Category Archives: Conflict resolution

Things fall apart. How to respond?

These are scary times, and it’s not just COVID19.  Polarization is rooted now in ways not experienced in living memory.  Groups live in separate worlds, with their own news, networks, rhetoric, and influencers.  Violence, threats of violence, and disregard for democratic processes are commonplace.  It is not exaggerating to say that  the rule of law and democracy seem to be in danger.  

What can we do about it?  The causes are many; there will be no single solution.  High on the list of essential responses, I believe,  must be strategies to improve skills in resolving conflicts and building consensus.   But how?

Our methods of making decisions and resolving conflict are out-dated.

Author and former CIA analyst Martin Gurri points out that public institutions today are an inheritance of the 20th century, “the heyday of the top-down, I-talk-you-listen model of organizing humanity. They are too ponderous and too distant from ordinary people. Legitimacy depended on control over information: failure and scandal could be dealt with discreetly. Once the digital tsunami swept away the possibility of control, the system lapsed into crisis.” (see his dialogue with Yuval Levin here)

Like it or not, there’s no going back to the old ways of leading and managing.  We must expand the skill set of leaders at all levels. 

But there’s a big obstacle. 

We think “they” are the problem.  Nope, it’s patterns we all share.

With our out-dated expectations and skills for dealing with differences, we easily blame “them” for our perilous situation.  In the sketch below, I represent “us” and “them” as two sides, brown and blue, each with its own leaders, grassroots, and middle leader influencers.  Both sides are focused on a massive divide separating them. 

 

The divide is real.  But it’s more a symptom than a cause.  To get out of this mess we must focus on causes.

The problem is not the issues piled up on the table between us.  Nor is it simply the bad behavior of the other side.  Instead we should focus on addressing this: The habits (assumptions, practices, expectations, skills) that guide how institutions and leaders  go about making decisions and solving problems are from fifty years ago.   

Here’s a reality that stands in the background: All groups, in all times and places face on-going decisions and conflicts internally.  There’s competition for power within every group. Also hurts, slights, disappointments, and resentments.  

We had a system that worked, sort of, in the past. The top-down approaches (leaders-talk-others-listen) that pervaded our institutions in the last century enabled leaders and institutions to resolve or contain problems as they arose.  

Top-down approaches don’t work anymore but we use them anyway because it’s the only response we really know.

 

So what to do about it?

Start at home, within our own networks.

There is a widespread belief that where conflict symptoms appear is the place to address a problem.  Nope. Dysfunctional conflict emerges where there are gaps of skill and analysis among those in key leadership roles. This results in bad patterns taking root all around. Leaders get mired in chronically unresolved conflicts: a) among themselves; b) between themselves and those they lead, c) among those who depend on them for leadership and mentoring, and d) with organizations in the environment.

You can’t fix that mess by mediating. The bad patterns soon overwhelm any progress you might make on specific issues. 

We can’t fix the big divide on the table between brown and blue, for example, by setting up dialogue at the table.  New understandings and skills for leadership, problemsolving, and conflict resolution have to be implemented internally first, on both side of the big divide.  

Institutions and groups today are made up of individuals who expect a lot of say in decisions affecting their lives. Leaders require a new understanding of their role and a new set of skills to pull this off.  They have to learn, and practice these skills and strategies internally, among the people they trust most, before they can deploy them in riskier settings.

Unity within a faction or party helps stabilize the entire system. Years ago a leading South African businessman told me: “I was very threatened by unionization when it first started. But eventually I saw that unions were easier to deal with. We used to have big problems with wildcat strikes and constant chaos. Unions brought order to the workers side. We know who to talk to, and we know that when we make a deal with the union reps, they’ll make it work.”


Diversify and expand the skill set of leaders.

A big danger for this moment is the temptation to seize on simplistic answers.  Eg: if top-down leadership doesn’t work any more, then bottom-up consensus must be the answer.  

