Conflict resolution and mediation

Wherever two or more people congregate, some degree of conflict is almost inevitable.  Schools are especially prone to conflict.  This is because schools are places of high emotional and intellectual investment in the welfare of children and the future of our society.

A conflict of ideas is actually a very healthy thing, because it means alternatives are being examined, refined and chosen through a process of discernment that is achieved by applying the collective wisdom of a diverse, well-meaning group of people who share a common goal.

If the conflict of ideas degenerates into a conflict between people, then a far worse situation arises.  When such conflicts occur at very senior levels in a school, such as among board members or between the Board and the Principal, then the conflict may quickly become toxic.

Given the inevitability of conflict and the destructive impact it can have on any school, sometimes suddenly and without warning, it is essential that board members and senior leaders are equipped to recognise it and deal with it quickly and effectively at an almost visceral level.

As a starting point, it should be acknowledged that everyone in a school community has a right to be treated with respect and dignity, and everyone also has a right to articulate their argument about they believe it is best for the school.   Having said this, the problem with many conflicts is that both sides are looking for a “winner takes all” solution, which immediately works against listening to the points of view that others are expressing.  That’s a problem, because there are always reasons with at least some validity that those with opposing points of view hold those views.

Perhaps the most contentious conflicts that occur in schools arise when there are disagreements between the Principal and the Board.  When handled poorly, such conflicts can have devastating impacts on entire school communities (not to mention the Principal and the Board members) that may take a decade or two to heal.

This is where sensitive, mature, well-managed conflict resolution and mediation become highly significant.

Conflict resolution and mediation - key words

Conflict resolution and mediation are not the same thing.  Conflict resolution is a fairly broad term that encompasses various methods and processes used to manage and resolve conflicts.  It can include mediation but also involves other approaches such as negotiation, arbitration, litigation, and more.  Conflict resolution methods can be collaborative or adversarial, depending on the specific approach chosen.

Mediation is a specific form of conflict resolution that involves a neutral, independent third party, known as the mediator, who assists the conflicting parties to find common ground and reach a mutually acceptable resolution.

How might mediation assist in a conflict between a Principal and the Board, perhaps the most sensitive and challenging scenario that either the Board or the Principal will ever face?  The goal of mediation in such a situation would typically be to open up transparent communication, address concerns, and explore possible resolutions before resorting to termination. Ideally, the mediation would involve eight calm, equable stages:

1.    Selection of a Mediator:

A neutral and trained mediator, often with experience in education or employment matters, is selected. This person should be acceptable to both the Board and the Principal.

2.    Voluntary Participation:

Both parties, the Board and the Principal, must voluntarily agree to participate in the mediation process. It is essential that both parties are willing to engage in good faith.

3.    Preparation:

Before the mediation session, the mediator may meet with each party separately to understand their perspectives, concerns, and desired outcomes. This allows the mediator to be well-informed about the issues at hand.

4.    Joint Mediation Session:

The mediator conducts a joint mediation session with both parties present. During this session, each party has the opportunity to express its concerns, interests, and perspectives. The mediator facilitates open and respectful communication.

5.    Identification of Issues:

The mediator helps the parties identify the key issues contributing to the conflict. This may involve discussing specific incidents, communication breakdowns, or policy violations.

6.    Exploration of Solutions:

The focus shifts to exploring potential solutions that could address the concerns raised by the Board while also addressing the needs and concerns of the Principal. This could involve discussing performance improvement plans, professional development opportunities, or other measures.

7.    Agreement:

If an agreement is reached, it is typically documented in writing, outlining the terms and conditions that both parties have accepted. This agreement might include specific actions, timelines, and any conditions for ongoing employment.

8.    Implementation and Follow-up:

Presuming an agreement has been reached, there may be a follow-up process to ensure that both parties are fulfilling their commitments. The mediator may check in periodically to assess progress and address any issues that arise.

Of course, mediation may not always lead to a resolution, and termination could still be considered if an agreement cannot be reached.  Nonetheless, there are deliberate strategies that can be implemented to increase the probability of a successful outcome for everyone involved.

The author Kenneth Cloke suggests that there are three categories of questions that could be asked in any discussion to resolve a conflict.  

