This tool is about helping you to build positive relationships, and includes the concept of Restorative Practice, a term used amongst many professionals in conflict management. The tool is advocated by Portsmouth Mediation Service, through its association with helping students at the University of Portsmouth.
Restorative practice is about developing the attitude, values and relationship skills that quickly enable upsets to be restored. We aim to build a culture of restorative practice, maintain and grow positive relationships, and thus prevent conflict.
Working with others
Our focus in teams should be working with others, both within the team and those outside the team. When a difficulty arises, we often consider avoiding the issues, doing things to others, and doing things for others. However, these are far less effective than that of working with others collaboratively.
Disadvantages of those first three options are:
Avoiding the issues. Here, no one talks about the issues, perhaps assuming the problem will go away or at least not affect the outcome of the project. People feel unable to address the key issues at hand. There might not be a culture of support to help people raise their concerns, and so the issues tend to drag on and relationships get worse.
Doing things to others. This is about being directive, imposing a resolution, or even being punitive when things go wrong. Even if there is a need to be directive, the people affected need to be supported - so this is really getting us back to working with others, to help them, and us, as a team to address the issues. If people feel things are being done to them, they may feel the solution is not fair and/or disengage.
Doing things for others. It’s great to offer help and support; however, if we are over-supportive and resolve the issue for the other person it can be viewed as over-protective. In turn it does not involve the affected parties causing people to disengage from the process.
Now back to working with others. Relationships take time to build. There are bound to be difficulties, and so teams need to set aside time to review how things are going. It can be easy to assume that because a team member has not expressed a concern, that there is no problem.
Example "well, they have received the WhatsApp message because there are two blue ticks, and so they are OK " This is simply one example of how a miscommunication may occur within a team, and may be masking a problem.
Working with others means regular discussion, collaboration and lots of active listening.
Assume positive intentions by others
Try to assume positive intent, even if the actions or behaviour by one or more people are perceived as negative or deliberate. If the conflict has been caused because someone has made an error, even if relationships are good, then the team needs to be forgiving, and help people to learn from the error, and not get into a punitive mode.
The nature of interpersonal conflict
You may experience conflict within the team, either with one person, or several. In a SEKE project, you may find that you and the client or tutor are in some sort of conflict or disagreement at some stage.
Sometimes it may simply be low level, but very frustrating, aggravating or annoying. At other times, it can get too much, and you might want to walk away from a situation because you feel unable to address it at that given time. On the other hand, you may feel that the client or tutor is in a role of authority over students, and it’s uncomfortable to raise the topic. However, conflict doesn’t always need to be a negative, many good ideas can come from conflicting ideas and brainstorming. Try not to assume that the conflict that has arisen is negative, take a step back and see what you can learn and utilise from the situation.
There may be a number of different causes - often it could be down to a simple misunderstanding, or a fellow student has withheld information, or does not want to share it.
For example, a student may not want to attend a meeting due to a mental health problem; but they choose to withhold this information from the wider group - resulting in the other team members assuming they are simply not pulling their weight.
Having opposing ideas when formulating and discussing a project brief can cause conflict: try not to take a frustrated stance on this. Moreover, look at how the team can gather good insights, productivity and better ideas from this. Conflict can often help spark and enhance your team's overall level of creativity, so take this in your stride and gain momentum.
The positive side of conflict
Conflict can also be part of many projects, e.g. in architecture, where different parties may have different historic viewpoints. Here, the students are working within that context and may be trying to find ways to manage the different requirements and views into a coherent solution or design, even if it means compromising, and the parties involved learn to accept some level of disagreement or differences.
Ways to address conflict
The most obvious way is to talk about it. However, we recommend a particular way to talk about it. We advocate the “5 Restorative Questions” and “I-messaging” as effective approaches to addressing conflict within your team.
When a conflict occurs, use the 5 Restorative Questions method, and you can easily adapt each question:
1. What happened?
Each party in a conflict or misunderstanding will have a unique perspective on what happened and what ultimately led up to the incident occurring. This not only helps in understanding if there are other factors involved, outside of the obvious, that lead up to the instance. It can also be cathartic for both parties to explain what happened from their perspective and feel that they both are being listened to.
