Conflict-resolution skills: How St David’s College are empowering young people at school and beyond

27th August 2019

“Sir, it works! Listening and mediation, it works!” Dan, an older pupil in the St David’s College boarding house, was helping me, as the duty member of staff to supervise bedtime for the younger pupils. He went on to tell me the story.

For several months, two boys had not been getting along and all sorts of arguments had been breaking out. No one could really get to the bottom of the problem and it was just assumed that it was a bit of a personality issue. Dan had been doing the sixth form conflict-resolution skills training course and he thought he would try out his skills for real.

He told me how he sat the two boys down and explained to them what he was going to do and that it was about helping them find their own solution. He got each of them, in turn, to explain their stories about what had been going on. He kept the storytelling to short turns, so he could repeat back what he thought he was hearing. In this way, both boys would know they had been listened to.

Dan dug a little deeper around the stories so he could see what was really behind the conflict. He then asked each of them how they were feeling. This was quite a powerful moment, Dan told me. Both were clearly upset and began to be able to empathise with each other. This seemed to Dan to be the turning point in this ‘mediation’ session. Dan then went on to ask the question that he was certain was the key to resolving the conflict and that he was confident would mean the arguments would stop.

I would encourage you to read on to find out what happened but first let me explain how we have changed the culture at St David’s College over the last 10 years or so.

Giving our pupils lifelong skills is an essential part of education and having peaceful learning and working environments and peaceful homes and communities is something we strive for and need to prepare our young people to achieve for themselves. Conflict-resolution skills and familiarisation with restorative processes is a learning process. We have trained many of our staff so that our pupils can experience the value of these skills and processes at first hand.

In addition to this, we run conflict-resolution skills days for all our Year 7 pupils and sixth form each year. This enables the young ones as they come through the school to appreciate the skills and the sixth form to be involved in ‘peer mediation’ and be ready to take these skills into life after school.

The essential skills are active listening, asking open questions, negotiation and following a five-stage process. ‘Active listening’ enables both parties in the dispute to really hear the issues, ‘open questions’ allow the stories to be told by each person, and ‘negotiation’ facilitates the individuals to discover a way forwards that will work for all concerned. The five-stage process has to be seen as a series of stepping stones, try to jump any, and crossing to the other side is put in jeopardy.

Dan reached the point where both boys appreciated each other’s stories and understood how the other was feeling. He could now ask the key question, “What do you need?”

The twist in the story of both boys was that it was nothing to do with any of the fairly trivial arguments that had been happening incessantly, but it was about how they slept at night in the shared dormitory. John couldn’t sleep with the curtains closed as he hated the dark and Steven couldn’t sleep with the curtains open because one of the outside lights shone too brightly in his face and kept him awake.

What each boy needed was the room to be changed around, so the curtains could be kept open to provide some light, but with Steven’s bed on the other side of the room and away from the brightness of the light. It all seems so simple, but unless someone took the time and had the necessary skills the real issue was not apparent and so the right solution was evasive.

Restorative processes are very similar in that they give young people the ability to listen to each other, understand mutual feelings and find a way they can move their lives forwards. Restorative justice is to do with a victim and perpetrator, perhaps bully and bullied. In such situations, giving the young people the opportunity to take ownership of the outcome is what we are aiming for.