Category 1: Questions that have one single correct answer.  Who is the oldest person in the discussion?  Who is the youngest?  Who is the tallest?  Who is the shortest?  Who lives the closest to the school? Who lives the furthest away?  Note that once given, these responses can be arranged in order of size or importance.

Category 2: Questions that have one single correct answer for each person.  How old are you?  Where do you live? How tall are you?  Note that these responses can NOT be arranged in order of size or importance because each person is an individual.

Category 3: Questions that have multiple correct answers for each person.  What issues are you are facing, regardless of your age? What does your height mean to you?  What did your height mean to you when you were growing up?  What do love about where you live? What do not love about where you live?  Note that these answers are fluid and flexible.

Cloke believes that most significant issues in our world fit into this third category, but unfortunately, most negotiations stay within the realms of category 1 or category 2.  This suggests that effective conflict resolution is more likely to occur when interlocutors take the time to build their relationships and understandings of each other as people.

Therefore, although they may not at first seem central to the conflict at hand, some useful questions that both sides in a conflict negotiation might ask are:

Questions like these (and many more) can help us to understand the other people we are dealing with in a negotiation.  Such questions help each participant to step back from dogmatism which, as we saw above, is a huge barrier to securing a win-win outcome.

What are the signs of a deteriorating conflict negotiation or mediation?  If one or both parties to the conflict want the other side simply to go away, to surrender, to admit they were wrong, to disappear, or to give up, that represents a very poor, low-level solution.

A better, higher-level solution becomes possible when both sides discover that the way the other side feels about a solution is more important than what they actually want.  Any party in any conflict needs to feel that their interests are being respected, acknowledged, and that the other side is seeking a solution that will work for them.  I have helped mediate many conflicts in schools where what one side or the other says they are asking for isn’t really what they want; it is a proxy for their true priority.

Mediators do not impose a solution, but they intervene in a conflict to break the intense attachment to a bargaining position that often afflicts the people who find themselves to be deeply entrenched in the conflict.  The mediator provides a release from the “fight or flight” reflex that many people experience when they are thrown into a conflict situation.

Mediators remind those in a conflict that there is almost always a ‘third solution’ waiting in the wings; there are multiple ‘middle grounds’.  The first, most unsatisfactory middle ground is ‘mutual trauma’, ‘mutual destruction’ or ‘mutual exhaustion’ – clearly sub-optimal middle ground.  The second middle ground is compromise or settlement where each side wins something and loses something.  The third middle ground is collaboration, consensus, and  resolution of the underlying issues that caused the dispute.  There is also a fourth (but rarer) and higher middle ground, which occurs when all parties can transcend (rise above) the reasons that led to the conflict.

This fourth pathway represents the way to achieve a sustainable, enduring outcome which elevates the participants beyond mediation and into what is known as ‘restorative justice’.  Achieving this is seldom easy because it requires people to talk openly and honestly about significant, profound issues with people they probably don’t trust.  In other words, restorative justice requires a high order of skill, maturity, transparency, and perhaps resilience on the part of everyone involved.

Perhaps the most powerful observation I have encountered about the qualities required to achieve restorative justice through mediation are the words of Martin Luther King Jr, who said (in a speech in Washington DC on 6th February 1968): “I’m not a consensus leader.  I do not determine what is right and wrong by looking at the budget of (my organisation).  Nor do I determine what is right or wrong by taking a Gallup poll of the majority opinion.  Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a moulder of consensus”.

-Dr Stephen Codrington

I am indebted to Kenneth Cloke, some of whose ideas I have drawn upon in preparing this article.  Kenneth Cloke is co-founder of Mediators Beyond Borders, based in Washington DC in the United States.  His book “Resolving Organizational Conflicts” is a useful resource for schools that wish to investigate conflict resolution and mediation more deeply.

We offer support to school leaders and boards who are seeking to manage conflict situations.  Urgent enquiries regarding conflict resolution or any other issue relating to school leadership or board governance should be sent by e-mail to [email protected].

Further information on many facets of best practice in school leadership and governance is provided in the book “Optimal School Governance", which can be ordered directly through Pronins.

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