By: David J. Smith, May 5, 2017
I am fortunate to have the opportunity to teach students working toward their certificate, master’s and PhD degrees at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University, where I received my MS. The past few years I have taught the course “Reflective Practice in Conflict Analysis and Resolution: Interpersonal and Multiparty Conflicts, CONF 620/820.” Because of curricular revisions, the course will not be offered in the near future. However, under the old curriculum it was often the only practice course that graduate students enrolled in. The objective of the course broadly is to ensure that those in practice engage in reflection as part of their approaches to intervention. We spend time looking at empathy, mindfulness, and the works of Christopher Moore, Donald Schön , Chris Argyris, and others. But most of our time is in simulation where students are given the opportunity to act as interveners as well as those dealing with personal or professional conflict. As a practitioner of over 30 years, I learn much from my students which helps me to reconsider my own approaches to engagement and ways I can be more reflective. I’m afraid that too many practitioners fail to reflect: before, after, and especially, during intervention. Practitioners rely too much on muscle memory – though valuable, it can obscure important dynamics of the conflict they are looking at, and more importantly, impede reflection.
As an end of semester project, I have students working in groups develop, explain, and apply a theory of intervention. I explain that a theory of practice is not a complicated notion: simply put, it’s a way of engagement that advances better outcomes for the parties and the intervener. The theory is manifested in a model that can be considered, reflected upon, and applied before, after, or during engagement. The model can be structured or it be amorphous in nature.
Last night my students presented their models. Hopefully, a practitioner or two will read this blog and can learn as I have from my students. Creativity is the sine qua non of our field, and graduate students often are best in advancing it.
Orbital Theory of Reflective Practice
The Orbital Theory of Reflective Practice is a model that promotes continual reflection. It raises with the intervener the questions “Am I the right person?” to intervene and “Am I doing the right thing?” in my approaches. The presenters demonstrated how it might work in considering the design and testing of paper airplanes. First, students were asked to think about paper airplanes, then develop their own and test them. Then, working as a group they did the same. During the group process, students reflected on how they conceptionalized a plane, designed it, and used it. They raised questions about who was the best tester and how best to fly it.
A model where one considers the process of development and execution in a deliberative way is important and critical to good practice.
All of the planes were traditional looking. I actually raised the question of whether a crunched piece of paper couldn’t be a paper airplane. (A bit of “double loop” learning). At the end students, held a paper airplane contest. View it at the end of this blog.
How is a Lamp a Metaphor for Conflict Resolution?
For this group, considering the metaphor of a lamp and its fire could be useful to a practitioner in understanding their work. A student first showed us how a lighted lamp can represent a range of feelings, expectations, and characteristics in practice. The flame as hope? As comfort? As intensity? (which could be controlled by the intervener). Or maybe the flame as burnout? Rekindling a fear of fire for some? Something that is dangerous and easily gets out of hand (and needs to be controlled)? Students working in groups considered metaphors that might be used.
I was struck by the hypnotic effect of the lamp and flame. Could this suggest vulnerability? And as such, a certain trust that the intervener must ensure? The lamp could be a meditative exercise. A number students commented that they will now think about a lamp and the flame when they engage.
Due Diligence Preparation Model
A group of students shared a model which looks at preparation and reflection, and suggests that practitioners might take it upon themselves to engage in Internet-based research around specific questions to better prepare them for engagement.
This need for objective background information permits the intervener to focus on specific characteristics of the parties and provides a point of reflective prior to engagement. The group had us all do a bit of research around a specific person.
I liked the model, but we need to consider verification as important aspect of this. This is noted in the model. Today it is vital that we ensure that information is accurate and objective.
Exploring the Intersection of Individual and Group Reflection
Using a “gallery walk” exercise, this group considered a means by which individual and group reflections can be considered together. Too often they compete with each, or one is prioritized over the other. Could we provide a process where they are considered together to reach overall reflection?
During the gallery walk, students considered different notions of “power” – power over, power with, etc. Students first visited the sheets with the words power as a group, then individually. Students were asked to write works that clarified their understanding. Many students however drew symbols and pictorials to do this.
There are a number of reasons I liked this exercise and model. One important one is that it gets those in conflict to consider subtleties and focus on distinctions in interpretations: what is power? what isn’t power? In addition, by merging group and individual views, those in conflict can come to recognize that holding both an individual and group interpretation of something can create dissonance which might need to worked through.
Engaging Conflict Style Assessments Between Parties in a Mediation
This group considered how conflict style assessments might be used in mediation to help parties reach empathy with each other. I have students apply the Thomas-Killman Conflict Model Instrument early in the semester. Here, the students shared the Conflict Dynamics Profile ® developed by the Center for Conflict Dynamics. The idea here is for the conflicted parties to take a test in advance of the intervention. Then at the opportune time the intervener shares the results with the parties: more importantly, they share each with the other party. That way, a party comes to better understand the conflict characteristics of the other person and this encourages a level of understanding, empathy, and better engagement.
This notion is actually raised in the Getting to Yes: the idea of bringing in an objective standard or rule to consider at a point of disagree. Here this “standard” is in the form of a standardized test.
For me teaching is really about learning: my learning. I am the beneficiary of the creative energy of my students who will improve practice in the future for all of us.
And here is airplane contest!