Nope again. You can’t do bottom-up consensus on everything. Participatory processes take time and energy, and resources. Not all issues merit the costs; not all require the lavish resources involved. If we seize on participatory approaches to leading and solving problems as the solution to all problems, we’ll wear out and fail. The result will be reduced willingness to use participatory approaches at all.

We need flexibility in our responses. Some decisions merit all-hands-on-deck participation. But others should be dealt with by executive action. Some conflicts require us to be engaged and assertive; others should be delayed or avoided. Some merit a smile and quick assent to demands; others require haggling and compromise.

Our goal must not be to completely eliminate top-down leadership and the skillset that comes naturally with it.  Rather it must be to expand skill sets, so leaders don’t over-rely on top-down. One of the reasons I continue to invest a lot of energy in the Style Matters conflict style framework is that it teaches flexibility of response and gives leaders a tool to quickly recognize and evaluate a range of responses to conflict.  (View short “Intro to Conflict Styles” slide show here.)

Do joint process design.

In conflict facilitation involving numbers of people we give a lot of attention to good process design.  As early as possible, we consult with key people, sometimes gathering them in the same room, to get their input on questions like: What are the key issues here?  Who do they affect? What are the needs and goals for the people affected?  How to appropriately involve those people?  Who will make the final decisions regarding whatever decisions we undertake and what decision-making procedures will they use?

After getting input on those questions we work carefully, jointly with key actors, to design a process of discussion that is understood and accepted by those involved.   It’s called “agreeing on procedure”.  If you do this before jumping into deep discussion and decisionmaking of the issues, a sustainable outcome is more likely. 

That’s easier said than done!  But it’s remarkably helpful in getting things off to a good start and avoiding mistakes that are hard to undo later.

An instinct we need to hone now in institutions and leadership is to pay attention to good process design.   As we find our way with the new skill sets required today, we can’t just assume that the old approaches will work and be accepted by others.   We need to talk with those we disagree with – and those we are leading in decisionmaking activities – about how to go about resolving the differences that confront us.

Equip people around you with new skills.

We can’t get through this time with the same old approaches.   And new ones won’t just throw themselves at us.  Every institution, whether political, community, business, or religious should be investing thought and time in re-tooling.  

For many years I’ve used the diagram below to sketch out areas of competency.  Each of those layers can be taught and learned with resources available online, or with the help of schools, coaches, consultants, trainers, or mentors.  There’s no lack of learning tools and strategies!  For expanded commentary on this pyramid, see my blogpost on it.

Don’t be daunted by the scope of potential skills.  Nobody masters them all!  We need an expanded pool of leaders competent in the bottom five or six layers.  Part of our current problem is that we have a large number of people functioning in the upper layers who have almost no skills or awareness in the lower layers. 

It’s not necessary to start at the bottom and proceed in a nice smooth flow up through those layers.  Start with what’s within reach. Conflict styles training, for example, jumps in on levels two and three, which are about interpersonal conflicts.   But work here gives lots of opportunities to raise issues about level one, and to prime people for becoming more effective mediators or facilitators, the levels above.

Or maybe you start with a workshop on group facilitation, level five.  That’s a great lead-in for additional work on listening and other interpersonal conflict resolution skills.  The point is, you don’t have to have a nice orderly progression.  Wherever you teach, lead, consult, or administer, build awareness in the people you work with that there is a useful set of skills they can learn and use for decision-making and conflicts of all kinds.  Help them get on a lifelong journey of learning.

Starting with work within the parties in conflict seems longer and slower than just going for the issues between them.  But sometimes you have to go slow to go fast, and I think that’s the case now. 

Copyright 2021, by Ron Kraybill, www.kraybilltable.com.  You may quote from or use this post in entirety if you include the preceding credit info.

 

Cooperate Gracefully

 


 

The Cooperating Style of conflict management is about actively seeking ways for both sides to win everything they want.  I assert myself clearly and confidently.  You do the same.  We work together to find solutions that allow us to both get what we want.  I win and so do you – how wonderful! 

