Tips & Strategies

Trying to Solve Problems Yourself

Sometimes problems can be resolved with some “front end” effort on your own behalf.  Try following these steps when dealing with university offices.  If you don't succeed, please feel free to call the Ombuds Office at 512-471-3825 for additional options or information.

  • Don’t be bashful about calling university offices for help, and don't be afraid to ask questions.  When asking, seek to understand and not to challenge.
  • Be prepared.  Write down your questions before contacting a university office.  Have all the information and documentation available that you may need in your discussion.
  • Clarify your own thinking:  What outcomes do you want?  Are there other options that may be acceptable, even if not your first choice?
  • Be pleasant.  Treat university employees, as you like to be treated.  Getting angry or rude will not resolve your problem.  It may only confuse the real issues.
  • Keep good records and take notes.  Ask for the names and titles of employees you talk with, and note the date of the conversation.  Save all your letters and receipts.  Ask the person or office to help you understand why they acted as they did.  Ask employees to identify the rules, policies, or laws that governed their actions.  Ask for copies.
  • Talk to the right people.  The first employee you meet may not make or be able to change policy.  If you cannot resolve the matter, ask to talk with a supervisor.  Ask questions until you understand what happened and why.
  • Read carefully all information available to you.  Many university decisions may be appealed, but there are often specific criteria and deadlines.  Be sure to follow appeal rules and meet deadlines.

(Adapted from “Before You Call” by Laurie McCann. University of California, Santa Cruz.  Used with permission.)


Tips for Transforming Conflict

By choosing to deal with conflict in a non-adversarial manner, we create a place where it is safe to disagree and contribute to transforming the way the world deals with conflict.

  • Accept that conflicts are a natural part of life: Many people share resources and space on this planet yet have vastly different cultures, histories and norms. Conflict is the natural result of differences in the world.
  • Treat conflict as an opportunity: Conflicts don't have to be destructive. Instead we can view conflict as an opportunity to grow, learn and improve relationships.
  • Be aware of your initial reaction and take a deep breath: Instead of giving in to an initial impulse to jump in and escalate the conflict, it's useful to pause and think about your approach.
  • Choose your approach: If you determine that the conflict is worth addressing, remember that you can choose between a win-lose approach - where we focus on each other as the problem - and a mutual gains approach - where we work together to identify separate and mutual need and interests.
  • Listen and learn: Conflicts are often based on stereotypes and lack of information-ask questions and listen until we truly understand each other's point of view. Truly hearing and being heard can actually transform a conflict.
  • Discover what's important: We tend to have disagreements over our positions-the way we see things or what we want. But we seldom talk about our interests and needs-the reasons why our positions are important to us. Often there is some overlap in interests and needs-the common ground where we are likely to find solutions.
  • Respect each other: An agreement can only hold if the parties grow to respect and trust one another. We need to take responsibility for our role in the conflict - blaming creates resentment and anger.
  • Find common ground: Finding common ground does not mean settling for the lowest common denominator. Finding common ground is creating a new "highest common denominator" by identifying something we can all work towards together.
  • Be creative: There are always many different ways to solve a problem - many different strategies by which to meet a need. The goal is to make sure we address the deep issues (not just the superficial symptoms) and generate as many options as possible.

(Adapted by University of California at Santa Cruz Ombuds from "Search for Common Ground", Used with permission.)


Three Keys for Effective Communication

What you say and how you say it:

  • Use neutral language. Describe what you saw or heard. What sights and sounds would a video cam have recorded?  "Edit out" any judgment, criticism or interpretation of what was seen or heard.
  • Own the message.  I feel, I wish, I hope, I would like to ask.  Let the conversation be about your needs or values, not what is (perceived to be) wrong with the other person, or what that person did or did not do.

What you hear and how you hear it:

  • Try to empathize with what the other person is feeling.  By offering empathy you are simply creating a connection with the person - not stating that you agree with what was done or said.
  • Acknowledge and make sure you understand the information being given to you.  It's often helpful to repeat what you heard to make sure you got it right.

