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Mediation in the Classroom: How Critical Thinking Can Facilitate Conflict Resolution

Introduction: Critical Thinking Skills Can Help Students Resolve Conflict

“Critical Thinking” means the capacity to distance oneself from an argument or a point of view and to assess its strengths and weakness. Critical thinking requires a deep understanding of argumentative methods and strategies and their shortcomings. In this context “critical” does not mean being negative or complaining, but rather being “critically reflective” about the arguments you are hearing. In this piece I want to argue that education and mediation meet through critical thinking. In short I believe that there is huge scope for developing dispute resolution strategies in students through encouraging them to develop critical thinking skills. By doing this, the student will naturally become better at addressing conflict in their life. 

…and There are Other Benefits Too

In addition, from the perspective of how we deal with conflict in our culture, there is a broader educational and cultural imperative to students gaining and practicing critical thinking skills. It reassures them that opinions are not always simply a matter of personal preference or taste. If they learn critical thinking skills they can defend themselves with reason and argument, all of which builds confidence. By the same token, students will appreciate that this is true of others’ stances too. An education system that has internalised this insight can contribute to healthier public discourse because participants know that views cannot simply be dismissed with the lazy “that’s just your opinion”. Instead, they understand that differences can be discussed, examined and understood, even if they are not ultimately resolved.

Section One: How Can Learning Critical Thinking Facilitate Students in Conflict Resolution?

“Critical Thinking” is, if you like, thinking about our thinking. That is, critical thinking requires the capacity to examine points of view and their supporting arguments. We are then in a better position to analyse these with a view to identifying problems and possibilities. There is a clear link here between being a good critical thinker and being skilled at conflict resolution. Just think how much mediation involves assessing arguments and examining the reasons given to support them. However, before we go on, it will be helpful however to spell out the exact connections between critical thinking and conflict resolution.

Examining Assumptions

When a person gives a reason to support their point of view, there are often assumptions at play. For example, if a person argues that they wish to pay lower taxes in order to stop government waste, the assumption is that governments don’t spend money wisely or effectively. Assumptions are everywhere in arguments and a training in critical thinking is a training in recognising assumptions and being able to skilfully question their validity.

In conflict, parties often arrive at embedded opinions and conclusions on the grounds of unchallenged assumptions. I recently heard a party complain that there was no point in speaking with the other party because every time they did, the other party got angry. The assumption here is that one can’t be angry and receptive at the same time. Not necessarily so. Critical thinking helps the person in conflict to identify and navigate assumptions in the service of a positive and creative resolution.

Supporting Reasons

Critical thinking studies the supporting reasons people offer to defend their point of view. For example, If I say that I do not think it is a good idea for you to go to the baseball tonight, the supporting reason I might offer is that the forecast is for rain and its unlikely the game will be played. Of course, some supporting reasons are better than others. If I say you shouldn’t go to the baseball because the voices in my head have told me aliens are coming, I would hope you’d go to the game anyway! Critical thinking helps us to identify weak supporting reasons and to challenge them in a way that makes sense to the person offering them.

In conflict resolution, we regularly look not only at people’s positions but the reasons why they hold these positions. Here we are getting into the world of “interests” and what matters to a person. Being able to locate, identify and explore these interests, these reasons “why” someone holds a position, is at the heart of good mediation and is very much a critical thinking skill.  

Awareness of Spin, Manipulation, Avoidance

The training that it takes to be a good critical thinker involves learning how to know when someone is trying to manipulate, spin the truth, or avoid key difficulties. These tactics can be attempted by the use of duress, emotional blackmail or any other means designed to cloud the issue. Being able to recognise when this is happening helps students to focus on the argument and not on the distractions.

The link to conflict resolution is clear. When in a conflict or when mediating one, it is not uncommon for one or both parties to try to make the issue about something else (avoidance), to use passive language or terms that avoid responsibility (“a mistake was made”, “hurt was caused”) or to try to win someone over through manipulation (playing the victim, playing the friend and so on). A clear training in critical thinking in this area is, at the same time, a training to see and to address these tactics.

Using Beliefs, Values and Traditions

Critical thinking examines how people’s beliefs influence their points of view and, crucially, how they get to the conclusions they hold via the arguments that they think are cogent. This requires anyone training in critical thinking to look at the meaning of “belief” and “value” or “tradition” when someone uses them as a justification for their point of view. (“I am very strong on his point, it’s part of my beliefs”, “I could never go for that solution, it offends my religious values” and so on). A good training in critical thinking facilitates the student in understanding that invoking a belief, value or tradition for holding a point of view is not the end of a conversation, but only the start of it. It is valid, legitimate and appropriate to ask why these beliefs are held and whether any other interpretation of these beliefs would be just as faithful but would help avoid or resolve a conflict.