Or maybe, how ridiculous.   A magical conflict style that makes everyone happy?  Ha, haa, haaa.   We could be forgiven for starting a review of Cooperating with a big laugh. Real life isn’t that easy and we all have stories to prove it.

Both sides win?  Hilarious thought!

 

 

But don’t laugh too long or you’ll create a story with its own sad outcomes. 

 

For skeptics of Cooperating, life is an endless series of battles.  They are right in believing that many conflicts can’t be resolved with this optimistic style.  But pessimism prevents some people from seeing that in most conflicts there is more room for meeting the needs of both sides than  first meets the eye.

There’s a cycle of pessimism and failure that gets triggered in many conflicts.  People get upset and react to the discovery of differences.   Things escalate, emotions rise, unkind things are said and done.   This brings further escalation.  Pessimists often give up on resolution without ever having made a serious effort at joint discussion.  

You create your own dismal reality if you treat win/win as impossible.  You doom yourself to endless, pointless conflict if you never make a serious try at the Cooperative conflict style.

I’ve spent decades as a professional resource to people trapped in that place.   The trap is real, but usually not because there are truly no win/win solutions available.  A deficit of skill in using the Cooperating conflict style usually lies at the heart of their problems.   

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  

When to Use Cooperating

This style is beneficial in many circumstances, and it is indispensable in situations where neither side can achieve their goals unless both sides are happy.  Think: long-term relationship, high inter-dependency, important issues.   When those three factors are present in a conflict, it’s essential to have good skills in the Cooperating style of conflict resolution.

How to Cooperate

Cooperating is a both/and response to conflict.  As shown on the blue axes  on the right, It involves being highly committed to both your own goals and to the relationship (and therefore to helping the other person achieve their goals). 

That’s not the natural flow of thing, though. Conflict creates a feeling that things must be eithor/or, and we tend to act accordingly.  Cooperating requires skill, self-discipline, and persistence in resisting the natural impulse to fight or flee.   

Expect a learning curve!  If you were lucky enough to have frequent modelling of Cooperating by parents, teachers, or mentors, you may find it easy.  But most people witness more examples of Directing, Avoiding, Harmonizing, and Compromising in their elders than Cooperating.  Practice in easy situations till you get the hang of how to be committed to both your own goals and the other person’s goals at the same time.

Active Listening as a Core Skill

Cooperating is hard work, of a very specific kind.   People have to stop reacting and start listening to each other.  Not pretending to listen while mentally reloading for the next round of argument, but actively seeking to understand what the other seeks.   Only if both sides are willing to do that is win/win possible.   We can say many other things about this conflict style, but the requirement to keep listening at the core is by far the most important.

If you’ve never worked on what is known as “active listening”, do a web search on the term.  You’ll find many resource pages, for many different settings.  Pick out several in settings that fit your life.  Read and re-read, and begin practicing the skills required.   

Start in non-conflictual situations where you will use the skill to convey support – perhaps a colleague struggling with a difficult decision, a partner distressed about a life situation, or a child upset about school.  You’ll be richly rewarded with deeper connections as you get comfortable with the basic moves of active listening.   Mastering them in low stress settings will make it easier when you begin using them under fire. 

Transition Phrases for Cooperating

A key requirement for success in conflict management is ability to  influence the dynamics of interaction with others.   For example, if someone approaches in a Directing style, pushing their agenda in ways that seem domineering, rude or self-centered, it’s natural to want to reply in kind.   But fighting consumes vast energy and can destroy possibilities of working together.  Or if someone persistently uses an Avoiding response with you, important issues may go unaddressed.  In both cases, you benefit by initiating a Cooperating exchange instead.

