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We have all been there.

The moment when, poised over our keyboards, or on our phones, or in person we stand balanced between reactivity and reflection. We are at odds with someone, over something, and the dialogue has escalated to the point that we are becoming less concerned with the resolution and next steps and are obsessed with being right, being justified, being the “winner”. At these moment we can either give in to the passion of the moment and let all of that churning, chaotic emotion and energy out – abandoning ourselves to what we feel, or we can step back and walk away to pause and reflect.

Edgar Allan Poe, in his short story “The Imp of the Perverse” talks about the compulsion that we all have to do something that we know is self-destructive. In the passage below, he talks about what goes through a person’s mind when they stand on a cliff and peer out over the edge. Invariably, the idea of jumping, or what might happen if one jumped pops into our thoughts:

There is no passion in nature so demoniacally impatient, as that of him who, shuddering upon the edge of a precipice, thus meditates a Plunge. To indulge, for a moment, in any attempt at thought, is to be inevitably lost; for reflection but urges us to forbear, and therefore it is, I say, that we cannot. If there be no friendly arm to check us, or if we fail in a sudden effort to prostrate ourselves backward from the abyss, we plunge, and are destroyed.

This seems counter-intuitive – doesn’t it? That when we are in that precarious moment of balance thinking is the worst thing we can do, and that if we do it, we invariably end up ‘jumping’ or pressing ‘send’ or saying something we may regret. Thinking is supposed to save us; it is supposed to allow us to act in a way that makes sense and results in an outcome that is in our best interests.

“For reflection but urges us to forbear, and therefore, it is, I say, that we cannot.”

Poe actually suggests that it is our emotional and less rational side that is what saves us, that pulls us backwards, instinctually from the edge.

Have you ever heard of someone encouraging you to be more emotional in challenging moments?

Let’s step back for a minute and think about how conflict gets to this point. Because I am in education, I will use my context as an example. When something happens that requires the school to have a conversation with the parent (or vice versa) we have a choice about how to frame the discussion. We can either choose to focus on the issue or we can focus on what comes next.

When we focus on the issue, we tend to get caught up in discussions about ‘justice’ – who was at fault, what the consequence is, what the adults did or didn’t do. I think a good metaphor for this kind of focus is to imagine what it is like to drive by something on the side of the road that catches your attention. It usually comes upon us quickly. We see it, we have a brief second to apprehend it from up close and then it is by us, and we have to crane our necks in order to keep it in view. Even then it quickly recedes and we cannot understand or appreciate much more about it. Eventually it recedes to a point that we can no longer see it or even accurately remember what it is we saw. Focussing on the issue means that we are spending the majority of our time and energy trying to sort out something that we really didn’t see very well, and that is getting more distant and out of focus each moment that passes. Is it any wonder that this kind of focus seems to lead to disagreement, miscommunication and conflict?

In my professional experience, I also notice that when we get fixated on the issue, we tend to skew the context of the conflict. We often make connections to other events that may or may not have been discussed before in order to establish a ‘pattern’ that supports our contention. We build a narrative based on assumptions that ‘connects the dots’ and makes judgements about the motivations and responses and agendas of the school, the child, and the families involved. Essentially, we come into the conversation with things already figured out, and that makes real listening, authentic sharing, and true compromise very difficult. Meaningful next steps and solutions rarely come out of these types of discussions.

Focussing on the issue invariably leads to a discussion of what is wrong with the student, or with the teacher, or with the administrator, or with the parent. It usually ends up being more about labelling or portioning blame than it is about resolutions and reconciliation. Invariably, when we fixate on these deficits we get heated conversations that damage relationships and force people to take sides. We turn complex problems into challenges that have a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ – all perceived differently by those at the table – and we never get to what comes next.

I would argue that this type of focus is analogous to the person who thinks on the edge of the precipice. Trusting ourselves to be open-minded to other perspectives and interpretations of events when we are laser focused on the incident is something that usually leads to disaster. We go in calm and rational and leave unbalanced and upset. The conversation becomes one about winning or losing, triumph or capitulation, and as no one (usually) is of a mind to be the ‘loser’ things generally get out of hand — we figuratively ‘jump’ into destructive words and behaviours in an effort to force acceptance of one interpretation or viewpoint.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

We can instead focus on how we go forward. This kind of focus shifts and re-frames the dialogue. It allows us to consider all of the actors and all of the contexts that might be relevant to what occurred. It doesn’t disregard the impact of what occurred, or remove responsibility, but it does say that what is most important is what happens next, not what is past and that we can no longer change.

No longer craning our necks to see a quickly vanishing point, now we can set a course, establish landmarks and signposts, and work towards arriving at a destination.

