Each conflict, each crisis bears the opportunity of a new encounter. Often they are based on misunderstandings which, if they are clarified, throw a new light on interpersonal relationships, but often also the desire for change. Even bad cases of bullying or, indeed, cyber bullying can be a call for those involved to step out of their roles and take responsibility for themselves and their actions. Because that is basically what they want, even if things might have looked quite different in between – for whatever reasons.
Tunnel vision and dark glasses
It is the case, however, that we, young or old, are often not in a situation as the people affected to make use of our abilities to resolve conflicts. If I have been really affected by a conflict – if I have read a comment on my photo on Facebook for example which has hurt me – then I am not always in a position to approach the writer in a friendly manner and ask him what precisely he meant and whether we cannot resolve this calmly. I might only be able to see the other as the incarnation of evil, activate my archaic emergency response and in no time the conflict has escalated to another level. And very quickly others become involved, take one side or the other, form groups which no longer talk with one another but only about one another, and the dynamic of the conflict runs its course.
Interest instead of accusations
At such moments we can be happy about pupils who know that behind every – also hurtful – word something important, maybe even a need, is concealed and that there are possibilities of looking at that. Not, of course, by posting on Facebook: “Man, what is the matter with you?” But perhaps rather by working with the idea that every off comment conceals something which the person making the comment did not articulate. A remark by Rudolf Steiner about overcoming preconceptions can be helpful here: “I am born as a person with preconceptions and first have to acquire a lack of preconceptions in life. And how can I do that?
Only by developing an interest not only in what I think myself, what I myself consider to be correct, but in that I develop a selfless interest for everything that people mean and which approaches me, however much I may consider it to be erroneous …” (GA 193)
So far so good. But how do we learn this special social interest which is an indispensable prerequisite for pupil mediators? I keep noticing that it is not that easy to describe it. Really we just have to start and to practice: only observing things without judging them is the first step. Asking questions and active listening could be the second one. Then looking at the whole thing from an unexpected side, that is, assuming a different perspective. And then perhaps asking the question: for what end could what is just happening here be important for someone? And are there not other ways of fulfilling the concern that underlies it?
The attitude is the key
Such a path leads not just to a new way of looking at things but also to a different attitude: we liberate ourselves from preconceptions, start to ask questions, develop an interest … and stand prepared looking for solutions with imagination. This readiness is developed by young people who work as mediators: to recognise, accompany and support the current need or concern of others in a non-judgemental way, look for new paths together as to how a crisis can be changed, a conflict resolved or a difficult situation cleared up responsibly and in a good way for all those involved. Pupil mediators do not arbitrate in a dispute – hence the term is not actually accurate.
Arbitration would mean that they put themselves above a situation, judge it and then on the basis of some kind of appointment or mandate make a judgement. But that is not what is meant. Pupil mediators begin by undertaking a huge amount of work to work on their own judgement, mostly preconception. That means developing attentiveness and the willingness also to be interested in what we consider to the wrong or bad in the other. That essentially is the content of a good training for pupil mediators.
This is not primarily about the perfect methods or mastery of the various phases of a clarifying meeting, but a mediating attitude: an attitude without preconceptions and with an empathetic understanding which makes it possible to find new paths together. That can lead to an experience: “Perhaps it was not that bad that we had our clash because now we can at last clarify what had to be clarified.”! Or the experience: “We have learnt to know and understand one another in a new way.” Sometimes it is already sufficient for a fellow pupil if someone else has listened to them so that afterwards they have the strength to utilise their own resources.
A clear attitude resonates. That can be felt when there are active pupil mediators who are given space to do their work. Because it has actually been there all along, this attitude: children and young people have the great advantage that they have not yet been tied into specific patterns of conflict resolution through their everyday and routine lives, as has happened to adults. That can be clearly sensed in every mediation process: it is a relief for everyone when in a conflict it is not a matter of finding the person “at fault” but of understanding each other’s concerns. That can open eyes, ears and hearts and trigger incredible creativity.
How often have I and the young people wished that politicians would treat each other on the basis of such an attitude. That will probably remain a dream unless pupils are comprehensively allowed to make the experience that conflicts do not exist to be stoked and escalated but that they arise so that they can give rise to new experiences.
But certain prerequisites need to be created. One thing is the interest in one another and the readiness to listen and deal with one another. Another is that we should approach conflicts with seriousness and respect because we never know why they arise (or are sent) and what we can learn from them. But if we approach them attentively we can begin to have an idea that they do not occur for nothing.
About the author: Angelika Ludwig-Huber is a teacher at the Free Waldorf School in Karlsruhe and co-founder of INTEResse, a charitable association which trains adults and pupils as mediators.