What you do with the information:

  • Seek to understand the interests (needs, values, wants) of the other person.  Ask for help in understanding why they are important to him or her.
  • Search for common ground and a better future.  Focus on what is desirable and possible now - you can't negotiate the past.

(Adapted from “Three Keys to Effective Communication” by Laurie McCann,University of California, Santa Cruz.  Used with permission.)


How to Move from Conflict to Cooperation

Behaviors that escalate conflict:

  • Negative labeling, insulting, or calling the other party offensive names.

    Example: "You are a liar."
  • Minimizing or ignoring the other's feelings.

    Example: "Frankly, I don't care if you are upset!"
  • Lying about, denying, or misrepresenting information known to the other party.
  • Blaming the other for the problem with "you" statements.

    Example: "You make me mad when you forget to lock the door when you leave the office!"
  • Communicating condescension.

    Example: "You mean to tell me that you are just now figuring that out?"
  • Questioning the other party's honesty, integrity, intelligence, or competence.

    Example: "How do you expect me to trust you this time?"
  • Making offensive or hostile non-verbal expressions or gestures.

    Example: rolling the eyes, loud sighs, laughing, "giving the finger," sticking one's tongue out at the other, or groaning when the other party speaks.
  • Making interpretations of what the other party says based on stereotypes or prejudicial beliefs.

    Example: "All you people ever think about is how you can avoid working!"
  • Insisting that the other party "admit to being wrong."

    Example: "This is not about my perceptions of what happened I saw you take my disk and you damn well better admit it!"
  • Using sarcasm in addressing the other party.

    Example: "Well, how nice of you to grace us with your presence. I'm shocked!"
  • Making moral judgments about the other party.

    Example: "The Lord will punish you for these sins!"
  • Making threats to the other party.

    Example: "You'd better stick to your word or I'm going to talk with the boss about your behavior!"
  • Making demands of the other party.

    Example: "I demand that you write me a letter of apology."
  • Refusing to shake hands with the other party when he/she offers.

    Example: at the beginning of the mediation session.
  • Interrupting the other party when he/she is speaking.
  • Shouting at the other party.

Behaviors that reduce conflict:

  • Using "I" statements, rather than "you" statements.

    Example: "I want to respond to your questions, but I need some time to calm down first."
  • Conveying that the disputant has been listening attentively.

    Example: "It sounds as if your biggest concerns are for your long-term job security and recognition for your accomplishments. Is that right?"
  • Making "appropriate" eye-contact. Note: This one is extremely culturally dependent. The key issue is for Disputant A to make eye contact with Disputant B in a way that is comfortable for Disputant B.
  • Expressing a desire to see both parties get as much of what they want as possible from mediation.

    Example: "I'd like to see both of us walk out of here happy."
  • Acknowledging responsibility for part of the problem whenever possible.

    Example: "You know, I hadn't seen it before, but I think I did make some mistakes in the way I approached you."
  • Acknowledging the other party's perceptions whenever possible.

    Example: "I haven't considered this matter from that perspective before, but I think I can see how it looked that way to you."
  • Identifying areas of agreement with the other party whenever possible - especially if he/she does not recognize that such areas of agreement exist.

    Example: "You know, Conrad, I agree with you that we ought to make time management more of a priority for our office in the future."
  • Allowing the other party to "let off steam." Note: This requires extreme self-control, but if the other party has not expressed him/herself previously, this can be extremely valuable.
  • Avoiding assumptions.

    Example: "Could you help me understand why having these specific days off is so important to you?"
  • Indicating that the other party "has a good point" when he/she makes a point you believe has merit.

    Example: "You're absolutely right about x."

(Adapted from “Eliciting Cooperation” by Tom Sebok, University of Colorado, Boulder. Used with permission.)


Dealing with Really Stressful or Unstable Workplace Situations

THE SHORT TERM:  The Current Workplace

  • Assert control over the aspects of your job you can control.
  • Make plans to support reasonable productivity:  Identify ways to manage your time to balance various aspects of your responsibilities, define tasks in “bite-size” portions and accomplish something each day, keep a list of your accomplishments, reward yourself for meeting modest goals.
  • Consider all possible options for improving the day-to-day work situation:  Enhance communication, build bridges, negotiate priorities in duties, explore possible changes to job description or reporting relationships.
  • Explore whatever complaint channels or grievance procedures may be available.
  • Consider time off, vacation days, a “cooling off period” or stress-relief holiday.

