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.

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