Category Archives: Conflict resolution

Use Silence in Facilitating


What can a facilitator do with an extremely persistent person, who refuses to stop interrupting others in mediating or facilitating?  In my last post I stressed the importance of stepping up early in proceedings to establish that groundrules must be kept.  Jump on any first violations and then relax a bit later, not the other way around.

Several readers pointed out that in the situation I was referring to, the interrupter would probably not have been restrained by such facilitator efforts.  Very possible.  So we have to ask, what then?

Of course, it is always an option to simply close a fraught session.  I am more effective as a facilitator when I am prepared to bring closure gracefully at any time.  I will mention closure as a possibility to parties if necessary, for the threat of it often changes their behavior.  But I need to mean it and be prepared to smoothly execute it in order for the specter of closure to have real impact on parties.

But closure is closure.  It is not a tool for changing the dynamics of the meeting we are in.   As a facilitator, I am prepared for closure but I want to maximize all possibilities for transforming this into a rule-governed exchange.

There is a powerful tool that facilitators can deploy to great benefit: strategic use of silence.  Veteran teachers knew this long ago;  the rest of us have to work on it!

One use of silence is simply to interject it in exchanges with disputants:  “Mr. Interrupter, (silence for 2-3 full seconds, with steady but non-aggressive gaze directed his way), I need to ask you to observe the ground rule that has been established for this debate, not to speak when it is not your turn.”  And then proceed with the debate.

I would try that, but I am not so hopeful that it would have had a great impact here.   In this situation I think I would then have followed up by using silence in the following way: “Mr. Interrupter, the terms of this debate include a ground rule not to interrupt when the other person is speaking.   It’s my duty to you and to those observing to ensure that ground rules are followed.  You seem to be having a great deal of difficulty with this.  I need to ask you now to recommit to it so that we can continue, and if you cannot, I will be compelled to call a pause in this conversation.   Please, take a few seconds in silence and think about this.  And then I’d like to hear your reply. “

I would then immediately busy myself with things on my desk for a few seconds – before turning back to the offender with, “Sir, are you ready to proceed with the ground rules as agreed?”
 
I would not allow the offender to ignore the question.  If he refuses to give clear assent, I would call a short break to give everyone a chance to calm down.  In the break I would try to interact briefly with both sides, and  make a decision about whether and how to proceed based on my reading of those conversations.  

There’s no guarantee this will work, of course, and if an offender refuses to observe ground rules, the facilitator has a duty to end the session.   But when we do that, we want to do it in a way that: 1) Conspicuously provides maximum opportunity for the offender to first accept compliance with ground rules and 2) If the meeting must be ended, leaves no ambiguity that it was failure of the participant to observe ground rules that brought the meeting to a close.   

The approach outlined above narrows down the possibility of proceeding to compliance of the offender with ground rules.  It will be apparent to all present who is at fault.   The offender knows this and only the most brazen will so clearly designate himself as the one who failed to cooperate.  

If the offender persists, then the facilitator can calmly, confidently, regretfully but without a trace of spite, announce that it seems clear that the proceedings cannot proceed at this time and bring things to a close.   

When People Interrupt

The problem we saw in tonight’s presidential debate is familiar to any mediator: How do you keep angry people from interrupting each other? Chris Wallace demonstrated clearly tonight that good journalists are not necessary good facilitators!

There’s actually a fairly simple solution. You have to establish a ground rule at the beginning – no interruptions. And you have to enforce it, not after four, five, or six interruptions, but the very first time it happens.

You need to stop the proceedings cold, right there, turn physically towards the interrupter and speak directly and firmly: “Mr. Trump, our ground rule is no interruptions, and we won’t be able to proceed if people don’t stick to it. I need your commitment to support the process. Can you give it?” And then you need to wait silently for the interrupter to give it. In 35 years of mediation and facilitation, I’ve never had a client refuse to do so.

I’ve trained thousands of mediators and seen that the tendency for most mediators, like Chris Wallace tonight, is the opposite. They ignore interruptions at first, hoping they will go away. But they don’t. One interruption will always be followed by more.

Parties size up very quickly whether they can get away with ignoring rules or not. If you give them several experiences of squeezing in their interruptions unrebuked, they see that the rule isn’t really serious, and the problem gets worse and worse.

Once the rule is clearly established – it rarely takes more than one or two interventions like the above – the parties tend to accept the guardrail and behave. You can in fact ease up on strictness later and allow some back and forth without losing control – IF you’ve established the norm early.

My Neighbor Drew a Knife

I’ve trained police in conflict resolution skills on four continents.  My first love is communities but the years of training brought me to care deeply about police officers as well.    

