Recently, I have been struck by my own occasional awkwardness with trying to resolve private conflicts in public places. In this post, I am just beginning to explore this particular problem focused on private versus public conflict resolution. My thoughts are fluid and perhaps loosely tied up but please add in your comments to create a deeper conversation about the benefits and drawbacks of this common problem.
To illustrate this issue, I will share two separate experiences: (1) a particularly awkward couple dispute among some neighbors at a bus stop and (2) a personal conflict I had with a stranger during a routine shopping trip to Target.
To begin, I will relate a short experience I had with some neighbors.
A couple of years ago while waiting in the morning with a large group of neighborhood kids and parents at the elementary school bus stop, a couple began fighting with each other.
As the couple verbally spared with each other loud enough for others to see and clearly hear, I felt squeamish and kind of embarrassed for them and all of us. While I understood their general feelings of frustration with each other, I winced knowing that the audience of other parents and lots of school children were uncomfortable witnessing a private dispute out in the open. At the time, I also believed that their public fighting would damage rather than improve their chances at resolving their personal issues with each other.
Have you ever opened a truly private conflict in a public place? Do you remember the feelings that were involved once you realized that you had an audience to your private dispute?
I certainly have made this mistake at different times of my life and largely regret trying to resolve private conflicts in public spaces. When looking back on these experiences, I realize that there were several reasons I knowingly or unknowingly participated in fighting or trying to resolve a conflict in public.
Why do we try to resolve private conflicts in public?
During my Target experience with a volatile stranger, I was both surprised by a turn of events and witnessed how another party tried to leverage a public audience to gain support for her position.
One day, while shopping at Target with my three young children, I decided to purchase slurpies for the kids because I did not want them to cry and cause a scene while shopping in the store. While not nutritionally sound, I had also purchased a Cherry slurpy for my youngest toddler-aged daughter, which she happily sipped while I shopped. My plan had worked brilliantly for keeping her busy until we arrived at the checkout stand. Before I could stop her, my little girl had removed the top of the slurpy and dropped the lid on the ground behind us. I didn’t think much of it until I realized that the lid had flicked up a few small splashes of red slurpy that landed on the white pants of a fifty-something year old woman behind us in line.
I immediately apologized profusely to the woman who did not initially seem angry. However, she soon began criticizing my parenting and telling me that I needed to keep better control of my kids. I tried to apologize and then pay for my purchases but when I looked up again the white-pants lady had come all the way around the cashier to confront me and bar my exit from the store.
She stood with her hands on her hips and demanded that I pay her $30 to replace her new white pants. When I suggested that she get them dry cleaned or use a stain remover, she only grew firmer and more belligerent. Nearly 10 people, including the Target store clerk, stood silently around me as I faced this furious woman. No one dared stand up to her but she used that silence to her advantage to maintain her position of power as I cowered by the checkout with my three young children.
Not knowing what else to do, I rifled through my purse and handed her $30 in cash. With MY money in her hand, she finally removed herself from my presence to allow me and my three children to leave the store. Once I had quietly exited the store and sat down in my car, I was shaking and felt like I had just been robbed.
Certainly, there were drops of red slurpy on her pants, but did this small conflict demand such as public scene? In retrospect, I wished that the clerk had called the store manager (or that I had asked her to call the manager) so that the white-pants lady and I could have worked out an equitable solution to our private conflict without what felt like a Western shoot-out scene.
When looking back on both of these experiences, I realized that neither my neighbors nor I had a plan for how we would handle our private conflicts publicly. In disasters, I have heard that the people who are able to survive, act, and help others, have envisioned in their minds beforehand what they will do when disaster strikes rather than never spending any time thinking about it.
In terms of conflict resolution, what if we each assumed that we might have conflicts with each other and developed individual, family, or even work plans for how to handle conflicts when they occur? In short, rather than assuming that we will never get mad or disagree, what if we assumed the possibility and moved into constructive action in public when conflict occurred rather than being immobilized with fear, anger, or a desire to gather others to support our side?
Even with the stranger at Target, I can now anticipate (but not panic) about the possibilities for conflict resolution and draw from a variety of tools for handling private matters in public places. Before we look at those options, let’s first consider which conflicts should be resolved in public spaces.
