Sunday, March 06, 2005

by William Severini Kowinski

This is my final draft for the article that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle Magazine in May 2003. Not all of it appeared, especially the short "sidebars" that follow this main post.

Near the country road at the end of the long driveway in rural Humboldt County leading to the home shared by Betsy Watson and her daughter, Ella, there were two signs, both fashioned from bumper stickers found at a town fair and mounted on wood. The signs faced in opposite directions, so they could be seen when leaving the house and upon returning. They both spelled out the same message: "Peace starts at home."

Elizabeth Watson (known universally as Betsy) is director of the Institute for the Study of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ISADOR) and professor of sociology at Humboldt State University. She has mediated conflicts ranging from neighborhood disputes over pets to controversies arising from more than a dozen timber harvest plans. She has facilitated discussions in Sacramento to get statewide consensus on California's regulations under the federal Clean Water Act. Because mediation is often kept confidential, "my very best ones I can't even admit to being involved in."

On a recent rainy Saturday morning, Betsy held one of the community workshops ISADOR sponsors in addition to its courses and certificate program in mediation. Twenty people from around Humboldt County gathered in an HSU classroom to discuss "Dealing With Difficult People." .They were office workers, teachers, entrepreneurs, social workers and other public employees. There were no international diplomats or world leaders present, and only one antiwar activist( "Her 'difficult people,'" Betsy recalled later, "were warmongers"). But they were all there to learn the skills of peace.

For just as waging war requires knowledge and practice, strategies, concepts and attitudes, so does preventing, managing and resolving conflict peacefully. These skills of peace have little to do with organizing demonstrations or petition drives, though they do bear significantly on how people talk about war. They are the skills required for peace in schools and the workplace, peace in the home, and peace of mind as well as peace on earth.
They are skills based on self-knowledge and insights into interpersonal communication, but they often run counter to deeply bred attitudes about how to handle conflict, and how we regard each other. Yet they are derived from deep human desires and drives that are often denigrated and denied: cooperation, compassion, empathy and connection.

The group assembled that morning came prepared to talk about difficult bosses, clients and coworkers. But Betsy first asked if they thought they themselves were somebody else's difficult people. Many admitted that at times, they were.

Though Betsy' daughter is away at college now (she was approaching adolescence when they made those signs along their driveway), she still uses her parenting experiences to illustrate concepts and techniques in managing conflict.

So to illustrate the power of point of view, she described a mother-daughter conversation on driving late at night. "We went around and around on that one, until finally I copped to the fact that I was less concerned about Ella driving into a redwood tree than what the other drivers on the road were like at that hour. That was a revelation for her, that it wasn't because I didn't trust her driving. But then she pointed out that she could have been the victim of a crazy driver all the years she rode in the car with me driving, and that was absolutely true. It helped us both calm down a little."

Betsy's question and her example both related to understanding how different roles can lead to different perceptions and conflict. For the rest of the day she led the workshop through a series of concepts and techniques, applying them to specific situations the participants wanted to discuss.

Some were about perceptions ("What are your basic assumptions---and what are the assumptions you put on other people without really knowing?"), while others concerned behavior and communication. "There' s nothing wrong with boundaries," she told them, "but they don't have to be made out of barbed wire."

She talked about the crucial role of respect, about separating wants from needs, and she taught the techniques of "naming" (defining the problem) and "reframing" (ways of re-stating the problem that move both parties toward solution.) They learned the "Platinum Rule"---the Golden Rule for a diverse society: "Treat others as they wish to be treated."

Many of these skills also pertain to public discussions, like the community forum on terrorism and impending war in Iraq that Betsy facilitated last fall. "I see the country polarized, especially in terms of foreign affairs and the economy," she said one afternoon in her campus office. "I'm interested in helping people to have these difficult conversations. My business is not to tell people how to think---my business is to teach people how to think well."

Peace starts at home for Betsy Watson, but it doesn't end there. "All of these concepts and techniques are just to make us smarter, and better able to meet challenges, whether they're little challenges like getting along better with your kids or your boss, or big challenges like foreign policy. If we listen carefully to the other person, then it gives us the ability to take their needs as well as our own into consideration and find that third way that works for both of us."

