My 12-year-old daughter Anna has had many disputes with her friend Gwen. After the most recent, I decided the time was ripe to teach them the fundamentals of conflict resolution. After all, there was a lot at stake—the girls had been loyal, close friends for half their lives. Their conflicts did have a familiar theme: Gwen, in Anna’s view, was too sensitive; Anna, in Gwen’s view, was too pushy. But the disagreements were starting to linger and turn to resentments. They both worried—and I did, too—about whether the friendship would survive.
As a leadership consultant, it seemed logical that the skills I teach adults (who sometimes act like children) would work for girls as well. So I asked Gwen and Anna if they’d be game to learn conflict resolution for girls, and after they agreed, we set aside time one recent afternoon to gather in my living room. I began by setting a ground rule of “open listening,” which I wrote on a big pad of paper. I asked the girls about other ground rules, and Gwen suggested “no criticizing.” Adding that to the pad, I began explaining the six steps:
- Find common ground. The first step is to figure out what each person sees as an ideal outcome, I said. During a conflict it’s easy to lose sight of areas of agreement and instead focus only on the differing points of view. Both girls were quick to name their common goal: They wanted their friendship to continue and stay strong.
- Listen to each other. Most conflicts cause people to dig in their heels and close down to new ways of seeing the situation, I told the girls. True listening helps the people in conflict better understand the other’s view of what happened.
“I didn’t like it when Anna yelled at me about the rules of the basketball game we were playing at recess,” Gwen said. “And then I really didn’t like it when Anna shoved me away from the ball.” Anna spoke up. “Well, I get really frustrated when the rules keep changing because then we spend the whole recess talking about the rules instead of playing the game. I’m sorry that I shoved Gwen. I said I was sorry then and I am really sorry about that.”
- Express feelings. When there is enough trust to openly express feelings, the resolution process can move more quickly. Watch for the tendency to fall into blaming at this stage, I cautioned. You want each person to briefly share their feelings but not over-explain or justify them. Anna acknowledged feeling ashamed about pushing Gwen, as well as frustrated and angry about rule changes. Gwen said that she felt disrespected by Anna, and sad and angry, too.
- Share responsibility. This often overlooked step is the most important, I noted. Most conflicts focus on which party is “more wrong.” But the truth is that in any conflict each person fuels the conflict. The focus on who is “wrong” snarls our ability to learn and change. When the focus shifts from the other’s behavior to our own behavior, the gridlock breaks.
“How did you contribute to the situation?” I inquired, and both were silent. Then Anna spoke: “I let my frustration get to me. I should have just said, ‘whatever’ and let go of how I wanted to play the game. And I made things much worse when I tried too hard to get the ball from Gwen by shoving her away.” Gwen added: “Um, I guess I get really sensitive when Anna uses a tough voice with me. Then I get sad and a little mad and maybe that’s why I really wanted to make that shot. I get worried that Anna doesn’t want to be friends.”
- Commit to action. The insight that comes from step four is invaluable as a stepping stone to resolution, but stopping there can still lead right back into gridlock and away from a sustainable resolution. When I asked the girls what each would be willing to do differently next time, they came up with smart solutions, such as Anna’s finding another game to play and Gwen taking game conflicts at face value and not as a reflection on the friendship.
- Appreciate each other. I complimented the girls on their listening, empathy, and self-reflection. I reminded them that there would be more conflicts ahead, but reminded them that now they could choose to use their new skills for bypassing blame and resentment to solidify their friendship. And when I asked them to affirm what each loved about their friendship, the two had plenty to say. A quick hug later, they were out the back door to resume their play.
Leadership consultant Jamie Woolf provides workshops and resources to parents.