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Is There a Place for Conflict Resolution in Our Education Systems?


In the past few decades, graduate, undergraduate, and Ph.D. programs in the relatively new field of conflict resolution have begun to proliferate in the United States and around the world. Such programs often focus on teaching students to analyze theories and causes of conflict and to design strategies to constructively address conflicts at the individual, group, communal, national, and international levels.

Yet what role, if any, does the study of conflict resolution play in a student's primary and secondary education? Some schools have Citizenship or Ethics classes which aim to prepare students to interact positively with others in their community and society, and religious schools teach moral values with regard to peace and conflict from a religious perspective. Some schools have even begun to implement peer mediation programs which train students to mediate conflicts among their fellow students, usually as part of a specialized or extracurricular program. However, in my experience, study of the science and basic principles of conflict resolution as a regular part of a student's primary school or secondary school curriculum is rare in most schools.

Yet a child's early formative and teenage years, when he or she begins to learn to interact with a larger and more diverse group of people--for the first time as a young child in a classroom and later at the beginning of his or her transition to adulthood--may be when development of awareness and skills in conflict resolution is most critical. If children learn such skills early on, they will be more likely to put them into practice throughout their lives, benefitting not only themselves and their peers, but society as a whole.

Recently I attended a conflict resolution conference in Jordan. Although it was designed to teach various conflict resolution skills from a theoretical perspective, participants ended up experiencing conflict in a much more hands-on way than originally anticipated. At times there was great tension between participants from Israel and participants from Palestine and Jordan because of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Some people made accusations against others without listening to the other points of view. With emotions very tense, some people shouted at others, and accused those who wanted to reach out in peace to the "other side" of being traitors. Some Palestinians walked out of the conference completely when they realized that Israelis were present. Many of them later returned, and many good discussions ended up taking place during the course of the conference. But I wondered what the impact might have been if all of the participants had received more training in basic conflict resolution principles before entering into interactions with each other?

All of us can benefit from studying conflict and developing skills to constructively address conflict, whether within our own lives or in the lives of those around us. While there are many important elements of conflict resolution, there are several in particular that I have learned both through various conflict resolution training and education programs and through life experiences which I focus on when conducting conflict resolution trainings. The following are some basic conflict resolution principles that can be useful for both children and adults, and could perhaps form a starting point for developing conflict resolution education programs for children at an earlier age.

Principle 1: Reframe the Conflict

To reframe the conflict means to change the way we view it. Often we view a conflict as a competition with someone who opposes us, where we must "win" in order to defend or protect ourselves or fulfill our goals. The other person is seen as an obstacle to fulfilling our own needs; he or she must "lose" in order for us to be able to win. However, if we can shift our thinking to begin to view the conflict not as a competition where we want to defeat the other side, but as a problem to be solved together for the benefit of both--an opportunity to improve the situation and create a better future--we will be much more likely to find a solution that everyone can be happy with and is willing to sustain.

It's easy, especially in a tense conflict situation, to focus only on our own needs or the needs of the group with which we identify. We may see our nation, ethnic group, or religious group as separate from the "foreign" group, and pursue the needs of our group at the expense or disregard of the needs of the "other." But when we reframe the conflict as a problem to be solved together, the other becomes our "partner" rather than our "opponent" or our "enemy". The goal in dealing with the conflict thus becomes broader--instead of simply asking, "How can I achieve my goal?", we ask, "How can my needs be fulfilled so that the other side's needs are also fulfilled, in a solution that both of us can be happy with and sustain?" This is called a "win-win" solution, where both sides win, rather than a "win-lose" solution where one side wins and the other loses, or a "lose-lose" situation where everyone is worse off. Win-win solutions are more sustainable, reducing the likelihood that conflict will break out again in the future. Win-win solutions can also help each side gain more than they could have if only one side had won.

In any conflict situation, we can make a conscious effort to reframe how we think about the conflict and to encourage the other to reframe his or her view of the conflict as well. To do this, we may make efforts to build greater trust and to demonstrate our sincerity in wanting to work together to find a solution that is mutually acceptable.

Principle 2: Move Beyond Positions to Understanding Interests

In order to find a mutually-acceptable "win-win" solution, it is necessary to understand what each side really needs and wants. This involves going beyond the positions of the parties to a conflict--i.e. the parties' stated demands--to understand the interests that are the underlying reasons for these positions--i.e. the root causes or concerns. In other words, positions are what we say we want. Interests are why we want what we say we want.

If I'm arguing with my husband, for example, about where to go on vacation, and my position is that I want to go to Florida and his is that he wants to go to Colorado, we are likely to remain in an argument without reaching a mutually agreeable solution. Since it's not possible to be in two places at once, one of us will have to lose for the other to win. But if we begin to discuss why we have taken these positions--i.e. our interests in picking these locations--we may begin to see options that would fulfill both our needs. If my underlying interest, for example, is that I want to swim at the beach and his is that he wants to hike in the mountains, we may decide after discussing this to go somewhere like Hawaii that has both beautiful beaches and mountains.

