Conflict is part of the human experience. The endless competition for scarce resources and the struggle even to gain access to some things (whether they satisfy psychological, spiritual, or physical needs) mean that conflict is never far away. Some people even argue that conflict gives us opportunities for gain and growth, and is therefore a good thing.
Conflict nearly always delays or prevents the achievement of some important goal. It is important that we learn conflict resolution from our earliest youth, either by the conflicting parties (negotiations) or with the assistance of neutral persons (mediation, early neutral evaluation, med-arb, arb-med, etc.)
Our schools are fertile ground for conflict. This conflict can take many forms: competition over assignments, “fair share of work” issues on joint projects, failure to share, turn-taking, teasing, name-calling, jealousy, gossiping, shaming, bullying, physical abuse, and even worse violence. Children downtrodden or frustrated elsewhere may lash out at school. Teachers are forced into the role of an arbitrator, neither of which contributes to the core educational mission.
Conflict occurs in every context – home, school, work, play – even team sports are a form of competitive conflict. Economists and game theorists call these types of conflicts “zero games,” because for one party to win the game, the other must lose.
Waiting for the teacher to impose a solution (arbitration) may teach that conflict has negative consequences. But it will not teach students how to resolve conflicts by themselves. In general, school children who have solutions imposed on them feel more powerless and have less satisfaction with the outcome than students who devise their own solutions.
Teaching Peer Mediation in Schools
The tremendous distraction from education caused by the conflict in schools led to a movement to train students in the skills needed to resolve their own conflicts. The peer mediation movement began In the early 1980s and sprang from the Carter administration’s development of neighborhood justice centers, where citizens could learn mediation and negotiation skills in order to resolve small issues that would otherwise burden the courts. The same empowering philosophy was at work in peer mediation. Students could and did resolve their own disputes, given training in negotiations and mediation
Of course, children, adolescents, and young adults develop some negotiation and mediation skills spontaneously. Learning to de-escalate disruptive behavior is a necessary part of our basic socialization. But studies of children from third through sixth grade showed an eighty percent drop in conflicts brought to teachers. The success of peer mediation mirrors mediation’s success in resolving disputes between and among adults, where eighty to eighty-five percent of disputes are successfully resolved.
Students took pride in resolving problems without assistance. They transferred these skills to other contexts, teaching them to friends and siblings. Even parents showed interest in learning skills that would help them reduce tensions at home. Trained students were less than half as likely to involve the teacher in disputes.
Peer Mediator Advantages over Adult Dispute Resolvers
Peer mediation has a number of advantages over the use of adults in the same context:
- Peer mediators are known and respected.
- Peer mediators use age-appropriate words and ideas.
- Peer mediators effectively communicate excitement about the process.
- Peer mediators understand the issues.
- Peer mediators don’t treat the disputes as trivial.
- Recommendations of peer mediators don’t feel coercive.
- Peer mediators aren’t seen as part of the school discipline system.
- Peer mediation lets teachers focus on their educational mission.
The Role of Negotiation Training
Peer mediation training also teaches students to negotiate. Mediation, after all, is negotiation with the aid of a neutral third party. You cannot understand one without understanding the other.
Many people who think about negotiating consider it a competition — a zero-sum game. One of the most important things that students can learn about negotiation is that while some conflicts are zero-sum games, most are not, or rather do not have to be. A classic example is the sale of a car. The car is worth at least $18,000 and possibly as much as $24,000. The difference between the two numbers is $6000, which is called the “surplus“ by negotiation teachers and dispute resolution professors. It’s what this negotiation is really about. Who gets how much of the surplus?
In a very competitive zero-sum game negotiation, each party will try to keep as much of the surplus as they can. They may be so intent on this that they refuse to budge, making the negotiation unsuccessful. Or perhaps the seller is so desperate for cash that he or she accepts an unreasonably low offer. (This may cause resentment.) But usually, a successful negotiation is an almost ritual series of demands and concessions that end near the midpoint of the first two reasonable offers.
Although the end is predictable, one cannot skip the process of negotiating. It is our concessions that create social pressure on our negotiating counterparts to make further concessions. Also, negotiation is so much a part of our lives that if we don’t engage in it, the other party will feel that we are being stubborn and unfair. They may also feel that the bottom line we started with is not really the bottom line. If it is, we have not left ourselves anywhere to go. If we go down, we will damage our credibility. If we stay where we are, we seem stubborn. Also, where we begin has a significant impact on where we end up. It is best to begin on the high side of reasonable. Unreasonable demands will be disregarded and may damage credibility. High but reasonable demands set expectations of high value. Do the work to know what is reasonable. We should be able to rely on comparisons or some other neutral authority. Concessions are very unlikely to be made without reasons. That’s why buyers focus on dents and scratches, and why sellers focus on good condition or accessories. Know your bottom line and your alternatives. Be ready to walk away from a bad deal
Of course, children aren’t likely to be buying cars. But the same principles apply wherever there is a finite resource they are competing for, whether it is cookies, time with a pet, access to the swing, or use of the computer. Children should learn these principles:
- Negotiation is a process you can’t skip. Take the necessary time.