Again the connection to conflict resolution and mediation is clear. It is important not to be bullied when someone invokes a value, belief or tradition to explain themselves as if to do so is a sign of intolerance (see the discussion of this in section two below). A good mediator or someone skilled at dealing with conflict will not stop there but, in the name of a resolution (and of refusing to be browbeaten) will explore other ways of interpreting these beliefs. These skills are learned through a good training in critical thinking. 

Recognising that Arguments Have Consequences

Training in critical thinking is training to recognise the outcomes of reasoning processes. These can be hugely significant in a person’s life but they might not be aware of them. For example, a person may be influenced by traumatic childhood experiences to reason that the only possible form of personal intimacy is one marred by violence and abuse. They will therefore likely conclude that a long-term relationship is not a healthy life path or, worse, only expect poor treatment in their personal relationships. This reasoning process has enormous consequences for the person, but they may not be aware of it. Understanding how reasoning does not happen in a vacuum but is coloured by our experiences and so on, helps us to look again at our conclusions and ask ourselves whether they are inevitable or whether another one is at least possible.

Of course the same goes for conflict resolution. Our thinking and our opinions do not take place in a vacuum. They are influenced by our history and they impact our lives directly. We can learn to understand the significant role of our points of view in our life. When we do, we become receptive to the idea that a better way of life may be available to us if we change how we think about, interpret and make sense of the world around us. Critical thinking facilitates this and so its use in conflict resolution and in dealing with conflict more generally is clear.  
Section Two: The Challenges to Modelling Critical Thinking for Conflict Resolution

Notwithstanding the above advantages of learning critical thinking for conflict resolution, educators are regularly confronted by serious challenges when they try to instil conflict resolution skills in students by teaching critical thinking.

The Focus on Results

There is often an institutional pressure to teach from an increasingly content-driven curriculum that does not encourage critical thinking but that only rewards students who practice a certain kind of thinking (recall), analysis (cause and effect) or reflection (how can I strategise to get a better grade?) This is reflected in the world of mediation where a solution-driven focus predominates in a way that doesn’t reward reflection on thinking habits or primary assumptions. But questioning these very cognitive processes could open up possibilities for a more abiding and resourceful resolution. To do so however, we run the risk of being accused of intolerance:  

Fear of Being Labelled “Intolerant”

Critical thinking presents itself as an especially helpful resource when encountering stark cultural differences or fundamentalism in any of its forms. However, as mentioned in section one above, there is not much hope for critical thinking when we practice a model of mediation in which basic values cannot be questioned because that is seen as too “directive”, or when we try to teach in a way that is scared to address these stances. To flourish, critical thinking requires a commitment to address these problems and so, educational institutions must empower their staff to do so without fearing accusations of intolerance (the kiss of death in any people-centred profession).

Seeing Thinking as “less than” Feeling

There is a tendency to see “thinking” as a dry, arid activity that only goes on in the mind. “Thinking” is often seen as the opposite of feelings which are seen as altogether more “human” and “relational”. This is a very unhelpful way of looking at our thinking. As mentioned in Section One, “thinking” happens in the shadow of our beliefs, values, assumptions, agendas, hopes and so on. All of these are saturated with emotion and so anyone who suggests that thinking requires that we are cut off from these does not fully understand what thinking entails. Mediators already understand this because they have usually experienced clients whose “thinking” is dominated by their values, emotions and so on in a way that prevents them from seeing solutions. An institution or a practice that has a limited understanding of thinking is unlikely to support critical thinking as a tool for conflict resolution. 

Section Three: How to Integrate Critical Thinking into Practice…and to Use it for Mediation

For teachers, the question is how to integrate critical thinking into their existing classroom practice in a way that facilitates it being used for conflict resolution. Despite steps taken at secondary level in the UK and at university level in North America, “critical thinking” is not a core curriculum subject. To demonstrate it to students then, teachers need to incorporate it into their pedagogy. How can this be done? The following offers just a set of examples and is designed to encourage teachers to think about how they teach because, once adopted, critical thinking habits will have tremendous benefits for how the students engage in conflict.

