One day I was presenting to a high school class a lesson on mature ways to resolve conflicts when a student we will call Tony raised his hand. When I called on him, he said, “Dr. Rubin, how would you resolve this? This here Tina (he points to her) and I were dating, and now I decided to end it. I’m seeing another girl. But Tina, she keeps calling me even though I told her to stop.”
Tina’s face has now turned red and other students have started calling out their views about what was going on. Some shouted that Tony didn’t just tell Tina not to call, but he had done so by becoming verbally abusive toward her in an effort to get her to stop calling. Some felt that Tony had to be abusive or Tina wouldn’t stop calling, although she had continued to call him despite his abusiveness.
Part of me wanted to begin an intervention to resolve the conflict right there in the classroom in order to model some of the very skills I had been teaching. But seeing the emotional reaction of Tina, and noticing the escalation of feelings that were being expressed by others in the classroom, I quickly explained to the students that it is usually best to work these types of conflicts out in private. I offered to meet Tony separately, and then Tina, and then, if they both agreed, I would meet with both of them together without the rest of the class watching on. I then asked the rest of the class why this might be the best way to work this out.
As the discussion continued, I mentioned that there are a few research studies that are related to this issue. They suggest that people are more likely to escalate an argument into a fight when spectators are around (see, for example, “Impression Management and the Escalation of Aggression and Violence,” R. B. Felson, Social Psychology Review, 1982). There are, of course, exceptions to this. For example, if two people agree to have a third party mediator help to resolve a conflict, the presence of the mediator tends to reduce subsequent aggression. And in a courtroom, the public has a right to observe the legal proceedings involving certain conflicts for a number of valid reasons. To protect everyone in this process, there are courtroom officials on hand that help to assure that disagreements don’t escalate to violence. Moreover, if the presiding judge sees audience members interfering with the legal process, he or she can order them removed by trained security personnel.
As my classroom discussion continued, it became clear to me that the topic raises four relevant questions worth thinking about:
- At what point does it make sense to ask for a private meeting?
- Where is the best place to have the meeting?
- What is the best way to ask for the meeting?
- Are there useful things to do to prepare for the meeting?
Although every situation is different, and each situation may require a different answer to these questions, in the remainder of this post I will offer some suggestions I think are worthwhile to consider.
At what point does it make sense to ask for a private meeting?
In my opinion, usually as soon as you recognize that some tension is beginning to surface, it’s time to ask for a private meeting. I say this because even if you think you can tolerate the tension, others around you may not. In many situations, in addition to the participants in the conflict beginning to feel uncomfortable with what is going on, others are also feeling roughed up. People may feel as if they are walking on egg shells in the presence of the antagonists.
In a business environment, this can create a hostile work environment for the other employees not directly involved in the conflict. Many supervisors are trained to intervene in such situations in order to put a stop to this, and for some, they hate this part of their job. Thus, they may just choose to get rid of one or both of the antagonists. Additionally, some supervisors may be less inclined to promote employees that can’t get along with one another.
In a school setting, it also usually makes sense for a student to seek to work out a conflict with another student as quickly as possible. As in the business setting, in addition to the two antagonists in the conflict being affected by the mounting stress, other students can start to feel uncomfortable. For example, one party in the conflict might say something to the other party, and when this is overheard by others, some may be torn between two friends. Sometime one of the two parties may insult the other who is a relative of the insulted party. Before long, the whole school climate can be adversely affected.
It is also important for students to keep in mind that there may be a time when they will need a recommendation from a teacher or counselor for a job or college application, and the last thing that you want is for someone to write that you have difficulty getting along with peers.
Where should the meeting take place?
In my opinion, whenever possible, a face to face meeting is way preferable than a phone conversation, texting, social media platforms, or emails. The use of the eyes, facial expressions, and hand gestures, humanize the interaction far beyond what is achievable in less personal interactions.
Now, my next suggestion might sound contradictory because I earlier emphasized that the meeting is best held in private. However, in my opinion, the ideal place is a semi-private place such as a coffee shop or fast food restaurant that is unlikely to have present anyone either party knows, and at a time when the place would be relatively quiet. In such places, you can find a seat that if you speak softly you are unlikely to be overheard. And even if you are overheard, it is very unlikely to really matter.
The value of having a few people around just out of earshot is that you and the other party will be less likely to get into a shouting match. Moreover, just knowing that someone in the semi-private place might end up calling 911 if things begin to look like they are turning dangerous can keep stress at levels that are more conducive for clear thinking.
Now, I understand that for high school students, setting up a meeting in an ideal place might not be possible. Many students live far from a convenient meeting place. If there is no public transportation available, setting up a phone conversation might be your best option.
What is the best way to ask for the private meeting?
Rehearse in your mind what you are going to say at least ten times. I suggest using a soft, concerned voice. It seems to me that you would want to avoid any name calling or threats. Something like the following has worked for me:
For this example, let’s call the other person in the conflict, Jill. Looking directly into Jill’s eyes, say, “I’m beginning to feel some tension between us, Jill.” Then pause, to see and hear how Jill reacts. Listen carefully, and look like you are listening carefully, by looking up to her eyes from time to time. When she appears to be finished, summarize what she has said without trying to defend yourself in any way. Then pause to see if she wants to add anything more or to correct something you said in your summary. Then say, “I think I understand, Jill. Listen, not only am I concerned about what feels to me like tension between us, but the others around us are going to start to feel pretty uncomfortable about it as well. That’s not good for them, and for a number of reasons it’s not good for either of us. So, I think it makes sense that we discuss this fully in private.” Then tell her where and when you want to meet.
This can be done in a couple of minutes by calling Jill over to a relatively quiet area and speaking softly. If Jill refuses to meet with you, let her know that that is her choice. Then, just end by saying softly that you hope she thinks about the concern you raised and let her know that you hope she changes her mind about meeting to discuss this.
In my opinion, even if the other person chooses to not meet with you, bringing this issue to his or her attention plants a seed. It is very possible that you might begin to see some improvements shortly afterwards.
Are there useful things to do to prepare for the meeting?
I suggest writing out a statement in advance describing the situation in your own words. If there is someone you respect that is not involved in any way with what is going on between you and the other party, consider showing that person what you have written. Then have a discussion about the situation with this respected person.
Before the meeting, remind yourself that you want to give the other party a chance to tell his or her side of the situation without interruption. Above all else, you want to give the impression that you are a good listener. This involves looking, from time to time, into the eyes of the other party and summarizing what he or she says.
Well, obviously there is far more to resolving these types of conflicts, but that’s all the time we have for today. I hope you give these ideas some thought.
Below is the comment section of this blog. I encourage you to add there some suggestions of your own. And, of course, I’ll be discussing other ideas soon right here at From Insults to Respect.
Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional and social intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.