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Transforming conflict into community

Parents at a small alternative school were in deep conflict about their masking policy. In a series of 3 conversations I facilitated them to (a) rebuild a sense of connection as humans and community as parents, (b) learn healthy communication practices and integrate these new tools into their culture, and (c) arrive at a very collaborative decision that everyone felt good about! Plus, they had fun along the way!

When I met this group they had been having heated debates via their Facebook parent group and hadn’t even all met each other in person, ever. Their needs seemed to be equal and opposite: one family had a child recently in chemo and needed the highest possible safety standards, while a number of other families had “neurospicy” children and needed them to have the choice to not wear masks to allow for emotional-psychological connection and learning.

It was clear that they needed a whole bunch of things at the same time. Here’s a mind map of what I brought them:

While first and foremost they needed a safe format within which to express themselves and feel heard without attacks, they also needed to reconnect with the reason they came together in the first place: to provide an alternative and beautiful life and learning experience for their children and families. In order to be able to build that sense of community, they also needed practice with communication skills like reflective and active listening. And fundamentally: to experience themselves as humans with some very similar challenges and dreams. 

So I designed a process that would weave each of these needs together in sometimes surprising ways; we had a series of three 2-hour meetings with surveys and 1:1 conversations in between.

Here’s a breakdown of the first meeting:

The conflict was a mix of structural policy, culture and behavior. We had to work on all 3 layers of the wheel of change to address them.
A simple diagram showing that our work was to struggle with a shared challenge, guided by our shared values and visions. Not struggle with each other as people!
When we broke down the various component parts of the “masking decision” it was much easier to address these one by one.

The first conversation had some really beautiful breakthrough moments for people (ask me about the “accessibility check”) and everyone’s check-outs were full of relief and amazement at how much more they all had in common than they had realized. Success!

Facilitator nerd aside: knowing that many of the parents were self-identified as “neuro-spicy” I created very structured activities for the meeting. People shared in their check-outs that open-ended discussions or get-to-know-you frameworks are usually very socially difficult and that they really appreciated how I gave them specific, focused prompts to respond to. I also shared the prompts before the meeting, and in writing at the meeting.

In between the first and second conversations I sent out a survey asking for their honest and specific ideas and needs regarding the masking and health-related decisions. I also spoke directly with a few of the folks with the most concerns. By the time we got to the second conversation, people were engaged in seeking collaborative solutions that took into account other families’ needs. Knowing where their alignment was and wasn’t, I had the group make a number of easier decisions first for a feeling of success and forward movement. We then dove deeper into understanding people’s core needs related to the more complex decisions–but we didn’t attempt to finalize these harder pieces. Instead we practiced our reflective listening and did another activity that built a sense of community. People trusted that I was tightly holding the process and that at conversation three we would approach the final, more difficult pieces.

At the start of conversation three there was a palpable change in energy. People were ready to be in their most creative and collaborative spirits to find an elegant solution to seemingly opposite needs. And it worked! It was almost breathtaking to see how parents were able to build on each other’s ideas, ask each other questions without a sense of attack or emotional charge, and actually find a solution that no one had foreseen on their own. It truly was a collaborative effort. 

One of my mentors, Laird Schwab, says that nothing builds community like successfully moving through conflict together. I’m so proud of these parents for leaning into very personal and challenging terrain and coming through with a successful decision, closer relationships and joyful energy for their school community!!

“Speed dating” type activity to share offers and needs
Visiblizing the web of connections with a yarn toss
Writing ideas for components of the decision

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