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Educating the Next Generation in Resolving Social Media Disputes 

Educating the next generation about conflict resolution skills–early in life–is essential on many levels. Personal happiness, strong friendships and relationships, and, in the long-term, world-wide stability may even be at stake.  Conflict resolution training focuses on skill-building that shapes character and challenges young people to resist the easy way out of lashing out at others, throwing tantrums, cutting off communication, or engaging in physical or verbal violence.  And, it will promote the negotiating ability and social skills of future world leaders and influencers.

Kids are watching and learning, for better or worse, about the conventional methods commonly used for handling conflict, many of which are ineffective and unnecessarily destructive. When conflict arises, children imitate their parents.  Without training, well-intentioned parents often are unwittingly handing down their own problematic methods for handling conflict that were inherited, in turn, from their parents.  This perpetuates reliance upon limited anecdotal experiences, second-hand stories that virtually become mythic within families, and ineffective ideas about ways to handle conflict.  

When imitation takes place, the long-term inter-generational cycle that is created can negatively shape a child’s future, limit opportunities, narrow minds, and ultimately detract from the quality of life.   It is not an overstatement to assert that conflict resolution skills may be just as important as reading, writing, and arithmetic in producing well-adjusted, stable, and  productive adults.  And, with constant and increasing exposure to the negative aspects of social media, conflict resolution skills have become even more critical and relevant.   

Higher education recognizes the importance of conflict resolution skills by offering upper level courses in universities, law schools, and business schools.  Such courses are important opportunities for learning constructive tools for conflict resolution.  Unfortunately, it may be too late for such concepts to take root.  For most students, learning principles of conflict resolution in higher education means re-learning how to handle conflict and un-doing years of deeply embedded beliefs about handling conflict.   When confronted with actual conflict, classroom principles tend to fly out the window as students fall back on old habits and behaviors.  Perhaps the time for introducing children to constructive skills for conflict resolution is right from the beginning.    Before children learn that 2 +2 = 4, they have to learn how to share toys, wait their turn, and use patience.  Conflicts of many kinds enter every child’s life long before school starts and they deserve to have the opportunity to learn constructive ways to handle them.  

Conflict is a Natural  Outgrowth of Human Interaction

Conflict surrounds us from the day we are born.  Even before words are acquired, infants are eyewitnesses to arguments, raised voices, and other forms of discord between parents and family members.  Sibling rivalry provides a fertile source for witnessing and participating directly in conflict.  Friends, classmates, and others may generate further conflict.  Adolescence carries with it pointed and deeply felt conflict as kids are changing biologically and learning about independence while being expected to observe boundaries.  In college, academic competition, political differences and crowded living quarters present additional sources of conflict.  As adults, we experience conflict in relationships, at work, with neighbors, with our own peers and parents, as well as with our children.  

Early in life,  how many of us have felt the anguish of family fights and seeing loved ones locked in a seemingly endless cycle of unresolved feelings of irritation, anger and sadness?  As a young child, how many of us have felt the sting of sarcasm, teasing and various forms of bullying behavior?  As teenagers, how many of us have clashed on social media only to lose friends and valued relationships?  And later in life, how many of us have been swept up in office politics and hard-to-decipher ever-shifting alliances and opportunities for advancement?  In such cases, many of us are left with a sense of powerlessness and befuddlement as we try to navigate the foggy shores of human interaction.

Old Ways of Managing Conflict

Throughout history, conflict has been a recurring topic of fascination, examination and discourse.  The age-old mystery of conflict resolution arguably is perpetuated in families by well-meaning parents, grandparents and other elders.  This includes over-reliance upon conventional approaches such as the binary choice between “fight or flight” and entering into compromises that are arbitrary and completely unrelated to the true interests of the parties.  Other well-worn conventions include fighting back, escalating the fray with increasingly mean-spirited generalizations about the other person’s character and competence, and using a passive aggressive approach of “Don’t get mad–get even.” The worst of the conventional “wisdom” surrounding conflict resolution is the notion that a good solution to a conflict is one where everyone ends up unhappy.  

