As teachers, you’ll know how often personal relationships between students can be tested. Unmanaged conflict can sometimes tip the balance and lead to sadness, isolation, stress, sleeplessness, fear, aggression, anxiety or depression.
Here’s a 2-ingredient recipe for growing students’ resilience in the face of interpersonal conflict. It is the result of a conversation I had with a friend of mine, a mother of three, whose parenting skills I admire greatly. As we sat in the late afternoon sun watching her three children invent games and negotiate disputes with a bunch of other children, she asked me “So, how do you actually build resilience in children?”. Here’s what we came up with: RESILIENCE = EMPATHY + AGENCY
Step 1: Empathy – Can I understand and speak from all viewpoints?
Empathy grows from a seed of interest in the complexity of the situation, rather than its simplicity. You’ll notice that in situations of conflict, we are usually sure about the simplicity of what’s going on e.g. he or she is a jerk, what ever happened is typical.
To grow empathy in a student, start by encouraging them to explore their own point of view, thoughts, feelings and actions, all the complex detail of their own experience. Encourage them to put words to it all.
Next, encourage them to apply the same process to the complex thoughts, feelings and actions of others involved in the conflict. Ask them to stand in their peer’s shoes and narrate the situation from their view. This will take some willingness to imagine their peer’s experience and validate it as if it were their own.
Now encourage the student to join these points of view together, side by side. Before long they’ll find that a complex picture of reality emerges, a picture that differs from their original, more simplistic view of the situation. This is the ‘whole story’. This step is complete when a student can honestly talk on behalf of another so well that they would feel validated and understood.
Step 2: Agency – How can I influence the outcome for myself and others?
By being able to speak on behalf of those involved in the conflict means the student can begin to identify the underlying needs of each person involved. We can see these underlying needs as the root of the difficulty, which may or may not be visible to the players in the conflict. Ask the student: “What would you like to feel in this situation? What would you like to understand about what happened? What do you need in the future?”
Once explicit, their needs can be something they take responsibility for, rather than expecting someone else to meet their needs, and being frustrated or upset when they don’t! Once the student has had a look at their mixture of needs, ask them “What can you do to get this for yourself?”.
Now get them to apply this same process for others in the conflict: “What would they like to feel in this situation? What would they like to understand about what happened? What do they need in the future?”.
Lastly, ask them to consider seeking the support of others outside the conflict to get all parties’ needs met: “Who else may be able to help you to get what you both need? How could they help? How can you get them on board?”.
You see, in conflict, once we understand the pickle we are in from all sides, and we are able to start taking positive steps to meet our own needs and the needs of others, the situation will begin to feel like something you are managing with support, regardless of how complex it is.
I’m keen to hear your thoughts on this. Leave a comment.
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Photo credit: Yourself Series