People typically practice one, two, or all of the following responses to conflict: retreating, attacking, or standing their ground.
At Talking Stick, we employ a method of communication coaching that helps participants develop the essential quality of assertiveness.
We address the question, “How to stand up for your own rights without violating the rights of others?” Too many times, a conflict is approached in either a passive or aggressive way, which reinforces our society’s message of “might makes right”. When conflict arises, such as because two people want different things to happen, each person is often thinking: “if you get what you are wanting, I won’t get what I am wanting”. At Talking Stick we ask, “What can you both do to get what you are wanting?”
In order for both parties to realize that they can both get what they are wanting, they have to feel heard. The first step in conflict facilitation, after addressing any emotional or physical safety issues, is to listen to both or all parties. While we listen, we do not let other people interrupt and tell them they will have their turn without interruptions also. We listen with facial expressions that express our concern and respect and offer empathetic vocalizations. Our body language shows that we have not chosen sides and are open to listening (have not already made up our minds).
We reflect back what we hear the person saying to make sure we heard it accurately. We always listen, even if we saw the incident with our own eyes, because for one, something may look a certain way but in reality be another way and because everyone needs to feel heard in order to even approach problem solving. In some situations, a resolution occurs to the conflicting parties through the process of hearing and being heard. If not, we continue facilitating.
After each person feels heard, we ask them, “What is it you are wanting right now?” This question brings them back to the present moment where they need to be in order to move forward. Sometimes, people approach a conflict assuming that they will have to fight for what they want to the extent that they lose track of what they really want and need at that particular moment. Again, sometimes this question leads to a solution that both parties end up agreeing to. If not, we ask them both more questions such as “What would you like to use it for?” “What else could either of you use?” or “What’s a way you could both get a chance to use it?”
These questions may spur solutions or we may have to move on to making specific suggestions such as “You could take turns using it”, “You could build a new one”, or “Would you like me to put it away for now?” (a real question, not a threat). If they still don’t budge then we tell them what is going to happen. “You can each have 15 minutes with it” or “I’m going to help you make another one”. If someone is upset about a particular outcome, we give them empathy for their frustration. Very rarely do we have to dictate resolutions for participants in this way. For the most part they respond very positively to the opportunity to problem solve with an adult there to support them. As long as they have been heard and given empathy first.
Sometimes someone gets physically or emotionally hurt during the conflict before we intervene. If that is the case, the facilitation must include creating the space for the hurt person to say exactly what the other person did that they did not like and not to do it again. The more stern they are (no nervous smiling), the more seriously the other person will take their words. Sometimes it is also necessary for the adult involved to give what I consider an “institutional response” in order to convey the fact that the behavior was not only unacceptable to the child who got hurt but also in the Talking Stick environment. For example, “We simply do not call each other names here. We just don’t. Don’t do it again.”
One day a young boy demonstrated low impulse control and threw a stick at a girl’s back. Although the stick fell short she noticed it and she turned to him, got eye contact and said, “Don’t you ever through a stick at me again!” He scurried away. I went over to her and said, “I saw that you very firmly told him to never throw a stick at you again and I wanted to let you know that I noticed you were really able to get your message across with your voice and the way you stood over him. He really listened to you!” She beamed.
The keys to conflict facilitations are never taking sides, staying calm, and not just letting a conflict go unaddressed. Each day brings us new opportunities to guide participants on their path to developing effective, assertive, communication.