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 them 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 were mired in heated debates via their Facebook parent group and hadn’t met 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 we had to do a whole bunch of things before we could even discuss the decision:
- A safe format within which to express themselves and feel heard without attacks
- Reconnection with the reason they came together in the first place: to provide an alternative and beautiful learning experience for their children.
- 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 — three 2-hour meetings, surveys and 1:1 conversations — that wove these needs in sometimes surprising ways.
Here’s a breakdown of the first meeting:
The first conversation sparked 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 had in common than they 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 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 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!!