To answer your question in the shortest possible way, conflict resolution occurs through meetings with the people involved, both children and teachers. Individual meetings are the best for establishing rapport and eliciting honesty and vulnerability; two people together are also best for making sure that they listen to, and speak to, each other, with a sincere search for common ground and understanding. We maintain eye contact. We are kindly and helpful. We listen. We talk. We listen again. We reflect back our understanding through active listening, so that people can feel heard. We seek to understand, before we seek to be understood. We face our own responsibility for our behaviour. We apologize and make amends. We avoid arrogance or assumptions. We are humble and make ourselves center our focus on others, as well as on ourselves. We seek to satisfy all parties, after we figure out what went wrong, why, and what we can do to prevent that in the future. This is the simple answer, and this happens all the time. Almost every day, in some form or other.
The elementary grades are the times when young people experience the most angst over insecurity, and they have not experienced many options for resolving disputes. When they are young, typically and unavoidably, they are emotionally reactive and narrow minded. This stage of development produces a veritable witches’ brew of conflicts. Young children are simply too little, and too inexperienced, to realize their immense inner importance. So, they are uninsulated from the jibes and inconsiderate behaviour of others, and have difficulty fending off hurt feelings. They have not yet grasped the actuality of their connection to others that deserves and requires selflessness. They are still at the stage of being aware of their own needs primarily, and they speak on their own behalf. In fact, this may be the source of much of the conflict in the first place. So, during the meetings, they are informed right away that all of them are important, and all of their feelings and wishes are worthy of acknowledgement. They each get their turn to speak. Others are expected to listen. We want our children to have a coherent voice, to listen to the content and the emotion expressed by the others, to demonstrate caring and interest in resolving the issues, and to participate in the search for solutions. As time goes by, those students who show more emotional maturity and social awareness begin to feel enough empathy for others that they will speak up for them, too. This is the time period when they start to speak up for concepts of justice and kindness and appropriateness—they have grown to appreciate that mutual expectations matter, and that people need to live up to them, or else change them.
Over time, our students of all ages mature, and through all of these meetings, they grow comfortable with the idea that if they bring up their difficulties to others who are involved, they may find ways out of their emotional morass. They expect that when an issue goes to a meeting, they will resolve it, and I have seen times when certain adults failed at this task with their students, and the children were devastated that they did. They could not believe that the adult could not be collaborative, or listen, or negotiate, or seemingly care. These were true Banbury students who had been here for years, and even though they were only in elementary school, they solved problems much better than the adults did. The adults didn’t last, by the way; the students did.
Conflicts between secondary students, and between them and their teachers, are much more rare. Usually, students by this age have already experienced emotional pain, and they don’t want it anymore. They usually are more aware of the needs of others, and have learned to not get sucked into other people’s problems needlessly. They can regulate their own emotions and restrain their own aggressive words or actions. It can happen that older students may be unable to handle certain issues or circumstances, or their own ungovernable emotions, and if that happens, they are expected to participate in those meetings I mentioned above. They, too, are expected to continue in the process until all discomfort is resolved. This is what we want, and this is what happens, almost all the time.
Conflict resolution is a huge focus at Banbury, and our formal Policy that describes the approach we take is 5 pages of detailed description. It is on our website and in our Registration Package. Our general overview statement is as follows: In providing opportunities for growth in our interpersonal wisdom and humanity, we expect commitment on all sides to come to mutually acceptable resolutions. Our goal is to focus on the positive experience that comes from using empathy and effort to understand others, as well as developing negotiation and coping strategies to find solutions that work.
Conflict resolution is an offshoot of problem solving, specifically around interpersonal difficulties. The first thing to notice from our overview is that we consider such work as tremendous opportunities for people to gain interpersonal communication skills, and finesse in demonstrating empathy and compassion, wisdom and caring for the worth of everyone. It implies the ability to be self-aware, altruistic and collaborative. This is the path to maturity. Negotiation and searching for solutions are all cooperative endeavours, demonstrating the ability to work optimistically as a team. Conflict resolution is immensely beneficial for the participants, and whenever the opportunity arises to engage in this work, we are happy to oblige. This is a hallmark of Banbury, and we spend hundreds of hours each school term helping our students and teachers to gain these skills and attitudes. I love doing this work with people. It is what I do.