Adding to the confusion, the entertainment media perpetuates the timeless misconception that physical violence, power, superheroes and magic are effective means for resolving conflict.  When a young wizard of literary fame finds himself in trouble, he simply pulls out a magic wand.  Poof!  Conflict resolved.  When a superhero is challenged, s/he relies on mysterious and all-powerful  forces to vanquish the enemy.  Pow!  Conflict resolved.  Resorting to conventional wisdom, and conversely, pretending to engage in mythic battles to resolve conflict are ineffective and, worse, escalate and complicate conflicts.  These approaches trigger the lowest forms of behavior instead of promoting higher order skills for resolving conflict.    

The mass media, including many “news” programs, boosts the drama with its steady drumbeat of over-wrought episodes of “breaking news,” hyperbole, negative framing of issues and panels of pundits endlessly  and over-confidently spewing opinions and speculations cleverly disguised as facts.

At present, there appears to be fewer and fewer programs that show real people sincerely trying to work through their differences in skilled and effective ways.  A simple survey of movie blockbusters, television programming, and violent lyrics in popular music, supports the conclusion that there is an increasing imbalance between violent fantasy and portrayals of sincere real world human conflict, suffering, and struggle.  Formulaic portrayals of vengeance promote a distorted and highly limited view of conflict and ways to resolve it.  Stunning visual imagery, brutal violence, and simplistic storylines suggest there is always a quick fix to conflict.  Relentless repetition of old ways of resolving conflict suggests their validity and diminishes the opportunity to learn new skills, skills that are, arguably, more powerful, long-lasting when used in the real world than a “super-mega-laser beam” or a magic wand.  

Hoary Chestnuts and Barriers to Effective Conflict Resolution

Old habits die hard.  Examples are everywhere of the tendency for people to hang onto habitual, familiar ways of dealing with conflict.  Take the hoary chestnut of “fight or flight” as a universal prescription to resolve conflict. Are these truly the only options for resolving conflict?  While they may reflect fundamental biological and psychological reactions to conflict on the ends of a wide spectrum of behavior, should we allow them to limit the endless array of proven and specific techniques for working through conflict?  As a full-time mediator for the past 30 years, one fundamental truth has become abundantly clear:

Similarly, the age-old conventional “wisdom” of compromise in the form of equal division of money, property, responsibilities is of questionable value.  Concessions based upon interests and needs are an essential element of constructive conflict resolution, but compromise as an arbitrary division of resources worms its way into our minds early in life and often becomes a default solution to conflict.   Among conflict resolution professionals, a compromise, with rare exception, is considered to be the lowest form of agreement.    Take, for example, the situation of parents serving Neapolitan (three-flavor) ice cream to their four children.  To shift responsibility for making a decision about portions, some parents will cleverly request a volunteer to serve it.  Usually one child volunteers and carefully, with scientific precision, scoops out equal portions of the chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla ice cream.  Mom and Dad are pleased that they can’t be blamed for serving unequal portions and they are proud that their children have learned a life lesson–share and share alike.  Everyone is happy, or so it seems.  

In the real world, an arbitrary compromise presents complications.  One child may be allergic to chocolate ice cream. so eating one-fourth of the chocolate ice cream could put him in the emergency room.  Another child, who may simply dislike the flavor strawberry will feel unfairly treated when she could have received more of the chocolate and vanilla ice cream.  Arbitrary, mathematical divisions of ice cream to the children and, later in life, essential resources among adults, cannot lead to satisfactory outcomes when the individual interests of the parties are not considered.  

Day by day, destructive ways of handling conflict continue to be modeled and passed down to children in the form of conventional, yet destructive, patterns of behavior. Seismic changes are taking place in technology, yet old ways of dealing with conflict have carried over to the new world of social media.  Online practices such as trolling, ghosting, cat-fishing, phishing, name-calling, ganging up, gossiping, bad-mouthing, spreading rumors and lies, and holding others up to ridicule reflect a mix of new and old forms of conflict that are being dealt with in the same old ways–some variation of fight or flight.  With the average age of 6-years-old being the first time a child gets a smartphone, the need is greater than ever to introduce children to proven, effective, and skills-based conflict resolution.  