As for issues of war and peace, "people have the right to come down on whichever side they choose, but you have to name what you are doing," she adds. "When you decide to fight in Iraq, you are deciding to send other people's children to kill other people's children. As ugly as Vietnam was, that's a lesson that was brought home to us, every evening with dinner. I remember the week my brother was killed, the television said that only 71 Americans died this week---a low body count."

Peace starts at home, because war ends up there.

The Enemy Within

There are hundreds of peace studies and conflict resolution programs in American universities, and hundreds more around the world. They haven't always gotten a lot of attention or respect.

"Peace and Conflict Studies? A fool's errand, a short conversation. Or, 'isn't that an oxymoron, like business ethics?' We used to get those kinds of responses," says Edwin M. Epstein, current chairman of the program at UC Berkeley.

But he doesn't hear that any more. "Right now what we hear more often is, this is really crucial stuff."

The program grew out of a 1970s course on non-violence taught then and now by Michael Negler, author of "Is There No Other Way," but it was an orphan in the university system until International and Area Studies gave it a home. "Few if any issues in this world are blatantly clear-cut, notwithstanding how sound bites and headlines present them," Epstein said. "You have to know the facts, have some understanding of context and history. Our students enter with passion and we want them to exit with passion. But passion is not enough---you need skills and competencies that make you useful in working towards resolution of difficult issues at all levels of human interaction."

Many similar programs emerged from law schools and social studies as well as international studies, but only a few are hosted by psychology departments. One of these is the conflict resolution program at John F. Kennedy University in Orinda, directed by John Ford. Some years ago, he was one of Betsy Watson's mediation students.

Because many of Ford's students are training to become organizational development consultants in the increasingly diverse workplaces of California, he stresses the importance of cultural viewpoints, and the psychological concepts that aid in understanding our reactions to difference.

"Some of us begin with the idea that everyone is the same," he explains. "The next step is being aware that some people are different, but we have a tendency to either demonize or romanticize the difference. My hope is to get students to just see and accept the difference, and rather than judge it, to understand how that behavior makes sense from the other person's point of view."

"The goal finally is to be able to empathize with people who have different perspectives-not how you think you would feel, but how they feel-and yet be able to handle that without giving up your sense of identity, or your culture."

To bring these concepts alive, Ford divides one class into three distinct "cultures" for a role-playing exercise, and gives each certain characteristics (one group speaks softly, believes receiving gifts is rude, and is guided by an elder; the second is loud, egalitarian and likes giving gifts, etc.) Their task is to figure out how to share a space in the center of town.

"They have to deal with how to communicate, and usually one or more groups gets offended. In this year's class, the quiet group expressed their unhappiness about how they were treated. In a very short time they get completely invested in these roles. So they all realized they had to address the question of justice."

Across the Bay in San Francisco, Jungian therapist Dr. Tom Singer takes the influence of culture a step farther. "Jung said each of us have a personal unconscious, and we all share in a collective unconscious. I'm wondering if there is something in between---if in this day and age many of us have a kind of cultural or group unconscious."

" I can read a newspaper now and see five articles on the first two pages that illustrate this. We identify with the injuries of the group we belong to: blacks or whites, men or women, the homeless or the middle class, Americans or Iraqis. Every group feels it's been injured in some way, and each of us can project that sense of making somebody responsible for that injury. Our group is good and injured, and the other is the violating and injuring group."

It isn't that groups aren't really injured or that others aren't really at least partly to blame. It's how irrational, indiscriminate and powerful the emotions are that choke off rational evaluation and communication. "So much of this is reflex, projecting evil onto Saddam or Bush, and seeing oneself as good and virtuous," Singer said. "The classic Jungian prescription is to become more conscious of these mechanisms, but it's very, very difficult, especially in these distressing interactions that are so highly charged."

By not judging people as all good or evil, eventually you can better judge the content of what they say. So besides knowledge, there are skills of communication intended to get beyond these sources of conflict. Betsy Watson likes the work of William Ury, author of "Getting To Yes." John Ford teaches aspects of Sharon Ellison's " non-defensive communication" and Marshall Rosenberg's "nonviolent communication."

"These are foundational skills," John Ford says. "The importance of listening, to give people an opportunity to be heard in a deep way, and to hear without judging them."

Jigsawing for Columbine?