There are some caveats to be aware of here, though. Conflict resolution is fragile. It absolutely depends upon the individual communication skills and attitudes of the participants. It depends upon their willingness to be open and vulnerable, honest and gentle, brave and benevolent. It is pretty clear that there are all sorts of preconditions for people to be able to participate effectively. Skip just one of these abilities, and the whole thing collapses. Here is just a sampling of how the process can be derailed to the point that conflicts do not get resolved:
- if a person only cares about their own point of view, or
- if they don’t think at all about their own contribution to the incident or issue, or
- if they are incapable or unwilling to demonstrate empathy, or
- if they refuse to continue the process long enough to resolve the issues, or
- if they do not give up their assumptions about others or allow them to change, or
- if they have clumsy communication strategies that focus on overwhelming or beleaguering others to take the focus off themselves, or
- if they are not willing to collaborate or negotiate to find a solution both sides can be satisfied with, or
- if they believe in exerting power and control over others, or
- if they are impatient to take sufficient time to comprehend the complexity of the situation, or
- if they want to stay stuck in complaining, gossiping, blaming, and feeling resentful, or
- if they refuse to acknowledge that their behaviour led to hurt feelings or bodies of others, or
- if they cannot, or will not, apologize or try to make amends for their hurtful actions, or
- if they feel entitled to special treatment, or
- if they are not willing to put in the effort and commitment to understand others’ perspectives, or, worse,
- if they think others are not allowed to have different perspectives from them,
- or…you can see the pattern.
What this means is that many things can go wrong, and this does not mean that the philosophy or strategies or practices are at fault. The fault lies in the implementation of them. The success of implementation depends upon complicated people, with uneven skills, backgrounds, values and maturity, interacting with each other over complicated, sometimes unacknowledged, issues. It is astonishing, given these variables, that the implementation of our conflict resolution strategies works most of the time! And it does! Almost all of the conflict resolution meetings we engage in do result in people leaving the space with smiles on their faces, saying, “Thank you! That was awesome!” or being obviously relaxed and comfortable. As a general approach, we adopt the values of mutual respect, humility and self-responsibility…and optimism to keep trying in the future.
In the remaining small percent of the cases, the conflict does not get resolved in such a positive way. We are not in control of anyone else’s response at all. The only power we have is over ourselves, and we honor that to preserve our integrity. Some conflicts still get resolved in dribbles and drabbles over time, especially if someone has halted the interaction and the process gets stalled in its tracks. In some cases, the individuals may need to speak to mentors over the next few days, weeks or months, until their understanding shifts, and they are not so bothered about the issues, or at least, they have come to a place of peace about it. They may realize that the issue was as much about their own problems as it was about the behaviour of others. They may speak to their parents, or older siblings, or other students, and figure out practical or philosophical ways to get around the troublesome points, or see the issues from a different perspective. Sometimes people do not really comprehend what happened until years later, when they have had a chance to view themselves and the events from the perspective of time and further experience.
Other conflicts do not get resolved. They may only get managed. Sometimes, people simply disagree. Permanently. Some people are too self-absorbed to really hear anyone else. They may be resistant to the idea that they have caused a problem, and they are determined not to take any “blame” for it—which means responsibility. When or if a person does this, it means they also have no power to change the situation. They have to wait for that other “blamed” person to do something to fix their problem. This is a very disempowering situation. I try, with every fibre of my being, to point out to people when this is happening, but in some cases with people who are dyed-in-the-wool deniers of their own behaviour, I am unsuccessful. I cannot get a word in edgewise while they are giving excuses, getting accusatory or angry, or reversing the blame onto the victim.
This does not happen often. Even once feels like a disaster. Once in ten years. I need to stress that most problems are fixable, as long as the people involved do not have a personality disorder, or have no empathy, or are incapable in some other way of truly participating in a back-and-forth discussion. However, what this shows is that not all problems will be solved, and this is a realistic possibility in life. Sometimes, even outside of school, people need to walk away from someone who is disrespectful and uncaring and abusive. This may feel odd, because our whole focus is on enabling everyone in the school to feel comfortable, happy, cooperative and appreciated, and giving up is the opposite of that. The truth is, though, that sometimes wisdom is knowing when to give up. In the whole history of the school, of 41 years, I can still remember outstanding cases when I had to send a student home permanently, or even their parent, or even a teacher. I jealously guard the atmosphere at Banbury, and I really am disgusted when our process for working things out goes nowhere. But I am not Mother Teresa, and even she refused to help some people, because she knew they were not suitable for her help.
In other words, at Banbury, we expect people to be willing and able to participate fully in our conflict resolution process. If they are, then it almost always works.