Sunday, June 27, 2010

Alternatives to Violence When Conflict Arises

My son, Alex, and I had the privilege of participating in a SCORE Teen Mediation Training program conducted by Chandra Banks for students in the Cambridge Public Schools.

On the first day of the training, Chandra made some very powerful points:

1. People often don't think ahead about the consequences of violence, and end up doing needless damage to themselves and/or others.

2. While violence is a human phenomenon, the United States is a very violent place. In the US, people resolve their conflicts with violence. Countries where war is actively underway have fewer people going to the emergency room on a Saturday night than in the US.

3. Homicide has become so prevalent in the United States, that the Center for Disease Control now tracks it. Why? Homicide is considered a "preventable illness."

4. While a lot of attention is being paid to bulllying at school, school is actually the safest place for youth ages 10 - 24. School associated violent deaths account for just 1% of violent deaths for youth in this age group.

What do these messages say about the emotional climate we live in? While conflict is inevitable because of human differences, be they differences in values, experience, beliefs, culture or feelings, why do we need to escalate to the point of hurting one another, often in such deep and traumatic ways?

The lack of emotional and social education received by Americans seems to be at the root of our violent responses to conflict. While we highly prize a well-developed intellect, emotionall illiteracy in this country is very high, even amongst the rich, the educated and the "successful."

When kids are raised in homes where their parents yell at them, judge them, hit them, punish them without just cause, and treat them as "underlings" in a power struggle, how do we develop any capacity for mutual respect, understanding and non-violent conflict resolution skills?

The following are key tools and experiences that can help provide non-violent alternatives to conflict resolution:

1. Creating emotionally safe environments. Emotional safety is critical for understanding the roots of any conflict, including each party's most essential needs. When we don't feel safe, our defenses lead, and our deeper needs may stay protected and far from the conversation. Emotional safety allows us to slowly test the waters, and participate more fully in a collaborative conflict-resolution process.

2. Learning to see more than one side of a story. When we are in a conflict, it is too easy to become polarized, and think we are right and the other is wrong. Every story has more than one side, and until we can look at a conflict from multiple points of view, we are operating with incomplete information.

3. Participating in mediation. Mediation is a voluntary, self-directed, confidential, non-judgmental process that is future-oriented, focusing on solving a problem in a mutually agreeable way. Mediation provides a contained space to work on having parties' needs identified and considered, and a clearly articulated document can be drawn up once an agreement is reached. Mediators hear both sides of a story and help the parties generate a resolution that each can live with.

4. Speaking and listening from the heart. This practice creates emotional safety in any relationship. "While our minds' arguments can divide us, most any problem can be solved through heartfelt communication," says author Jacqueline Small.

5. Finding some common ground with another person, rather than making them an "other." When we "other" another person, we make them separate, distant and disconnected from us. At times, we can forget their humanity. With the anonymity the internet creates, it is easy to feel a distance between ourselves and other people. Finding tangible, meaningful ways that we share common ground can help take down the barrier of "other."

6. Learning to work with anger in a responsible way, rather than "acting out" in anger. When our boundaries are threatened, when people break important agreementsw, when we are treated unkindly or even inhumanely, becoming angry is a natural reaction. What is key, however, is how we manager our anger. If we learn to become more grounded, and have the space inside our hearts and minds to recognize anger, and consciously manage anger energy, our anger can give us the power to take healthy steps forward. If we are unconscious about our feelings, and reactive when angry, we can act out, hurting self and/or other.