Many of John Ford's students at JFKU are mid-career adults, and one of these is Susan Petersen, an elementary public school principal in Concord, in the Mount Diablo Unified School District. Concord is a middle-income suburb with a mix of whites, Latinos and the range of other ethnicities represented in northern California. When Susan became principal last fall she noticed a lot of conflict among fifth graders, the oldest students in the school. Name-calling over ethnicities and home life, exclusion and gossip had resulted in fights and a general undertone of kids constantly being upset with each other.

When Susan assembled the fifth graders in her office in groups of ten to discuss the situation, she had skills derived not only from her current studies with John Ford, but from years of experience as an educator and administrator dealing with issues of communication and conflict through nearly the entire lifecycle, from young kids in daycare to adults in a parent education course. When dealing with the fifth graders, she was particularly mindful of high school, her most recent place of employment.

"I worked with about 400 high school kids as an administrator, on their scheduling and discipline issues," she recalled. "So I was working with teenagers around strategies and skills for dealing with conflict. Now I'm finding in elementary school that a lot of what kids go into high school with is carried from years before."

First she asked the fifth graders what they thought the sources of conflict were, and what could be done about them. Apart from the direct solutions the school could provide, like adding enough playground equipment to go around, the students made themselves part of the solution. They took up the idea one of them suggested and created a series of agreements-a Fifth Grade Pledge. And together with Susan, they instituted a Conflict Forum that met on Friday afternoons to discuss problems and settle disputes.

Susan talked with them about conflict resolution-----"helping kids learn how to identify their own needs, distinguish them from other people's needs, and work to resolve situations so that everybody gets their needs met"---and they took to it eagerly. So much so that they quickly became teachers themselves.

"One Friday I had a few first graders in my office who were having a lot of rough play that had turned into fights on the playground," Susan said. "We were talking when the fifth graders arrived for their Conflict Forum. They sat in the office and listened for awhile, and when I asked them what they thought, they got up and began talking about what they'd learned. One drew a picture of an escalator on the whiteboard, to demonstrate how emotions and conflict can escalate and de-escalate.

They advised the first graders to really pay attention to working out these things now, so that you won't have these problems as you go through school, so that you won't lose friends because you don't know how to work things out, so you don't end up angry and isolated. "

Though she uses different strategies appropriate to elementary school students, Susan approaches conflict resolution as she learned it from her studies and experiences. "Basically it's about acknowledging feelings and needs, accepting that they're not necessarily the same from one person to another, and that there can be agreements made-- -the differences don't have to move us apart, they can bring us together in conversation."

"My feeling is that we need something like conflict resolution in school as a balance, to help kids learn how to work with other people. That was part of the fifth grade pledge-they wanted to walk away from the school feeling really good about how their fifth grade had gone, and how they had worked with each other."

Working with each other is an important tool as well as a desirable outcome in lessening conflict in schools. Petersen is looking into formal programs she might introduce, such as the curriculum developed by the Peace Games organization in Los Angeles and Boston, which fosters skills necessary for cooperation through the experiences of noncompetitive games, followed by discussions and eventually, community service.

Elliot Aronson, writer and Professor Emeritus at UC Santa Cruz, helped develop the "jigsaw strategy" a method of organizing students into mutually dependent temporary teams where academic success depends on working together and listening to one another. Programs like the jigsaw and Peace Games nurture empathy, Aronson believes.

"When we develop the ability to understand what another person is going through, it increases the probability that our heart will open to that person," he writes. This makes it "virtually impossible" to maintain racial or ethnic prejudice, or to bully, taunt or humiliate that person. "My guess is that, if the jigsaw strategy had been used in Columbine High School (or in the elementary and middle schools that feed into Columbine), the tragedy could have been avoided and those youngsters would be alive today."

"These kids are aware of the war, of the violence on television generally, including the sarcastic interaction," Susan Petersen observed. " They talk about it, and they talk about the culture they live in, where walking away from conflict is to appear weak. They struggle with that. But they are looking for ways to promote the idea that learning to resolve conflict is really a strong thing to do."

"Kids don't really like to be in conflict," she said. " It's a new notion for some of them that they don't have to be, that life doesn't have to be riddled with conflict all the time. This is not a conversation they're used to having, but they are eager to participate in these discussions. They ask me, 'when can we do this again? We want to talk about the real stuff.'"