We recently received this question from an Idealist member:
I volunteer with children through a youth organization. I occasionally see kids teasing each other, sometimes even to a point I would call bullying. We don’t have a clear anti-bullying policy, so I feel I should address this with the parents of the children directly. My problem is that I tend to avoid conflict—arguing has always made me very uncomfortable. Also, when I have tried to talk to parents, I’ve found that they don’t take these issues as seriously as I do. So, I end up not confronting them. What can I do to get over my fear of conflict?
To help, we consulted with three experts in relevant fields. Read on to see what they had to say about overcoming fears of conflict.
The Child Expert
Tom Brunzell, Senior Advisor, Teaching and Learning for Berry Street Victoria, Australia
Tom argues that it’s sometimes hard to differentiate the roles within bullying (the “bully” often has their own complaints, for example) and that bystanders are just as guilty. From his own experience, he’s learned that to engage everyone involved, having a public conversation is the way to go:
Often, when we take it to the class (in a supportive protocol like a classroom resolution meeting) solutions were brainstormed: NOT by the “bully” or “victim” but by the rest of the class or the third party students—however you set it up. A solution is given to BOTH “bully” and “victim” sometimes it’s as simple as “stay away from each other and use peers to help you do that.”
The actual solution doesn’t become the critical element here—rather the fact that all parties know there’s a greater accountability than they previously thought—the entire community. And in the process, hopefully, you can raise the expectations and consciousness of the community at the same time.
Cathy Wasserman, LMSW, Self-Leadership Strategies
Cathy is of the opinion the fear of conflict is very common, and that the first step is to commit to confronting your fear. It’s not a bad thing to be afraid, she says, as it’s a sign that there’s something important at stake. This makes it all the more urgent for you to say something:
Before speaking up, role-play and get support from friends and mentors. Clarify your goal: I’d focus on sharing your perspective, NOT convincing the parents of anything. Whether they’re open to your view or not, your job is to be specific about what you’ve observed, convey your concern for all of the kids, and contribute and elicit solutions.
You may also want to let them know that many kids dip into aggressive tactics when building social skills and the situation presents a fertile and very manageable teachable moment. If you’re not trained in anti-bullying work, I’d consult resources to build your confidence. Whatever you decide to do, try to see your fear as a catalyst for your own teachable moment!
The Conflict Resolution Expert
Cliff Jones, Senior Consultant, Nonprofit Association of Oregon
Cliff believes reflecting on our own behavioral styles of conflict is fundamental, as is acknowledging that conflict often arises from miscommunication. Changing how we perceive the conflict can also help:
One of the keys to engaging in and resolving conflict is moving the focus from positions – what we want others to do; to our interest – what is important to us and others. For example – instead of “I want kids who tease other kids to be given an immediate time out” – a position. We might focus on “it is important to me for my child at all times to be in a safe environment at school” – an interest.
When we focus on positions, we often end up arguing. When we focus on interest we can often see that our interest are not in conflict with others (while our positions may be) and then we can look for solutions that meet our common interest. It takes time and skill to have conversations in which this communication and mutual problem solving can happen.
Often there are not quick ways to change behaviors that we have learned over time. To deal with immediate challenges it can be helpful to seek assistance from mediators, counselors and organizations that can help to facilitate the resolution of conflict.
We can become more comfortable in dealing with conflict by taking time to learn about our conflict styles and constructive ways of dealing with conflict. Bookstores and the world wide web are full of many resources and approaches for dealing with conflict.
If this an important issue – take some time to get an overview of the resources and pick one that resonates for study. Incorporate new ideas and behaviors into your relationships, practice and gain experience over time. It can be a great joy to learn that conflict can be an interesting exploration of different needs, expectations and priorities and not necessarily a scary, challenging encounter.
Do you have your own tips for handling conflict? Let us know in the comments below!
In the Portland, OR area? Cliff is leading an all-day workshop on Leadership Skills for Effectively Engaging Workplace & Organizational Conflict on December 4th.