2. What were you thinking or feeling?
Often we focus on the event, or even the feelings we had at the time, but we can't change either of those. However, if we can identify the thoughts behind those actions, we can bring about change because thoughts produce feelings, and feelings produce actions. If we identify how the way we think about a situation can change, then our feelings and actions will also change.
When someone genuinely listens to our expressed feelings, we feel better, and in turn those listening to us build empathy.
3. What do you need?
This is about asking what the people affected may need. It might be to feel happy about the situation, to feel secure or to feel valued. Finding out what others need can help understand what needs have not currently been met.
4. Who has been affected?
The ripple effect. Understanding how many people have been affected by our actions has a major impact on the one who causes upset or harm, which again helps with developing empathy. There may be people who feel they were harmed, but deciding who has caused harm can be tricky. If there has been an argument between two people, they may both have harmed each other.
5. What needs to be done, to make things as right as possible for everyone involved?
For the person who feels they have been hurt or upset, the focus is on their needs. For the person who is causing the hurt or upset, the focus is on their responsibility which potentially can be empowering, because instead of being punished they can reflect on their action and make the appropriate amends. This develops social and emotional maturity by facing the legitimate pain of problem solving; just as wrong actions create negative ripples, good actions can create positive ripples.
Note the “right as possible” phrase. Sometimes there will not be a full and final resolution, but we can still make things better, as “right as possible” for everyone involved.
Using “I-Statements” is where you say what you think or feel about the situation. Let’s look at some of the ways our language causes conflict and ways in which we can avoid getting into entrenched positions.
When we feel someone has wronged us, our first conversation is often using You-statements. When we use "You" in the context of conflict or potential conflict, it can be perceived as an attack. The first response is often to respond with a "You" statement, for example;
“You make me angry when You ignore me" and the response might be; "It is Your fault if You don't speak up instead of just sitting there in silence".
That is then perceived as a counter attack where situations can then spiral downwards.
"I-Statements" is a helpful tool. I-Messaging is a skill and practice that helps avoid conflict by expressing your feelings. Here is an example:
Rather than saying “when you ignore me….” Try: "I get frustrated when I feel ignored".
With this response, we avoid making the other person feel attacked. When we express our feelings, there is the potential for our listener to develop empathy for us.
The use of Restorative Circles
It is a good idea when there are 3 or more people involved, to sit in a circle, or at least face each other – so if you are in a classroom setting, take time to move the furniture, and include everyone. (If you are doing this in an online setting, such as on Zoom, check that you all have your webcams on).
The team leader can be the facilitator (or you can use a different person, say a tutor), to get the maximum commitment from the team – it is always best if a team tries on its own first. The physical circle is one aspect, but the key value is working things out together, where everyone can have an equal voice.
Ask for help
If you cannot restore relationships by yourselves, using the I-statements and the 5 questions, here are some simple steps to take. And why not add these into your team charter or working agreement?
- Ask a student in the same class as you, but not in the same team, to help. That person will probably be on the same module, and may have a feel for the context of the situation.
- Talk to your seminar tutor. The tutor may well be able to convene a short informal meeting with all of you, or talk to you.
- If these informal approaches do not work, consider asking someone completely independent to talk to the team (or the people involved - it might be just two people, not the whole team).
- Use mediation. Your University may well have staff trained in mediation. There may be a delay of a few days to get this organised.
We hope that using these techniques, you will be able to resolve conflict and repair harm, no matter who the conflict is with. You will also experience the following benefits:
- Releasing creativity and energy for learning on the project and completing the tasks; and spending less time on just “muddling through” and living with a difficult team situation.
- Empowering and encouraging people to be involved in problem solving – with everyone taking responsibility, and reducing the pressure on the team leader to fix everything
- Giving everyone a voice, especially those who are quieter, or have a language other than English as their main language.
- Increasing the cohesiveness and sense of belonging in the teams.
Now that you have accessed this tool, just knowing that there are effective ways of restoring harmonious working relationships, you and your team can build a culture where conflicts are recognised sooner, and use some simple techniques to make things better.