Transition phrases are short phrases or statements that help do this.  In my other blog posts you can find such phrases for other conflict styles.  For Cooperating, transition phrases are often longer than for other styles.  Cooperating as a response to conflict is somewhat counter-intuitive and it’s hard to describe in one phrase.  It also requires some level of buy-in from your counterpart.   So transitioning to Cooperating is often more like a phase than a phrase.

Overt Cooperating Approaches.  There’s two different ways to do this transition.  One is overt, meaning that you openly propose a special approach to the conversation:

  • “Could we try something?  Maybe we could agree to take turns for a little while here.”
  • “It seems like both of us have clear opinions on this.   Could we slow things down a bit and really try to understand each other?”
  • “This is not an easy moment for us.  You’re focused on XXXX, I’m focused on ZZZ.  We’ve both got a lot at stake here.   Let’s not turn this into a fight.  Let’s take the time to really hear and understand each other.   Want to go first and I’ll do my best to really hear you?”
  • “Could we take turns and really examine what each of us is concerned about here?  I promise you I’ll do my best to try to understand your concerns if you’ll do the same for me.”
  • “Could we take a few minutes to agree on a way of discussing this (or “some groundrules”, “some guidelines”, “some principles”, “a procedure”) that would help us bring our best selves to this?” 
  • “How about if we try using a Talking Stick?  We can use some object like a pen and have a rule that we speak only if we’re holding that object.   One person holds the Talking Stick and speaks for a while, and the other listens.   Then it reverses, and it goes back and forth like that for the entire conversation.”
  • “Could we set aside some time tomorrow to talk about this?  And maybe we could agree on sort of an agenda to help us be at our best?  We could start by trying to agree on what the key issues are.  Then we could go through those one at a time, and on each issue we could each have, say, ten minutes to say whatever is on our mind about that issue without interruption from the other person.  I think I’d function more positively in that kind of a framework.”
  • “Before we start talking about these difficult issues, could we do something that would help at least me to keep a positive focus.  Could we take a few minutes and each take a turn and review out loud what you and I have accomplished together and the benefits this relationship has brought to us?”  

Implicit Cooperating Approach.  Sometimes it’s better to just start using Cooperating skills yourself without trying to get your counterpart to explicitly buy in to a different approach.  The idea here is that if you simply begin using Cooperating Skills yourself, you may elicit similar responses in kind from others.   The shift may not happen quickly – be prepared to persist!

  • “Could you help me understand why this is so important to you?”
  • “We have a good bit of history here and I’d really like to find a solution that works well for both of us.”
  • “There’s a lot of potential good ahead for us if we can figure out a solution to this problem that we’re both happy with.”
  • “I see how important this is to you.  I really would like to figure out a solution that gives you everything you need.  Of course I have my own needs too.   But I care about our relationship – I care about you – and it seems important to find a solution that works well for both of us.   I’m willing to put a lot of effort into looking at all possible ways to find one.”  
  • “Could you describe what you see as the benefits of your proposal for  this situation?”
  • “How do you see this affecting each of us?”
  • “Could help me understand what are the things that matter most to you in evaluating any possible solution to this situation?”
  • “I’d be interested to hear what you see as the most important interests that need to be protected for each of us as we try to figure out what to do here.”
  • “What do you see as key values or principles that should guide us as we evaluate our options here?”
  • “Can we make a list of our options here?” 

Implicit approaches encourage a cooperating style by either stating a commitment to trying to meet the needs of both sides or by attempting to bring de-polarizing problem-solving approaches to the conversation.   The last suggestion in the list above, “make a list of our options”, is a good example of the latter.   If you do a web search on “problem solving tools” you can easily find more.  Getting familiar with them is a good way to expand your collaborating skills – they are designed to bring order, clarity, and in-depth analysis to decision-making and they excel at this in situations of contention.

Limits of Cooperating

It’s important to recognize that Cooperating is not the right response in all conflicts.   Even in the best of circumstances It requires time, energy, patience, and self-regulation to succeed.   Some issues and some relationships don’t merit the investment required.  Some people have inappropriate agendas that you really should not collaborate with.  If you over-use this demanding response or persist in deploying it with people who don’t reciprocate, you may burn yourself out and destroy your optimism about ever using it. 