There is a significant but subtle shift required in preparing for these types of conversations. We must give up and set aside what we think we know and be willing to listen. Listening does not mean waiting for someone to finish and keeping a list of where you disagree. Listening also does not mean taking everything said literally.

I can’t stress this enough.

Listening, in this context, means being more sensitive and responsive to the feelings of the other person and being prepared to ask really good questions. In my experience, unpacking the perspectives and feelings of the person across from you is critical to moving forward. More often than not, the other person is not at all upset with, worried by, or angry about what you think they are. Making assumptions about these feelings creates miscommunication at the outset of a discussion and usually leads to increased conflict.

We must also, I think, remember that good solutions and conflict resolution are rarely the result of one meeting. Creating a chain of conversation reduces the ‘stakes’ of any given moment. It allows for things to spill over, for recovery and apology and restoration of trust and relationship. It encourages people to reflect and evolve in their understanding, and to forgive. It reminds people that moving forward is a process and that it takes time. There is never, to my mind a way to ‘teleport’ directly to the promised land where all things are resolved.

Set stars to steer by and a method of sharing. Try to create short, medium, and long term goals for all parties involved. Check-in and update often on progress. Don’t be afraid to say that a plan isn’t working or to change your goals.

How do I plan to navigate conflict? Here are some strategies I use in my practice. I find these work equally well with children and adults.

  1. Have you thought about space? Your choice of where the conversations happen is important, particularly when you work in an institutional setting. Does it need to be in an office? Where will people sit? I’ve included a few photos here from my office as examples:
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Come in and have a seat!
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Family is important!
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Magnetic paint helps show off my awesome students work!

All of these choices are intentional. Comfortable furniture makes people more relaxed. Photos of family and other items on display show that I am more than my position. It humanizes me, and that is important. People need to know that I am not a faceless part of the system looking to pass judgement. Student work shows that I value my kids, and I always make sure that I prominently display work from kids who would most benefit from this kind of brag.

I also use Spotify to create playlists — you’d be surprised at how well this works. Creating a calming playlist (fully recognizing that musical taste is subjective!) also often helps to create the right tone. One song that is on that list for me right now is Jim Cuddy’s “Pull Me Through”.

If you are Canadian, and you watched the Winter Olympics (ice dance), you will instantly get it. If you aren’t, it is still a beautiful song and a great lyric.

2. Start with a question. I try to have a question I would like answered in these meetings. It isn’t something that I expressly ask, it is just something that I am wondering about that I think is going to be important to finding a way forward. Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t, but it gives me something to think about rather than coming in with an agenda already formed. It reminds me that the best information and options will likely come from the other person, and that if I am a good listener I can pick those out.

3. Thank people for coming in and think carefully about who is in the meeting. You have them at a disadvantage. They are coming to you, and they are all alone or with perhaps one other person. Having one parent sitting across a table with 4 or 5 school staff can be intimidating and be antagonizing. If more people are needed in a conversation, I always ask permission from the other party.

4. Find a way to demonstrate that you know more about the person than the context of the conflict. Tell a story, share something you saw or that was reported to you about the person. This shows that you know that they are not defined by what happened and that you appreciate their positive choices. I recently had a conversation with a student who had a run-in with one of our lunch supervisors. He had been rude and disrespectful and he had been sent to me. I started by talking about some of the awesome work he had been doing with some of our younger students, and when we got to talking about what happened during lunch recess he was, I think, more honest, more open, and more earnest in his responses. He saw the disconnect between his behaviour in the two contexts and made a much better apology. After all, the purpose of my intervention, and of any consequence, is to change the behaviour. If the consequence doesn’t do that — no matter how strict it is, then it is a failure in my books and shouldn’t be used except as a last resort.

5. Always end a meeting with a firm commitment to speak again and with something that you want to accomplish before that happens. Trust is built through taking many, many small steps together. Sometimes we try to be too grandiose with our initial goals and when we fail to reach them, we reinforce the suspicion on both sides. Commit to trying something and to a reasonable check-in. For example, if I know that a student is feeling unsafe on the yard, I might suggest that I will be visible (but distant) to the student during breaks and that I will touch base with them once per day for a week as a start. At the end of that time I will talk with the parent again to get their perspective on how things are going. We would then reorient and set the next goal and time to talk.

I don’t generally like to list things ‘not’ to do, but one thing I would caution against is trying to sort out these sorts of complex situations in writing. Without you there to provide the right emphasis and tone, to clarify, and to respond, the potential for misunderstanding goes up exponentially. Written correspondence also invites the reader to interpret and make assumptions — neither of which is good for building relationships and solutions.

Let your compassion and empathy inform your thinking. Lead with your feelings and allow them to influence the next steps you settle on, plan for challenging conversations, stay focused on what comes next, and in my experience you will be able to ‘pull back’ from the edge.

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