Conflict Resolution for Adolescents

It's hard or maybe impossible to recall how drastic the shift was into adolescence. Your brain was re-wired in the process, after all. But if you could drag your consciousness back to middle school and see it clearly, you would notice that your social perception suddenly explodes in complexity and intensity. You begin to notice everything about your peers. You are suddenly aware of your own body and how it's similar or different to those around you. Similarly with your posture, your clothing, the words you choose, the friends you have, the spot you occupy in the social world. You're not sure how to interpret others' behavior or words - were they making fun of me? Was she teasing me because she wants to be my friend or because she and everyone else thinks I'm a loser?

In nearly all cases, kids' ability to perceive their social world races ahead of their ability to interpret what is going on and why.

As we imagine all the tools we would like to offer adolescents at this age, to become more aware, accepting, and compassionate, some of the most essential tools are for conflict resolution. Not only because they'll inevitably get into more complex conflicts, but because in the process of understanding conflicts, they'll learn a tremendous amount about their own and others' emotions, about relationships, how to collaborate, how to reflect and not react - in other words, skills that will take them very far in life.

At the middle school I lead in San Francisco, we teach a method called "clearing" for conflict resolution. The story below illustrates this approach. I believe that these tools can help you tap into what this age is really all about: learning to understand your inner world and connect in the social world.

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The two boys sat in the center of the circle, 20 peers around them watching intently and silently. This was a "full strength" conflict resolution. Our one-on-one conflict resolution efforts had failed. For weeks the two boys had been stuck in a seemingly endless loop of conflict, efforts to play and connect dissolving as tempers heated. They were 12 years old, changing rapidly, and their old tools to resolve conflicts were no longer working.

A third boy of the same age, acting as a facilitator, sat with the two participants in the center of the circle. He followed the conversation intently, with the occasional sideways glance to check on the state of the crowd. It was impossible not to notice how quiet and focused the other students were. Their normal levels of fidgeting and side-conversations were virtually gone as everyone recognized that something important was happening.

Prompted by the facilitator, the first boy began, going through six steps he had learned and practiced:

  • Step 1: The Facts. First, with a statement of "the facts were...", he related the objective circumstances of their conflict. These are things that any observer would notice, free of interpretation. "On Tuesday, when we were walking to math class, you said ____ to me, and other students could hear."

  • Step 2: My Emotions. Next, with a prompt of "the emotions I felt were...", he shared an intensely honest description of what it felt like to be stuck in this conflict, how a normal school day could turn into him crying in the corner after a conflict.

  • Step 3: My Story. Often the hardest step. He had to share his "story", that is, the story he made up in his head about why this conflict was happening. We all do this in conflict - we imagine that we know why the other person is doing this to us. It's all too easy to conclude that, say, the other person is out to get us. When we reflect on this and speak it out, in the context of knowing that it's made up in our head, we lessen the power of these stories. We learn that we may not have the official "truth" of a given conflict, but just our own story about it, and someone else has theirs as well.
    So the student's next sentence began with "the story I make up in my head is.." He described why he thought the other student had it out for him, but he as he said that he acknowledged it was just a story in his head, not necessarily true. This single step makes all the difference. He showed the skill to be aware that he had a story, and the insight that one person's story is unlikely to be the same as another's and there may be no one story that has the objective "Truth".

  • Step 4: Physical Sensations. For many students, the easiest and most direct way to access their emotions is to talk about what they felt in their body during a conflict. Even for highly aware and verbally fluent students, sometimes these physical sensations are the most memorable parts of their description, and really help those listening to know what it felt like to be them. The student says "my physical sensations were...", for example, "I felt hot and my heart was beating and I wanted to punch something."

  • Step 5: My Part. Now he had to relate how his own actions had contributed to the situation - "My part is..." This helps to avoid the victim mentality, and highlights to both parties how conflicts usually take two (or more) people participating to flare up. A student, even one who believes they were receiving unfair aggression, might say "my part is...never speaking to you and never asking for help to talk about how we get mad at each other all the time."

  • Step 6: My Desire. This part is easily misunderstood, as it's not about fixing or resolving the conflict. This is not the time to say, "my desire is that you get punished and never do this again." The task here is to steer students toward the underlying value they would like to uphold, or the way they want to be in general. For example here, "my desire is to be comfortable in school, not scared when we see each other in the hall, to be at least neutral with everyone around me."

These six steps took only a few minutes, and while the first boy was speaking, his counterpart (and all of his peers) had been listening carefully. Now it was time for the other boy to repeat back what he had heard, in his own words. He went through each step, checking at the end to see if he had got it right. The first boy visibly relaxed as he saw his words were being repeated back without malice or distortion. OK, you get what I said...

This took place in an intense 45-minute group conflict resolution, a rare occurrence used when 1:1 resolution has not shifted a conflict pattern. After the two students each went through the six steps above, including repeating back to each other, they discussed ways to break the conflict cycle in front of their peers as witnesses. Then it was the peers' turn to discuss what they could do, each volunteering a way to support the desires of the two participants. For example, one student in the circle committed that "if I hear one person complaining about the other, I'll get the other one's story first before I agree or disagree." We ended with a circle of commitments, the two boys still in the center, hearing as every member of their community spoke of what they could to support the boys' desire to no longer be in conflict.

This may sound like a very adult or advanced process. It's true that this exact technique is also used by adults. However, in my experience middle schoolers are developmentally primed to learn this, and most absorb it remarkably well. I've often heard parents describe overhearing their students use this process with their siblings or even with the parents themselves. You can see that it "clicks" by the attention paid during an exercise like this - the remarkable focus maintained for 45 minutes by a group of normally super-kinetic 11 and 12 year olds. They are keenly interested in how relationships work, in the way their intensifying emotions affect their social world. They want to know how to resolve conflicts, in part because they all see that conflict can become harsher as they become more capable social beings, where a rumor can turn from funny to end-of-the-world frighteningly quickly.

As the circle broke and students went to work on their projects, the adults exchanged looks of relief and amazement. These 6th graders had spent a whole year getting to this point. The range of skills needed for this conversation was considerable: the ability to focus and stay centered, to hold space for each other, to locate their own emotions and relate them neutrally, to acknowledge their part and the "stories we make up in our minds" about why other people act in certain ways, etc. As I sat there, I marveled at the fact that I had picked up these tools in my 20s and 30s, decades after these students were learning to understand and apply them well.

This was a powerful lesson: that's it not only possible, but developmentally highly favorable for students at this age to develop advanced social-emotional tools like these. This is what they're primed to do. These skills don't let them avoid all conflicts or the awkwardness of rapid change - but we can give students the tools and safe space to handle them as they arise. Think of the adults they can become if, instead of middle school teaching how to "be cool" by forgetting who you really are and putting up shields, they learn how to be authentically themselves with the skills to maneuver in the real world.