Conflict style agility is the goal.  We should be good at every one of the five styles, so we can use each when appropriate.  Inevitably there come times when we try a style and realize that it’s not bringing the results we sought.  Then it’s time to transition to a different style – see the other posts in this series for help in that.

Work on this style!  The rewards – in terms of productivity, healthy relationships, good vibes, and learnings about self and others can be immense.  When appropriately used, no other conflict response comes close to its capacity to facilitate expansion of energy and joy in relationships.  

This post is part of a series on transition phrases for effective conflict management.  See the whole series at www.kraybilltable.com

By Ron Kraybill, PhD, author of the Style Matters conflict style inventory, which provides users with an eight page personalized report offering detailed suggestions based on their scores.  
www.stylematters.com
Copyright 2021. 
You may reprint or repost this essay so long as you include this block of  information on its source. All rights reserved.

Conflict Resolution Trainer & Gun Lover

You know me as a peace process guy, a conflict resolution trainer, an author of peace training materials. You don’t know this: I love guns.

As far back as I can remember, guns stood in the corner of the pump house on the family farm in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where I grew up. Carrying a 12 gauge shotgun down rows of corn on a chill Saturday morning in October, with our terrier on the prowl and all my teenage senses tuned to the hunt, thrilled me. With the deadly power ready in my hands I could bring home a pheasant or rabbit if I was quick enough. I felt grownup, part of the world of men.

So in 1993, in a remote training camp in the high veld above Pretoria, on the third day of a course in conflict resolution for police in the new South Africa, when smiling officers came during morning break and asked if I’d like to go out on the firing range, I instantly said yes. 

I wasn’t sure what they had in mind. But soon as I jumped into their van after lunch, I knew. A pile of weapons and ammunition sprawled across seats and floor. Three burly police trainers grinned at me knowingly. We were boys in a toy store and my heart was pounding.

We started with rubber bullets, in two varieties.  One was a heavy chunk of rubber an inch and a half in diameter and over 3 inches long.  I had seen these fired at protesters and witnessed a colleague take a direct hit a year ago as a peace monitor working a chaotic line between police and protesters.  She limped into the office the next day with an angry welt on her thigh the size of a saucer.   Centered in dark purple was a perfectly round, pure white circle larger than a quarter, exactly the size of the rubber bullets I was now firing.

Then to more lethal crowd control, hard blue plastic balls the size of marbles, with a metal core.   In their shotgun shell casing, they had the same ready-for-action look that had intrigued me about the pumpkin ball slugs I remembered from deer hunting in my youth. 

On to birdshot in a 12 gauge shotgun.   This brought memories of my first experience with shooting at the age of twelve.  I was so focused on holding the long, heavy weapon level and and steady that I neglected to secure it tightly against my shoulder.  Its kick hurled it up and over my head to the ground, leaving me with a bruised ego and a sore shoulder for a day.  

Now on the firing range, after two shots with this familiar weapon I was ready to move on to more exotic ones.  But the magazine held 10 rounds. The police trainer insisted, as a matter of protocol he said, for this and all weapons that day, that I fire every round. As I braced myself with manly deliberation and squeezed off another eight rounds, I wondered how my shoulder would feel tomorrow.

Then we graduated to weapons I’d rarely seen and never fired.  The Uzi machine gun, I wrote in my journal that evening, was “wonderfully light, compact, and maneuverable, elegant as a laptop computer.”   Then R4 and R5 rifles, South African automatics of similar caliber to the American M16. 

Long belts of ammo for each. No worries about kick now – they’re low-recoil rifles!   T-t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t, an axis of power dancing sweetly on my shoulder, my authority radiates into the beyond!

I keep these on a shelf in my office as a reminder of what I learned on the firing range. The work of building a peaceful world is not just about reducing dependency on weapons. It is also about addressing the longings of heart and soul that drive us to misplaced hope in weapons.