During the past 50 years, an entire body of science and disciplined study has developed around the issue of conflict and methods for resolving it.  This vast body of work can be used to improve our relationships and interactions with others in general.  Equally important, it can be used to instill constructive conflict resolution skills at an early age, including disputes arising out of the use of social media.  The important question that arises is how can the skills involved with constructive conflict resolution in the context of new technology be instilled in future generations?  

Storytelling to Teach Constructive Ways to Manage Social Media Conflict 

Storytelling may be one answer.  For ages, philosophers, prophets, and sages have used stories and parables to teach life lessons that could have been easily forgotten were they not clothed in meaningful, unforgettable tales.  Words and pictures find their way into our minds and hearts even before we understand their true impact.  Decades later, most people can remember their favorite childhood book, its characters, the storyline, a magically happy ending, and, even more thrilling for some—unresolved conflict with an abundance of computer generated images of violence, gore, and damaged relationships that are ripe for a sequel.  Pathos and ethos present palpable dramatic tension.  For all these reasons, stories resonate with kids and are a crucial way to share everything from world views, to norms of behavior, to fun.  Storybooks may appear to be entertaining with their rhymes and comical illustrations, but they are far more than simple entertainment.  They teach children patterns of behavior and show them how story characters prevail over adversity or overcome dangerous situations and conflict.

In Phony Friends, Besties Again, a new illustrated children’s storybook, a social media conflict is the contemporary backdrop for an age-old conflict–embarrassing a friend to gain social acceptance with others.  Phony Friends, a story for children ages 2 through 12-years-old, demonstrates through art and storytelling several ways the main characters take action to repair their relationship and become best friends again.  

 The drama in Phony Friends  unfolds quickly.  After enjoying a long-term friendship,  Emo, a baby bear cub, and his best friend, a small red-breasted robin named Chickie, find themselves in big trouble.  Without intending any harm, Chickie takes a video of Emo clumsily falling down and then posts it on social media.  Emo is embarrassed and humiliated.  He feels betrayed.  Chickie, on the other hand, feels he didn’t do anything wrong.  He didn’t know Emo was going to fall, he thought it looked funny, and he feels Emo is being over-sensitive.  Importantly, Chickie achieves instant popularity with the “in crowd” when the video is posted.  It would be easy for Emo to unfriend Chickie on social media, block his calls, delete accounts, or otherwise disconnect and go his separate way.  Friendship deleted, Click!.  But, Emo and Chickie desperately want to remain friends. They just don’t know how to restore trust after it has been lost.  Perhaps meaningful dialogue might help.  

Phony Friends shows how the animals handle the effects and aftermath of a seemingly insignificant–though highly impactful–click on a phone.  Far from being a textbook or training manual, Phony Friends offers a story with relatable characters, a plot, true conflict and emotion and, finally, resolution.  To promote learning, a number of well-established conflict resolution skills are embedded in Phony Friends. These enhance the storytelling and provide a solid learning experience for the main characters, Emo, Chickie, and for readers alike, including:   

–Set a positive tone  Open a conflict conversation with a “thank you” for taking time to talk, use brief small talk, discuss mutual interests in problem-solving.

Use active listening  Listen for the other person’s intended message, don’t interrupt, don’t pre-judge, manage distracting thoughts, don’t miss half the message by spending time preparing a response before hearing the other person out.

Empathy  Try to understand other’s feelings and show that you do, with words and actions.

–Talk about interests*  Open up about your needs and be clear about concerns and priorities.

Ask interest-based questions*  Ask questions to learn what’s important to the other person.

Use moderate and neutral language and words  Use civil and neutral language to express differences (no name-calling or hostile words).

Self-reflection  Honestly ask yourself about your role in the conflict.

Role reversal Put yourself in their shoes and try to see the issues from their point of view.

Avoid escalation  Refrain from making increasingly aggressive statements, demands, rhetoric, or ultimatums.

Exchange information Share information about what happened, applicable rules, and interests to the extent it is appropriate.

BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement), WATNA (Worst), MLATNA (Most Likely)  (BATNA is a term attributed to Roger Fisher, William Ury and Bruce Patton in their groundbreaking book, Getting to Yes–Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In)  Examine strong, weak, and probable alternatives to agreement (for example, what will happen if an agreement is not reached?).

Interest-based bargaining  Use interest-based bargaining  (focus on what is important as well as what happened and who may be right/wrong).

Collaborative bargaining  Be civil, cooperative, actively look for mutual benefits and trade-offs.

Manage emotional reactions  Resist the temptation to react emotionally (lashing back, saying hurtful or negative things, over-generalizing, defensiveness).  Respond thoughtfully–don’t react emotionally.  

Act strategically  Say and do things that promote your goals.

Cool off  When needed, take a break, resume the conversation later when tempers are not running high.

–Be gently persistent  “No” may mean “not now” or “not in those terms.”  Re-visit issues to test their positions without over-doing it. Prepare yourself to be turned down, in some cases many times, because rejection of ideas and statements is part of conflict resolution until the parties are successful in finding the terms that meet their needs.

Acknowledge  Show you understand them (for example, “I see what you are saying,” or “I understand your point.”).

Apologize  Sincerely apologize when appropriate (accept blame, promise not to do it again, take steps to right a wrong).

Understand their perspective  Consider the other person’s way of looking at things even if you are upset or angry at them.  If you are unsure, ask the other person how they see things.  

Avoid reactive devaluation  When you are at odds with someone, listen carefully for the terms of their offers to resolve a dispute, rather than focusing primarily on their perceived defects in personality, character, or competence.  

*INTERESTS

Interests are concerns and needs people have (e.g., safety, security, relationships, harmony, control, certainty, opportunities, health, finances).

To figure out what another person’s interests are, ask interest-based questions, which are broad questions intended to open a discussion of their concerns, priorities, and needs (in addition to the facts of what happened and who may be right or wrong).

**HOW TO LEARN WHAT IS IMPORTANT TO THE OTHER PERSON–AND TO YOURSELF:

INTEREST-BASED QUESTIONS YOU CAN ASK

In addition to talking about facts, what happened, and who may be right or wrong, ask:

–Help me understand what is most important to you?

–What are your main concerns?

–What to you hope to achieve? What do you hope to accomplish?  What are your goals?   

–What really matters to you?

–What is this really about?

–What’s driving this?

The Never-Ending Story

I believe deeply in the value of teaching constructive conflict resolution skills to children from the very beginning.   Storytelling can be a “pre-active” approach to forming skillful and effective ways of handling conflict.  Through a trilogy of illustrated children’s books, I have endeavored to share some of the “secrets” of constructive conflict resolution through structured storytelling and engaging art.  The goal is to introduce young children to skills for constructive conflict resolution before their minds are indelibly stamped with conventional responses to conflict and the pervasive influence of the mass media.  

Literature that generally extolls the virtues of peace and collaboration is laudable, but abstract notions may be difficult for young children to absorb and even harder for them to put into action.  By contrast, storytelling shows how characters act and handle conflict situations, including the impact and aftermath of their actions, which is something even the youngest children can internalize and call into play when conflict arises.  

Reaching kids before their minds are imprinted with conventional thinking about conflict and the pervasive influence of mass media is unexplored territory.  While social media conflict may present different factual scenarios and technology issues, the characters in Phony Friends model proven conflict resolution skills that can be effective in a variety of conflicts, including modern conflicts where an embarrassing video has been posted.  The book portrays an all-too-familiar scenario where friendship is at risk due to the hasty use of social media and the less common scenario where friendship is restored using constructive conflict resolution skills.   Peacemakers, mediators, and negotiators are encouraged to unlock their imaginations and reach the next generation through storytelling, thereby making the world a more livable, peaceful place and changing lives from the very beginning.    

                        author

Gregg Relyea

Gregg Relyea, Esq. is a full-time private mediator in San Diego, California.  In addition to teaching mediation at the University of San Diego School of Law and the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), Mr. Relyea has written a comprehensive negotiation and mediation practice guide, Negotiation, Mediation, and Dispute Resolution--Core Skills… MORE >

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