Another example is that of two shoppers arguing over who will get to buy the last pair of designer pants (trousers) at a store. The position of each is that she wants to buy the same pair of pants--mutually conflicting positions. However, upon talking about why each wants to buy the pants, it becomes apparent that one shopper wants to wear the pants themselves while the other wants the belt attached to the pants. They end up agreeing to split the cost of the purchase while one takes home the pants and the other the belt--a win-win solution in which both get what they want and even end up spending less money than they would have if they had won their initial position.

While these are personal examples, the same principles apply to larger, even international conflicts. Often interests are based on underlying human needs such as security, health, self-esteem, belonging, or identity. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is often characterized as simply a conflict over the same piece of land which both groups claim as their own. However, there are much deeper interests at stake beyond positions of land ownership. Human rights and dignity; economic, political, and religious freedom; security; and psychological and spiritual ties to history are all critical reasons why parties may claim a particular piece of land. If parties to a conflict can understand each other's interests and needs, there is a much better chance of addressing the root causes of the conflict and finding a win-win solution. To do this, we need to communicate honestly with each other about our needs and to commit to trying to understand and respect the needs of the other.

Principle 3: Question our Assumptions

We often make assumptions about others' interests and intentions. When someone says/does something, we tend to assume he/she meant what we would have meant if we had said or done that, but that's not always true, especially in cases where we are from different cultures or backgrounds. When we assume others view a situation the same way we view it, or when we make mistaken assumptions about another's interests, motivations, and intentions, it can create mutual misunderstandings, exacerbate conflict, and prevent us from addressing the real interests of each of us in a mutually-acceptable way.

We all make assumptions, and often need to rely on our assumptions to get through life when perfect information is not available. What's important is to distinguish our assumptions from fact, to recognize when we're making an assumption that may or may not be correct, and to question our assumptions. To question our assumptions means to ask the other how he/she feels or what he/she thinks or wants instead of assuming his/her feelings/views or attributing motivations or intentions to him/her based on our own assumptions.

Sometimes false assumptions can arise from differences in how individuals or groups manifest their values. For example, traditionally in the West, allowing a woman to walk first before a man is a sign of respect. An Egyptian friend told me that traditionally in his culture, to show respect a man walks in front of a woman in order to be able to protect her if any trouble should occur. While nowadays many women simply want to be treated no differently from men, if I were to apply my own Western assumptions if an Egyptian man asked me to walk behind him, I might mistakenly conclude that he intended to disrespect me when in fact he intended exactly the opposite.

Conflict can happen when we assume bad intentions of the other (without checking to understand what their intentions actually were), and when we assume our point of view is the only valid one. The story is told of three blind men who were trying to understand what an elephant was. The first man walked up and touched only the elephant's trunk, and said, "An elephant is long and thin." The second man walked up and touched only the elephant's side and concluded, "An elephant is flat and wide." The third man touched only the tip of the elephant's tusk and said, "An elephant is hard and pointy." The three then got into an argument about who was right. Each had a valid point of view, but was only able to see a part of the larger truth. We don't have to always agree with others' points of view, but we do need to understand them in order to understand their interests and to begin to see the full range of possibilities for a resolution to a conflict.

Principle 4: Listen Actively and Communicate Respectfully

When someone feels truly listened to and heard, he/she is much more likely to be open to listening to and hearing us. Thus, it is said that if you want someone to listen to you, listen to them first. Listening carefully also helps us to understand the other's real interests and not to be misled by our assumptions. To listen actively means, first, to give the speaker your full attention/presence, without interrupting, without thinking about what you're going to say next, without making mental judgments about the speaker or what he/she is saying, and without criticizing. It means listening to understand--whether or not you agree--the facts (what happened), the feelings (how the speaker felt about what happened), and the values (what is important to the speaker) of the situation.

Secondly, active listening involves showing the person you've heard them by: reflecting back to him/her what you've heard (e.g. "It sounds like you're feeling very underappreciated"; "It sounds like honesty is really important to you"); asking him/her whether your understanding is correct; asking questions not to challenge the person or insert your own view, but to better understand and help the person tell his/her story and explore all sides of the problem; and acknowledging the person's feelings, fears, and wounds.

The experience of being truly listened to and having one's feelings understood and validated can be extremely powerful. I visited Israel and Palestine with a group which practiced active listening in hearing the stories of Israelis and Palestinians who had been deeply wounded by the conflict. The impact of this seemingly simple effort was remarkable. People who began by speaking tensely, defensively, expecting to be criticized and challenged, changed when they realized we were only there to listen to them without judging or criticizing. Their posture became more relaxed, their voices became calmer, and they began for the first time to smile. And once we had listened to them respectfully and had built up trust, they became more open to listening to others, and we were able to discuss more difficult issues together that would have been impossible at the beginning. Active listening can contribute to healing as well as problem-solving. How might the tensions at the Jordan conference have decreased if we had all tried from the beginning to learn and practice active listening?

Principles like these, adapted to each specific cultural or other context as appropriate, can form a basis for beginning to educate our students in conflict resolution from an early age. How might our societies and our world be different if we did?

*Rebecca Cataldi is a conflict resolution specialist and works for a conflict resolution NGO in Washington, DC.

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