Next ten rounds with a Beretta pistol.   I’d had a recurring dream for years about shooting an unknown invader with a pistol.  I wondered as I fired at a human shaped target 30 yards away if this real life experience would feed or extinguish the dream.  For someone who hadn’t fired a gun for twenty years, I turned out to be a pretty good shot, coming within inches of my target with the pistol, as I had with the rifles at 125 yards.

We concluded with smoke grenades, CS riot gas, stun grenades, and tracer bullets shot by a light machine gun.   With a range of 800 meters, nearly half a mile, the latter didn’t seem so light to me. It required a strong arm to raise and aim, until I laid prone on the ground and used the short bipod on the muzzle.   I felt something close to omnipotence sending a deadly arc high into the mountain towering above the far end of the range.  

I loved every minute of that hour on the firing range.  As a lifelong tinkerer, I relished the mechanical elegance of the deadly tools in my hands.   I respected that each was a highly crafted device, the product of years of experimentation and creative thought, and beneficiary of endless rounds of improvement.

Even more, I loved the sense of power I felt with precise and mighty machines in my hands.   I loved that I could stand here, in one place, aim at something far away, and with a slight squeeze of a finger, obliterate it. 

Perhaps most of all, I loved the camaraderie I felt with the police officers. In the methodical receiving and handing back of powerful and uncommon weapons, I felt part of a privileged club.   I was an honored man among a highly skilled elite. 

By the time we finished, I felt that I’d survived – no, thrived – in a kind of brotherly test that had morphed into a ritual of belonging.  I was an insider.  When we returned to the training venue and the trainers described my skill to their beaming colleagues, my relationship with the whole group was sealed.

And my conscience was seared.   I had spent years teaching skills for nonviolent resolution of conflict.  I’d worked and lived in places where weapons caused indescribable grief.   Even the rubber bullets, the least destructive munition I’d fired, had been routinely used for years to subjugate African communities.  Had I sent precisely the wrong message by going along with these officers, eager to share their toys, in enjoying the thrill of weapons? 

What did it say about me that I enjoyed it all so much?

More than twenty years later, I am still not sure I did the right thing that day.  But I am grateful for the experience and for things I now see with greater clarity.

I understand something about love of guns. There’s no denying it – I too am drawn to powerful weapons.

I also came to understand something about why.  Wielding, firing, managing elegant and powerful devices refined to respond to my control is fun. 

But the biggest thrill, I now see in retrospect, came not from the weapons but from things that came to me through them.   For that hour, for the rest of that day, I felt powerful, capable, connected, esteemed; luxuriously so.

Guns get a grip on the psyche because they offer a quick, intense shortcut to things we’d all like to feel more often. 

And it doesn’t take Solomon to recognize that quick thrills don’t last. Nor can you sustain healthy lives or personal security around them.  In the end only a rich web of equitable relationships, personal involvement in meaningful work, and an undergirding sense of sustaining spirituality can truly satisfy.   

I do not doubt that some who own and use guns possess all three of those in generous measure.  But in the shrill, defiant voices of many I hear something different – pre-occupation with guns as a bulwark against fear, as a symbol of meaning. 

This is misplaced hope; a mark of inner shortcutting.   No devices, deadly or otherwise, no matter how numerous or powerful, can bring peace or meaning to those whose lives are empty of things that endure. 

Loyalty and  memories of long ago cornfields brought me some years ago to pass along to my son a shotgun from my grandfather.  Today I’d probably discard it.   I’ve seen too many lives and families destroyed by weapons to have any interest in keeping one in my own home.  Statistics show that my family is safer without a gun under our roof.

I no longer dream about firing at an unknown invader with a pistol.   But I confess that I am still intrigued with weapons, a reminder, I take it, of spaces in heart and soul that still long for shortcuts.  I’m in this thing for life.

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!