When I think about the relationships I have with my family, friends, and co-workers I feel very blessed. There are so many people in my life that are passionate, happy, thoughtful and generally just fun to hang out with. Yet, even within this amazing group of people, there are times when a conflict emerges. The conflict isn’t always negative. In fact, often healthy conflict that is very productive. But when conflict has caused deep harm or hurt, there is a question about the next steps that need to be taken. These next steps can be punitive or restorative and they set the culture of the communities we live in.

Healthy Conflict

Negative conflict is so prevalent that it’s easy to forget the positive conflict exists. Healthy conflict is sometimes necessary for good communication to occur. In an article published by Edutopia, Elena Aguilar gives five indicators that a school-based team is engaging in healthy conflict.

  • They are wrestling to understand ideas.
  • They are asking questions to probe for deeper understanding.
  • They change their minds.
  • They are demonstrating curiosity
  • They are holding student needs at the center of our work.

Discussions like these ones can lead to a positive student impact and more transparent leadership. A critical voice in the discussion can help move the conversation in the right direction. In fact, healthy conflict can is often an important part of a more informed decision-making process.

Harmful Conflict

Sadly, negative conflict is all around us. I have often been a guilty participant in conflicts that are harmful. Even this last week, I had a conflict with my wife that I wished I could have taken back. I was being overly sensitive to her criticism and I responded with a harsh tone and a cutting words. As my two sons watched from the dinner table, I envisioned them talking to their mom in the same disrespectful tone that I had just addressed her and realized that I would have to apologize to them and to her to make things right again.

Large groups or organizations also develop cultures and policies about negative conflict that can be helpful or harmful to students. Whether they are harmful or helpful may be determined by the way they view the conflict.

Two Different Systems of Handling Conflict

Recently, I listened to the powerful story that Katy Hutchison told at a TEDx talk in West Vancouver, Canada where she contrasts two different models of the criminal process. The first, was a punitive model and the second, a restorative model. She examines each of these two systems to help others construct better ways of approaching conflict in schools.

The Punitive Model

Hutchison says that the punitive system of criminal process, is characterized by three major questions:

  • What law was broken?
  • Who broke that law?
  • What is the punishment going to be?

She says that this model pays little attention to the needs of the victim or the community. The emphasis in this system is focused on a just punishment for the offender. The question of rehabilitation or restoration of the criminal to the community or the victim to the criminal is a secondary consideration.

The Restorative Model

Contrastingly, the restorative model works on the assumption that when harm happens to the community, it is a violation of a relationship and the questions change significantly. The restorative model wants to know:

  • What happened?
  • Who has been affected?
  • What are we going to do to make things right?

Hutchison uses these two models to talk about how schools approach conflict on a very practical level. If the conflict is primarily viewed as a violation of relationship, teachers and administrators take a “time-in” to discover the story behind the actions. They also focus their response on how the offender will make things right in their community.

As a teacher, I want to become better at using restorative practices to respond to the conflicts that happen in my classroom, school and family. Rather than encouraging further isolation and distance with quick punishments, I want to use time-ins with students to figure out what is going on in their lives.

I would encourage you to listen to Hutchinson’s full TEDx talk (below) and hear her personal journey to restore a relationship with the person who murdered her husband. It is a powerful story of forgiveness and reconciliation.

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