7. Having models of healthy conflict resolution. Sadly, many of the models that are most familiar when conflict arises are not healthy and do not resolve conflict in any kind of mutually respectful way. If we act out in anger, leave abruptly, push the conflict underground, or engage in a power struggle, conflict will lead to hurt and defensive behavior. If we learn to recognize conflict as it arises, and develop tools to slow down, manage our energy, emotions and thoughts, choose conscious and constructive behavior, and seek containment from a third-party when needed, we can experience conflict as a breakthrough point, rather than a break down.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Today's "Emotional Education Movement"

In an "Ideas" section article in the Sunday Boston Globe on April 5, Drake Bennett wrote about "The Other Kind of Smart." Indeed, there is a growing "emotional education movement," suggesting that social and emotional skills need not just be learned by encounters on the streets of life, but can be broken down into skills and concepts that can be taught "in the same way math and critical thinking can be."

There are times I find it almost unthinkable that emotional literacy would be so overlooked or under the radar. Emotional intelligence not only impacts the quality of our relationships and lives, but also our intellectual development. Neurologist Antonio Damasio showed how "people rendered emotionless by brain damage became not more, but less rational in many ways."

While the heart is a very central and important organ in Chinese medicine, the brain has been the "highest power" in both Western medicine and psychology. I find it fascinating that while many other organs are important in Chinese medicine (including the lungs, the liver and the kidneys), the brain is not nearly as central.

The Western bias towards the brain and away from the heart and other body systems, have impacted the very fabric of our lives. How is it we have built a society focusing so singularly on the brain and brain development, overlooking other essential parts of being a human being? And is it a surprise that a culture that has overlooked emotional factors in both individual and collective living is riddled with threats to sustainability and overrun with bullying behaviors from the schoolyard to the boardroom?

Bennett notes that the emotional research field arose in the early 1990's with the work of psychologists John Mayer of UNH and Peter Salovey of Yale. Mayer and Salovey were the folks who brought "emotional intelligency" to light, even suggesting that our ability to process new emotional information and to work with emotionally rich situations contributed to an emotional IQ (EQ).

Daniel Goleman's 1995 best seller, Emotional Intelligence, written for a popular audience, brought the notion of emotional literacy into the public eye. Because we have not valued emotional literacy or emotional experience, the skills needed to be an emotionally healthy human being have neither been articulated nor taught in our educational process.

Is it a surprise that kids behave in primal ways when they feel upset, insecure, unsure of who they are, threatened, angry or ostracized? If we are not given tools, concepts and language to understand our human emotional responses, then we will respond in crude and often less than useful ways. Likewise, when emotions and emotional reality is judged, suppressed, considered to be "weak" and "unmanly" or even "signs of mental illness," it is unsafe to plumb the depths of this rich and essential territory and gain mastery of what it really means to be a human being.

Introspective skills are at least as important as analytical skills. Self-awareness is essential for being able to have empathy and connection with other human beings. Being aware of bodily feelings and sensations and being able to translate them into meaningful terms is fundamental to knowing who we are, what we need and how to communicate our needs to others in the moment and over time. Learning to listen, hear and reflect back what another person is saying is critical for healthy and mutually respectful relationships.

Emotional literacy skills are now being packaged in the framework called "emotional and social knowledge." And because we are becoming more aware of the intensity and insidiousness of the current bullying epidemic, emotional and social knowledge is gaining more visibility as an essential ingredient in solving the bullying problem.

I do believe that emotional illiteracy is at the root of the bullying epidemic, and emotional literacy is at the heart of unraveling the problem and changing the cultural and environmental context in which we think and live. My hope is that the emerging emotional education movement is not seen as a passing fad or a temporary trend, but part of an on-going, evolutionary groundswell, that in time, we recognize as a critical, transformative and positive step forward in human history.

If we can learn to define, articulate, and work with the power of the heart, we can, together, create a more sustainable and liveable society. Hearts can hear heads, but heads cannot always hear hearts. While differences in thought can divide us, most any problem can be solved through committed, respectful and heartfelt communication.

I look forward to the day when instead of doing therapy or personal growth workshops outside the primary chambers of wordly life, I can proudly step into the classroom and the boardroom, as a recognized and valued player helping people tune and enhance their introspective, self-management, empathy and communication skills, the same waythat today I might edit their writing or critique their business plan.