be of service to others and in service to the pursuit of discovering our collective potential.
What brought you to UC Merced?
My fiancé and I were looking to move to California for about a year when we saw that UC Merced was hiring, so the timing was perfect. For the past five or six years, I worked for a community dispute resolution center, serving as an external party for families, workplaces, community groups and pretty much anyone who needed conflict support. The opportunity to be an internal support for an organization seemed like a chance to provide a more lasting impact on a community. Next thing I knew, we are packing our bags, and we’ve had such a warm welcome to both Merced and the UC community.
How is conflict-resolution coaching useful to staff and managers?
Conflict can be more prevalent and intense at work because the stressors that employees experience often cause fight/flight/freeze responses. These responses are normal and often self-protective. However, they also can escalate conflicts through a fight response or cause people to withdraw through a flight or freeze response. Many of our relationships at work are interdependent, meaning we can’t just up and leave the relationship because things are challenging. Because conflicts can build over time if not addressed, they can be harmful to teams and individuals. This program is designed to be an impartial, private service for employees seeking support in finding productive pathways forward in difficult situations. Discovering those pathways isn’t necessarily easy, but the program is designed to make the journey a bit smoother.
How did you go about creating this program for UC Merced staff?
I see myself in service to our collective potential. So, when I started at UC Merced, I really needed to know what the campus needed to benefit the collective community. I went around campus talking to different offices and employees to gather information about what was needed. It was kind of like putting together a puzzle. I had many pieces from my previous work and education but needed to find the missing pieces that only the campus community had. We have enough pieces now to start providing support, but we will always need to find new pieces along the way to adapt and better serve the community.
How does the program align with the university’s other assistance programs?
Before this program, it sounds like employees were mainly using the Office of the Ombuds and Employee Labor Relations. Each of these offices offer essential services for resolving conflict at different levels. This program will create a bridge step between those two offices for people who want private and structured support to informally navigate conflict. So if there is a situation where employees feel they could use more formality and structure than going to the Ombuds Office, but less formality and escalation than comes with bringing up the issue with Employee Labor Relations, this program is a perfect fit. And, of course, the Office of Prevention, Discrimination and Harassment is available for reporting serious issues that need formal intervention.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many university staff members are working remotely. How do you shape the program to meet their needs?
We are prepared to offer telecommute services to employees through Zoom. We all need to be nimble during this time and adjust any expectations based on how things were done in the past. Plus, this could allow us to be more flexible down the road in providing in-person and “Zoom-person” services. Anyone interested in partnering with the program can use our Contact Us page to schedule a time to connect virtually.
What surprises you the most about the conflict-resolution process?
You know, I think it is more the parties that are surprised. I often will talk to one party and hear about all the harmful things the other party did. Then I talk with the other party to hear their story and they tell me it’s the first party’s fault. Same event, same actions, but different experiences and interpretations. It’s common for us to make assumptions in conflict that seem real to us but may sound ridiculous to the other party. Once we have an opportunity to explore those assumptions, our story can change, and we learn to move through the situation. I enjoy talking with parties who are surprised the process actually worked and they were able to solve their differences through coaching or facilitated dialogues.
What do you enjoy the most about your job?
I enjoy the “aha” moments that come from a conflict-resolution process. Aha moments lead to breakthroughs in how to move forward, to understanding other people better or seeing a situation with a bit more clarity. Aha moments lead people to stronger, more healthy relationships.
What do you do to recharge?
This is a tough one in our current world. Typically, it’s exercise, watching a baseball game, riding a bike, or spending time with my best friend and fiancé, Megan. Those all still recharge me, but I have found in our shelter-in-place world my biggest recharge is maintaining routine and boundaries. Keeping a routine, as if I was physically going to work in the morning, has been essential for my health and well-being. Although I am becoming increasingly challenged by what to do with my hair! And also, boundaries. I need space between work and home even more now that they are the same location.
You can invite three historical figures to a Zoom chat. Who are they and why?
I love stories and hearing experiences. So I would want people who have a good story or two. I have to start with Abraham Lincoln. Not only was he a great storyteller, but he has some remarkable experiences to share. Second would be Buck O’Neil, one of the many great baseball players denied access to the major leagues in the 20th century because of the color of his skin. His optimism for life and the human spirit resonated through his words and stories and I’ve always wanted to meet him. Third would be Amelia Earhart because of her stories and experiences of breaking down gender barriers. She holds one story in particular that has been a mystery for decades. Sounds like a good time to me!