This week’s newspapers carry the story of a man shot and killed by police in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  Mentally ill, he threatened family members, who called 911 for help.   When police arrived, the man ran out the door with a 12 inch knife towards an officer who shot and killed him .    

This story takes me back to my own years in Lancaster.  In 1989, just a few blocks from yesterday’s death, I too faced an angry man, my neighbor, threatening his wife and anyone trying to help with a knife.

* * * * * *

“Put the knife down, John!”  I stood at a careful distance of 15 feet,  calling forth the most convincing combination of firmness and kindness in my voice that I could muster.   

John was having none of it.     “You get any closer and I’ll kill you!”  

John was a little shorter than I but stronger and built like an ox.  Now he was in a drunken rage, and waving a 10 inch hunting knife at anyone who came near.  

I knew the history here – a depressed man, an on-again-off-again work history, alcoholic.  Nice guy when sober, vicious when drunk.  Then no one was safe, including his wife whose bruised arms and face betrayed a troubled partnership.

In this moment I wasn’t sure John even knew who I was.   I’d come out to the street because I heard screaming.  John was standing just outside their small house on the street yelling “I’ll kill you!” and waving a knife at Bev, who stood at the door shouting profanities.   There were two small children in that house, but it was 11pm and they were nowhere in sight.  I motioned Bev to close the door so I could engage John without her provocations.  

I considered calling the police.  John had a record and was on probation for previous scrapes, including drunk driving.   He’d been trying hard to stop drinking and been dry for several months.   He was holding down a job and the family had seemed to be stabilizing.  If he got arrested, he’d almost certainly go back to jail.  He’d be back in the soup again, and economically, the family as well.

Why not first try to defuse things on my own, I thought? There weren’t many people around at that hour.  Bev and the children were inside and the door was now locked.   The main danger was to me.   But I was a 36 old jogger, a former high school wrestler, and nimble on my feet.   John was strong but not fast.  And right now, he was drunk.  I felt confident that I could read danger signals fast enough to easily stay out of his reach.

Besides, I was a conflict resolution trainer, now with years of experience in community and organizational settings.  I taught and often used a repertoire of skills for interacting with angry people. 

“Hey John, how was your week?” I called.   He was sitting now on his doorstep, the knife by his side.   “Ah, those s.o.b.s!”  He launched into a tirade about his employer.   He just wanted to keep his job but they were treating him so disrespectfully that he was thinking of quitting, 

It really didn’t take much.  All I had to do was stand there, listen, and mumble supportive sounds.  Within a few minutes John was calm and treating me like his best friend.   He seemed  to have forgotten the quarrel with Bev.   After 15 minutes of commiseration I said, “John, how about if you give me the knife – I’ll give it back tomorrow.”   Without protest, he handed it to me. 

A giant rubber band seemed to relax in my gut  as I walked that blade to my house.    Half an hour later I went to bed, John still sitting on the stoop to his house.

* * * * * * 

Long hours of workshops and conversation have pushed me past deep stereotypes I once held of police.   Far more than I ever knew, police are vulnerable people.  The work is dangerous, the hours long, the pay low.  Family life is hard, almost non-existent for some, for the work is so demanding.   Many places in the world, people become police officers because they have few options for income.  

As I came to appreciate and sympathize with the human beings I worked with in police training, I also came to see that there is a huge gap in the way policing is done most places in the world.   Many situations in which police use violence could be dealt with nonviolently by someone who is trained and practiced in their skills.  

This is easier said than done. Non-violent de-escalation of an armed person requires an unusual blend of assertiveness and empathy, physical agility,  quick risk assessment, excellent listening, skill in verbal responses, and attention and support by supervisors. Training and practice are essential.

Patience and time flexibility are also required to give the dynamics of an interactional response opportunity to unfold.  All of these are in short supply in most police forces.

Still, we take it for granted that we have to invest in maintaining weapons readiness for officers.  Why don’t we adopt the same attitude towards readiness for non-violent responses to threat?  Police deliver – and as a society we get – the kind of policing responses that police are mandated to prepare for.

Everywhere I’ve worked, I’ve been surprised and encouraged by the number of police officers who agree with all the above.   Officers of integrity – and there are many – know that those who wield deadly force have a duty before God and humanity to resolve conflicts with the least violence possible.  They are eager to learn and master skills and strategies that will help them accomplish that goal safely.   They know that it is essential to build a policing culture that removes those who do not share this goal.  

But police forces are hierarchical, inward-looking, and resistant to change.  Pressure from above and from outside are essential to help the many “good apples” within the police to bring the changes they know are needed.