- You must know the possible value of what you want, to you and your counterpart. Prepare ahead of time.
- Be ready to make concessions, but not too quickly.
- Give solid reasons for demands and concessions.
- Taking advantage of someone’s bad situation may “win” the negotiation but lead to resentment or a bad reputation.
Encourage children to negotiate. They will feel respected and happy if they have more control of their world.
In contrast to competitive win-lose negotiations are win-win, or what professors call “interest-based” negotiations. Interests are the forces that motivate us to take various positions and make the demands we make. Disclosure of our interests can put us at a disadvantage if other parties remain competitive rather than cooperative. Suppose the seller discloses a need for $20,000 to pay debts and quality for a home loan. A competitive buyer may offer $20,000 and refuse to move.
In a win-win negotiation, a buyer (probably with a previous personal relationship) might offer to co-sign on the loan in exchange for a rock bottom car price, or pay $18,000 and give a $2000 loan, or some other creative solution that satisfies everyone’s interests. The thing to remember is that we usually have relationships with people we negotiate with; how we treat them now will affect us lat
* I want statements
* I feel statements
* Giving reasons
* Reversing perspective
* Reaching agreement
Eighty percent of trained negotiating pairs reached an agreement, compared to 46% of their untrained schoolmates. Almost all students had difficulty expressing emotions and perspective-taking. While both of these are important skills for mediators, the students were able to reach resolution even without them. The apparent difficulty of completing these tasks did not reduce students’ success or the benefits to teachers and students of peer mediation.
Like negotiation, mediation is a communication process between people in conflict. Various frameworks have been developed to explain the necessary elements. Each describes the same basic process. One of the simplest is The Five Stages of Mediation:
* Convening — Getting parties to consent to mediation, coordinating schedules, preliminary identification of issues and problems.
* Opening statement — The mediator explains the process and sets expectations for the session.
* Communication— Parties tell their stories with any related evidence. They have an opportunity to express emotions and answer questions. During this storytelling, everyone can judge his or her credibility and the strength or weakness of his or her position.
* Negotiation— Parties seek a workable solution with the mediator’s help.
* Closure — Either a written settlement agreement is signed or the mediator highlights progress made and encourages parties to continue working on a solution after the mediation.
The eight stages of mediation
Another model divides the mediation process into eight stages. While the first model focuses on the process from the neutral’s perspective, this one was crafted for disputants:
1. Know Thyself” and Take Care of Self
– Understand your biases and emotional triggers so you can resist their effects
– Take care of yourself immediately before mediation despite any stress you may feel (be sure to eat, sleep, and exercise appropriately)
2. Clarify Personal Needs Threatened by the Dispute
-Prepare: What do you need to accomplish to consider this a successful mediation.
– Look at the best, worst, and most likely alternatives to a successful resolution. Are they things you can live with? If not, the resolution is important for you
– Know what you want to accomplish in mediation?
3. Identify a Safe Place for Negotiation
– The location of the mediation should be private and allow the peer mediator to discuss the situation with each of the parties separately as well as together.
– Obtain mutual commitment to mediation.
Are there limits to what the mediator can do? Can they tell you what they think, or only keep the mediation process going?
– Agreement to ground rules – Refrain from personal attacks, be polite, take breaks if emotions become problematic.
4. Take a Listening Stance into the Interaction
– “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”
– Use Active listening skills. Pay close attention to what the other party says.
5. Assert Your Needs Clearly and Specifically
– Use “I-messages” as tools for clarification (I want, I need, I feel, I like, I don’t like ) Be ready for questions. Be sure everyone understands your perspective.
– Build from what you have heard – continue to listen well
6. Approach Problem-Solving with Flexibility
– Mediation is a problem-solving process
– Generate options/ potential solutions (brainstorm).
– Be open to other problem definitions
7. Manage Impasses with Calm, Patience, and Respect
– Clarify Feelings
– Focus on needs, interest, and concerns
– Take a break if your feelings are in the way of resolving the dispute or seek the mediator’s help privately coping with them.
8. Build an Agreement that Works
– Use a written, signed agreement so there isn’t confusion.
-Agree to mediate future disputes
– Implement and Evaluate – Live and learn.
Our schools are full of conflict, with our teachers as referees. Peer mediators do not understand fine distinctions in mediation style. Indeed, some of the basics elude them. But imperfect understanding does not mean failure. The process still works because peer mediators understand the importance of the issues to the disputants and can communicate the benefits of ending the conflict. They can also help explore alternatives to the status quo.