In Science: Deduction and Induction

Teachers of natural science are ideally placed to highlight the differences between inductive and deductive forms of argument, when each is appropriate and the pitfalls of following each slavishly. In brief, “deductive” is a “top / down” approach to thinking. The problem here is that sometimes the argument can flow beautifully but is not based in reality (the philosopher David Hume is said to have “proven” that women are naturally inferior to men for example). Similarly, an “inductive” approach, where the conclusion is understood to derive from observed evidence, can be seen to be problematic if the evidence is incomplete or not representative. Teachers in this area are therefore alive to the meaning of the word “evidence” and when it is misused to offer weight to an argument that it has no business offering.

The connection between this and conflict resolution skills is direct. Those who insist on “principle” no matter how unhelpful the outcome are committing the same error in conflict as the scientist who blindly leads with deduction. Similarly, the person in a conflict who always and only draws on their “experience” without any kind of guiding rationale or theory is committing the same error as the scientist committed to the inductive method without regard to any guiding theory. Teachers of science are wonderfully placed to make this connection for students and to spell out how the shortcomings of a type of thinking in one area (science) can help us to understand its shortcomings in another (conflict).

In the Humanities: Duress and Fashions in Interpretation

Teachers in the humanities (history, geography, economics, social studies and so on) can point to the constant clash of ideas and values in the public realm and the healthy and dysfunctional methods that have been devised to address them. For example, a history teacher who demonstrates to students how force and duress are not successful at changing hearts or minds has only a short step to make to relate this to interpersonal conflict. A geography teacher who examines urban change and demographic shifts with students is in an excellent position to show how one model of addressing demographic change (for example, cultural assimilation) gives way to another over time (for example multicultural integration). Relating this to conflict, even the most fashionable method may have give way in coming years. There is no authorised fail-safe method, we are always learning.

In Languages: The Variety of Forms of Expression

Language teachers have a unique opportunity to identify the influence of culture on what arguments and argumentative methods are deemed valid and how these can be distorted. There are cultures where expression and articulation is more physical than others and cultures where overt anger is not seen as objectionable in a way that it is in North America. What all this speaks to is the spectrum of devices people may deploy to convince others of their perspective. A student who is aware of the diversity of forms of human expression is more likely to recognise that someone is at least making an effort to communicate with them whereas, without this understanding, they may have interpreted their actions as hostile or threatening. By emphasising the rich variety of cultural forms of expression, the teacher enables the student to relate to a similarly rich variety of methods of engaging in conflict.

In Literature: The Power of Language

Teachers of literature (poetry, theatre, traditional prose writing and so on) can emphasise the power of language in conflicts. Here the traditional discipline of “rhetoric” can comes to mind. What I really mean, however, is that teachers of literature can help the students to recognise when language is being used to manipulate or persuade using emotive or shaming methods. Naturally this leaves the student very well equipped to engage in conflict in a manner that leaves them more protected on this front. However, there is also a positive function for language here. Language is basically the only show in town when it comes to human communication. Learning to use it skilfully, thoughtfully and mindfully gives great power and teachers in this subject have a great opportunity to communicate the relationship between the ability to use language in a nuanced and sophisticated way, and the exercise of power. (Put another way, a minimal or purely functional relationship to language is disempowering – students have a vested interest in deepening their relationship to language, no matter how much they may like to tweet!)

Conclusion: The Prize – A Student Body, Institution and Broader Culture With a Healthier Relationship to Conflict

All teachers, education leaders and managers have the chance to demonstrate to students that there is nothing wrong with conflict, that it is a natural and healthy aspect of the human condition and to help prepare them for it. The epidemic of passive-aggression that predominates in North American public culture is a sign that we have failed ourselves and the generation that comes after us. Passive-aggression is based on manipulation and an inability to speak up for what you want for reasons of shame, inarticulacy or fear. In other words it is the behavioural expression of disempowerment. I propose that we have the chance to model a healthy and constructive alternative. We can demonstrate to students that being in conflict is not a negative sign but what distinguishes us as human beings is the way we engage in it. We can do this by giving them the key equipment needed to engage in conflict in an empowering way. An indispensible part of this equipment is skill in critical thinking.


Donal O’Reardon

Originally from Ireland, Donal O'Reardon is a mediator, coach, author and founder of O’Reardon Consulting. He holds graduate degrees in theology and philosophy and specialises in communication and conflict management skills with an emotional intelligence foundation. He is the author of “Introducing Philosophy: Questions and Readings” (Emond Montgomery, 2014) as well as… MORE >

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