You may think that over-reliance on violent responses doesn’t affect you.   But if you have children or grandchildren, you could be tragically wrong.   Drug abuse and mental illness can come to any family.   It could be your son or daughter or grandchild who has an episode of mental illness or drug abuse and threatens others.   Wouldn’t you want the responder to be highly trained in defusing dangerous situations, rigorously trained in calibrated escalation of tactics, confident enough to deal with threatening behavior without quickly replying with deadly force, and backed up by the supervision and staffing required to give this crisis whatever time is needed to avoid violence? 

We Can Avoid Mask Conflict

There are a lot of stories going around about conflicts over wearing masks.  See for example this account in the New York Times. 
 
The evidence is now clear that masking makes a huge difference in infection rates.  All we have to do is get everyone to mask properly, and we can drastically reduce the rate of infections and deaths,  without closing down the economy.  It’s a no-brainer.  
 
So how to get there quickly, without needless conflict?
 
  1.  Leadership. The first step is clear direction and leadership from leaders.   We have to establish a new norm here, and quickly, friends!   It must start with those in charge – at whatever social level they exist in – fully embracing the need for masking and sending unambiguous signals in support of it.   No hemming and hawing, no “maybe this, maybe that”.  

    Wearing a mask is inconvenient and uncomfortable.   It’s not easy in the best of circumstances to move a population to do this.   There’s no chance of success if leaders don’t lead here, from president on down to the smallest local unit.

  2. Consistent modeling is essential.    Being an outstanding role model is one of the most effective forms of leadership.  No saying one thing and doing another!   Every time leaders appear in settings with other people, they should seize the opportunity to be a visible model of commitment to masking.   To do otherwise is to enable suffering and death. 

  3. Good Signage.  Communicate clear, written expectations of masking, at every turn.   Institutions need to message everyone who enters – from the moment they enter and followed by frequent reminders within – that masking is the norm.   Something clear and simple like “No shoes, no shirt, no mask, no service.”   Only with clear, visible written signs about masks as a norm is there a chance of dealing with resisters without drama.   Staff whose job it is to deal with unmasked people can’t be expected to be effective without good public signage.

  4. Followup and monitoring.  What good are signs saying “Masks required” if staff are seen striding around maskless or half-masked? Because this is an awkward, inconvenient new norm, we can’t expect things to change just by issuing new policies and directives.   We must ensure that monitoring and review take place.  It’s a pain, it’s true, but we can’t establish new norms quickly without effort.

Clarity and Consistency Will Go Farther than Combativeness

It’s counterproductive to view every case of an unmasked person walking through the door as the ultimate battle.  Our goal should be to achieve very high levels of masking in a very short period of time, not to compel every dissident to instantly comply in the process of establishing a new norm.

A big angry confrontation with an unmasked person is a bigger threat to health and life of everyone in the environment than allowing a stubborn non-conformist to walk around quietly unmasked. Hyperventilation, shouting, close contact or shoving are inescapably dangerous for all.

Screeners need to be trained to act in light of that fact. The goal should be persistently communicating a clear expectation, not acting like police empowered to coerce.

Training is Essential

Screeners can easily be trained in a simple series of non-coercive responses to violators:
  • Start with clear, friendly, matter-of-fact  (non-confrontational in tone and body language) statements of masking requirements,
  • Escalate as needed by repeating the requirements and adding a direct, polite request not to enter without wearing a mask (if possible helpfully offering a location to get one);
  • Further escalate as needed by: repeating the requirements and informing that entry without masking is a violation of institutional policy; and that you are required to report the incident to management (or by saying that you have to immediately contact management to act on the situation).
Note that the sequence does not end with the screener attempting to physically block a violator.  Granted, there are  situations where the entry of even one unmasked person is highly dangerous and the above sequence would need to then include physical blockage.   In such circumstances screeners need to be trained and well-equipped as security guards or have quick access to such.
 
But it’s neither realistic nor necessary to expect such high control in most settings.  The battle for masking won’t be won by imposing fortified guards at every portal of public interaction or trying to mandate ordinary staff to act like guards.  Rather we will win it by posting well-prepared screeners throughout our institutions, trained in communicating a clear expectation with minimal confrontation and no physical tussles.
 
Some screeners need to be trained to turn up their energy and volume to do this effectively; others need to learn to turn it down so as not to be overbearing.   As part of a several hour training program, a conflict style inventory is a highly effective tool in helping individuals recognize their own tendencies and calibrate their responses accordingly.   In a workshop of a few hours, individuals can assess themselves, learn a basic sequence for handling difficult situations, and practice what they are learning in roleplays.     
 
Israel, Canada, and some other countries impose stiff fines on people who violate rules on social isolation.  They’re showing far better results than the US in slowing the virus.  But whether we go that route in the end or not, we’ll still need screeners and strategies like the above.

Let’s get on with this so we can return to something like the life we all long for!