What conflicts should be resolved in the public sphere?
Certain conflicts necessarily reflect public issues that involve many different parties, opinions, and societal processes. When conflict involves many people, the public or society needs to weigh in to make sure there is due process of law through legitimate processes. Issues of law, environment, health, safety, and other human rights demand public attention and participation.
While this post focuses on the problem of trying to resolve private disputes in public spaces, there are many public conflicts that should remain necessarily in the public sphere for a variety of reasons.
What are the benefits of public conflict resolution?
So, despite the necessity and appropriateness of resolving many public concerns in public spheres, there are good reasons for keeping certain conflict resolution processes private.
Why keep certain conflict resolution processes private?
Just in terms of large numbers of peoples and opinions, involving too many people in conflict resolution may limit our ability to reach a decision. Even in a large family like mine, when we ask the kids where they’d like to go for dinner it turns into a big dispute when we’re just trying to buy dinner. Sometimes, my husband and I just make executive decisions in private about small matters that don’t necessitate a democratic process (or brawl).
While inquiring minds want to know, see, and understand every process in the public sphere, certain conflicts, even large political conflicts, usually relate back to interpersonal relationships among public representatives that need time, space, and confidentiality to be worked through.
You may recall that even with the Camp David talks that led to the Camp David Accords between American and Middle Eastern leaders in the 1970’s. During private time at Camp David in Maryland, world leaders met in an intimate setting without public constraints. In this private setting, high profile leaders could reach understandings that were informed by the public but remained based in interpersonal relationships where much of the real conflict resolution action takes place.
Finally, there are many situations which demand privacy/confidentiality that allows for greatly expedited and enhanced conflict resolution. Consider the settings for marriage counseling, working with a personal coach, meeting with HR in a corporate setting, hiring a mediator before filing a court case, or even visiting with one child during a separate outing to discuss what’s working or not working in sibling relationships. Each of these settings demand a real sense of confidentiality and trust that is grounded in fewer rather than larger audiences.
What should we do when we feel the need to resolve conflict in public situations?
We all recognize the gut feelings of discomfort when we try to resolve private matters in public, and we know that we may not always get it right. In fact, we’re going to occasionally be surprised with confrontation by the white-pants lady at Target or the splash of slurpy on our own pants. We will encounter private conflict situations in public situations with those we know and with strangers that signal a need for an effective response.
By differentiating our public and private conflict resolution needs, we can begin making changes that will lead to more harmony both in our private and public lives.
In particular, there are a few things we can do to be better prepared for dealing with private conflicts that may erupt in public situations.
These are just a few of my thoughts as we approach the hustle and bustle of the holidays with overlapping private and public interactions. Make sure that you are actively choosing how to respond to the conflicts in your life rather than just reacting to whatever happens to you in a given situation. You may even want to ask for time to think in a public situation, so you don’t behave in a way that you will regret.
Many of our children’s conflicts appear to come out of the blue but certain conflicts are almost inevitable given our children’s ages and development skills. Many of our children’s regularly occurring conflicts reflect specific child development issues that are common among children everywhere.
For example, last week, as my eleven-year-old son and I waited for our allergy shots at the nearby medical clinic, we couldn’t help but notice how two young mothers were struggling to manage the strong emotions and behavior of their collective group of five young children.
When we first arrived, there was already one little girl-- who appeared to be about three years old—crying and screaming on the clinic floor while the mothers tried to subtly force her into good behavior with either quiet threats or bribes. The little girl was fairly unresponsive until she got to follow her mother into the doctor’s appointment.
Following our appointments, my son and I happened to be leaving the clinic at the same time as the whirling group of kids and moms. As we approached the group, we encountered this same girl screaming and pounding her fists on the ground just outside the elevator doors. Before I heard exactly what she was screaming, I turned to my son and said, “I bet she didn’t get to push the elevator button.”
Just as we came up to the girl close enough to hear her words, she yelled out, “He got to push the magic button!” As I had expected, her littler brother had pushed the elevator button before she had had the chance. She was obviously furious that her brother had stolen her chance to push the magic elevator button.
What Conflicts Can I Potentially Anticipate?
