216. An Approach to Conflicts

When two children irritate each other, and start to fight, physically or verbally, the first thing we try to do is stop the fighting. This means physically separating them and getting them to stop talking for a minute. That’s the first step in all the conflict resolution strategies I know of. But once teachers or parents have managed to accomplish that first step, there are many different approaches, and each teacher or parent has to figure out what works best for him/her.
I’ll tell you what works best for me. If two children are having an argument, I ask one of them (whom we’ll call Child A) to explain exactly what the problem is. I tell the other (Child B) to listen – only listen – well enough to be able to paraphrase what the first testimony says: “No matter how wrong you think these words are, say what you think Child A has said.”
Child A listens to Child B’s summary of her/his testimony, and approves or disapproves: “Yes, that’s what I said.” During this part of the process, Child B is usually getting quite agitated; his/her point of view has not yet been articulated, and Child A has it all wrong. I often have to repeat step one; if Child B interrupts, I consider that a false start. Child B will get a chance, and does, as soon as she/he has satisfied Child A that the first story has been heard.
Then Child B testifies, and Child A has to try to listen well enough to play Child B’s role in the argument. Usually, neither child has an easy time of either listening to another point of view or rephrasing it convincingly. It helps that this kind of exercise usually takes place at recess, when children would rather go back to whatever they were doing; that fact increases the likelihood that they’ll get the job done quickly. Disagreements lose some of their intensity in the light of missed moments of recess.
I believe that many arguments boil down to misunderstandings, and even those that don’t – those that are based on fundamental disagreements and/or deep-felt hostility – can be resolved more easily if children listen to each other. I learned this technique through marriage counseling, and though the technique did not “save” the marriage, it did give me this idea about helping children listen to each other.
If you think about the major problems in the world today, you realize that they usually don’t stem from messy handwriting or poor spelling. And you seldom have troubles with people because they haven’t memorized the multiplication table. But I’ll bet you’ve often been bothered by people’s inability to hear what you have to say. And at least some international conflict results from poor communication. So this approach to conflict resolution is about more than whose turn it is in four-square.

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