THE LONG TERM:  Career Planning

  • Consider a wait-and-see approach to aspects of the work situation you cannot control.  A focus on your values and future objectives can help to put present difficulties into perspective.
  • Begin to plan for possible alternatives (even if you will not have to implement your back-up plans):  Revise your resume, line up positive references, check job postings, attend conferences, explore training programs, and network.
  • Engage in self-exploration:  What are your strengths and weaknesses?  What parts of present and past jobs did you like most and least?  What kinds of work are you best suited for? Where would you like to be 5 or 10 years from now? What steps might you take to achieve these long-term goals?
  • Consider other aspects of your work-life balance:  What activities or pastimes would you like to have more time for?  What new challenges would you like to take on?  What is the “silver lining” of change for you?
  • Consider working with a career coach or joining a career-counseling program.

 THE PERSONAL:  Taking Care of Yourself

  • When people are under stress, or feeling uncertain, or impacted by changes beyond their control, they need lots of support.
  • Spend quality time with your family, phone an old friend who lives far away, arrange pleasant outings with people who care about you, ask for support, be open to receiving caring gestures from others.
  • Consider seeing a psychotherapist, or talking confidentially with a clergy person.
  • Indulge in the pleasure principle:  Get a massage, eat your favorite foods, take a weekend trip to a beautiful place, and get some exercise you enjoy.
  • There’s more to life than your job:  Start a new hobby, register for a film series or go to a free concert, plant a garden or a window box, take a kid to the zoo, sign up for a community service project, plan a birthday party for a good friend, paint your bedroom a lovely color, adopt a pet, donate blood, sign up for a yoga class, plan a vacation trip, learn to cook ethnic food.
  • Remember you are a person with many talents and strengths and much to give.

© 2003 Marsha L. Wagner, Columbia University. Used with permission.


Making a Record

People contacting the Ombuds Office sometimes say they wish to "go on record," to make a formal, dated report that might be useful to them or to others in the future.

The Ombuds Office does not keep case records or "paper trails" for the University or any people affiliated with it--there are no files of individually identifiable information.  (Temporary notes are shredded as soon as a case is resolved; only anonymous aggregate statistics of patterns and categories of concerns are maintained.) 

There are many alternative ways to make a contemporary record.  The most common format is a dated written account, composed as soon after the incident(s) as possible, with attention to times, dates, locations, names of primary parties and other people present (if any), chronology of events, exact words used, and other specific facts.  It's a good idea to keep a copy in an accessible but discreet location.  The original may be sealed (to indicate that it has not been altered) and/or filed in someone else's custody.  For example, it might be kept on file in University offices of record, such as Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action, Human Resources, Security, deans, or other administrators.  It could also be held by an outsider -- the police department, your lawyer, a counselor or another trusted acquaintance.

An easy and confidential way to make a dated record is to mail it to yourself through the U.S. Post Office -- certified mail if you wish to be especially careful, and after you receive it with the postmark date, keep it sealed.  Or, for an ongoing series of events, you could keep a log in a dated, bound logbook.  You could also email the account of the incident(s) to yourself or to someone else, thus keeping the dateline of the email transmission to help affirm the record.  Other media can be used:  you might make a recording on audio tape or video tape, also sent by certified mail and retained in the sealed, dated envelope.

Whenever you decide to retain a document or other materials sealed as evidence of the date they were assembled or composed, remember to keep readily available a copy, so you can confirm (in case you don't remember) the exact contents that you have sealed.  Chances are, a satisfactory resolution will be achieved so you will not need to provide formal contemporary evidence.  But in the meantime, having kept a dated record may give you peace of mind.


© 2003 Marsha L. Wagner, Columbia University. Used with permission.

Office of the Staff Ombuds


Student Services Building, Room G1.404


The University of Texas at Austin
100 West Dean Keeton Street, Stop A6000
Austin, Texas 78712