May 14, 2013

Growing Safety: Planting The Seeds For Nonviolent Conflict Resolution

Jeanine M. Swenson, MD, FAAP, FACC, LMFT

First we have the recent school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut that caused a large wound in our national sense of safety and security.  It is still hard to accept that this has happened because it is so atrocious and violent.  Twenty innocent children and six dedicated school professionals are dead, along with the perpetrator’s loving mother, and we will probably never know the complete story or the basis for this heinous crime.  Now we have the Boston Marathon and its aftermath. These horrific events throw our rational, secure world completely out of whack.

Each person’s grief process will be unique, depending on your proximity to the people and events, but I find myself looking for hope and ways to enact change in the aftermath of these tragedies to move beyond the crisis.  I have two dreams here.  One is that we can somehow make some kind of lasting change to slow the rate of these events from happening.  Each tragedy affects countless families and has reverberating effects for generations. Can we, as a nation, move from the initial steps of feeling and debate, to the next phase of action and motion?  And second, and this is a big wish, is that I would like my children to live in a world that is slightly less violent than the one we are experiencing today.   

We care deeply about children and families in this country and yet despite this are still unable as a Nation to work together to discuss ways in which we can enact change to bring about a safer, less violent society. Passionate people quickly join the debate and reflexively pick the well-worn and polarized sides of a rehearsed debate.  Just like a married couple, each entrenched position spouts off their rehearsed responses to gun violence (for or against) or terrorism. They don’t even need to listen to the other’s positions or concerns.  They almost know what the other side is going to say as they have heard it hundreds, or thousands of times before. And once again, we have deadlock and nothing changes as each side recharges for the next episode.  It is an endless positive feedback loop of more, more, more. And surely there will be a next episode because nothing was resolved and nothing was changed.  As pediatricians and as parents, we need to take a step back and try to end this loop.

How do we tone down the activated emotions, just a little, to let complexity and reason enter the discussion?  Notice that I said discussion, not debate.  Debates have winners and losers, and discussions can be much more fruitful with each person feeling a benefit.  How do we get this engaged but deadlocked couple to relax so listening, empathy and ultimately change can happen? 

My suggestions for nonviolent or “fair” fighting involve four straightforward issues. First, it may be helpful to point out that it is not about winning or competition. This is not a battle; it is a discussion and a relationship that involves completely different rules and guidelines. Starting at some level of agreement is extremely helpful.  A slow and purposeful language shift away from any adversarial words that invoke strong feelings needs to take place (important notice: this is the opposite of what generally happens in the press as some use feelings and strong vocabulary to encourage engagement). 

Thus, the number one pillar is no hurting, stay away from direct criticism, character annihilation, or areas of previous hurt. 

Pillar number two is about listening openly and quietly so all perspectives can be expressed and heard.

The first two pillars can be supported by the third, the learned habit of providing balanced feedback. Feedback can convey appreciation for the other’s opinion.

And lastly, staying in the conversation and working toward an end, conclusion or action is the final step. We need to keep the end goal in mind and to stay on topic just long enough that both sides feel that their thoughts and feelings have been heard and that some negotiation or agreement has been reached.  If we can focus on the end goal of building a safer, less violent society rather than trying to win the debate, we can as a Nation move forward.  This is a big wheel and big wheels turn very slowly, so patience to persevere in the face of minor disappointment is paramount to see things through to a positive end.

We as pediatricians, communicators and parents need to lead by example in these discussions to help move them forward.  We need to push for these debates to become discussions both at the local and National level.  It is only when we can break this loop that we can begin to find areas of compromise and change because one thing we can all agree on is that a safer, less violent society is something we would all like for our children.