After having mothered five preschoolers who often competed with each other to push elevator buttons, I knew what to expect from the little girl at the allergy clinic. For her age and experience, pushing elevator buttons is exciting, and even magical, as she said herself.
While my children have moved beyond the desire to be the first to push the elevator buttons, there are other conflicts that naturally arise among my 8 to 14 year-old-children, like who gets to use the Chromebook first, or who gets the last of the “good” kind of ice cream left in the freezer. These are every day, recurring conflicts that I can choose to manage in the moment or anticipate beforehand and plan for by developing family rules and norms around certain conflict “hot buttons.”
How to Anticipate Certain Common Conflicts Among our Children
As parents, we are much more effective in anticipating and preparing our children for certain potential conflict situations when we understand the developmental constraints and advantages of our children in certain age groups.
In terms of early childhood conflict resolution potential, we benefit from understanding the following child development basics for the general child groupings of preschoolers (3-5) and school-aged children (6-12). In this section, I rely heavily upon the research of Dr. Sandra V. Sandy in her article: Sandy, Sandra V. 2014. “The Development of Conflict Resolution Skills: Preschool to Adulthood.” In Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice, edited by Coleman, Peter T., Morton Deutsch, and Eric C. Marcus, 430-463. San Francisco: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.
In addition to understanding child development basics for the average child, we benefit from then focusing on the specific conflict hot buttons and behavior of our individual children.
Studying Out Your Own Child/Children
Taking lessons from the powerful book The Explosive Child written by Dr. Ross W. Greene, I have gradually developed the habit of coupling my knowledge of child development milestones with personally studying my own children’s conflict behavior.
While some conflict hot buttons are common to many children in certain age groups, I have also found it very helpful to do a mini research study of my own child who may be struggling. If I take two to three days to write down every time there is a conflict, I begin to notice patterns. Rather than continuing to believe that my children are conflicting about everything all the time, I begin to notice that an individual child’s conflicts usually center around two to three main topics.
By doing the research to identify the two to three recurring conflict topics, I’ve created an opportunity for collaboration with my kids about rules, values, and guidelines in our home. Rather than hope the kids will somehow grow out of their particular conflicts (which they sometimes do over time), I take a proactive approach to developing plans with that specific child.
How to Prepare for Anticipated Conflicts
While Dr. Ross Greene goes into the specifics of making conflict resolution plans with our children about how to improve their behavior in certain hot button situations, the basic idea is simple:
Rather than try to create a plan for our child during the specific conflict episode, we allow for our children’s feelings to de-escalate. Once our children’s feelings are calm and they are able to consider alternatives (usually at a later time), we brainstorm and talk with our child about different approaches. We want to tap into our children’s growing need for independence by putting them in the position to make plans about how they can more constructively react in certain conflict situations.
Even when a conflict has already passed, research has demonstrated the benefit of even reviewing past conflicts and figuring out how we could have behaved more effectively. This goes for both children AND adults! While we can forgive, we may benefit more by not fully forgetting a past conflict but reviewing our past conflicts as the stepping stone for improving.
What if They Don’t React How I Expect?
Even when children may understand a rule or principle, they may not always have the capacity to live what we teach them. Like the young child learning to crawl, then cruise, then finally walk on their own, they will fail many times while trying to improve.
Oftentimes with conflict resolution skills, we are impatient with kids because we know that they hear our words and understand the rules. However, they are not always able to translate that intellectual understanding into constructive behavior consistently. It takes time (and developmental growth) to master conflict resolution skills.
While we will talk more creating family rules and adjusting family rules to accommodate individual needs, generally, we do better when we are proactively seeking to teach and guide our children rather than ignore their ineffective behavior. Rigorous child development research has demonstrated the power of parents actively teaching effective principles in ways catered to their children’s developmental capacity rather ignoring bad behavior and hoping that their child will somehow socialize without deliberate teaching and instruction.
If these thoughts strike a chord with your parenting philosophy and approach, I invite you to consider reading my book: Raising Mediators: How Smart Parents Use Mediation to Transform Sibling Conflict and Empower Their Children, which goes into these principles and ideas in greater depth.
Emily de Schweinitz Taylor