Now More Than Ever:
Students Need To Talk
Fifteen year old Alice appeared calm when she arrived for her appointment with Ms. Gilbert, the high school adjustment counselor. But moments after she began to speak, she was reduced to tears.
It turned out that a number of other girls--all former friends--were mad that Alice was talking to a particular boy named Edgar.
Though the tension between the girls had been evident for more than a month, during the last week it had become almost intolerable. Four days ago the girls began sending Alice bothersome texts. The previous day one had even posted an upsetting comment on Facebook.
As she finished telling her story to Ms. Gilbert, Alice mused: "I just wish I could talk to them."
Talking to people with whom one is in conflict.
Not a new idea to us mediators.
But unfortunately, it is happening less than it used to in US schools.
I know of at least two interesting reasons for this.
First among them is a little four letter word:
T - E - X - T.
The manner that all of us communicate with one another--young people most especially--has changed, and texting now reigns supreme.
In fact, a recent study found that texting is currently the most common means of communicating between students in the US, more popular than face-to-face conversation, than phone calls, even than social networking.
Young people simply "talk" to each other less.
Texting has some significant advantages if one wants to quickly and conveniently share information. It also provides a degree of control (I can answer your text when and where I want) and access (I can send and receive texts even when I am in a class or meeting) that is unprecedented.
But texting is decidedly not the best means of communicating for important conversations like those required to resolve interpersonal conflicts. Participants can't read the facial cues or tone of voice that is essential to fully understand meaning, nuance and intent. And hearing another's voice--and if possible, being together in the same room--enables a kind of cellular, human-to-human exchange that is otherwise lost.
Many people, young people included, simply don't understand this.
The jury is out on whether an over-reliance on electronic communication will hamper the next generation's ability to form healthy, close relationships. But this reliance clearly makes it more challenging for students to repair relationships when they have been damaged.
The second reason that young people in conflict are talking less is, ironically, the social issue of the moment: bullying prevention.
The widespread attention that bullying currently receives is welcome and imperative and overdue. But because effectively addressing incidents of bullying initially requires adult intervention, facilitating face-to-face communication among students in conflict is simply not top of mind for many educators.
(Encouraging an aggressor and a target to "talk it out" as a first resort is bad practice--a bad practice that unfortunately has been used far too often. It is important to note, however, that under certain circumstances, students involved in bullying benefit greatly from talking directly to one another. See our new webinar recording to learn more about this and about the difference between bullying prevention and peer mediation.)
Educators' new awareness of and sensitivity to cyberbullying only exaggerates the trend away from face-to-face communication. If a student mentions Facebook or texting--again, the most common means of communication for many young people--then it is even less likely that adults will encourage students in conflict to speak to one another.
Luckily for Alice in our real-life example above, Ms. Gilbert was an experienced peer mediation coordinator as well as an adjustment counselor. She knew the difference between bullying and routine conflict, she knew that the majority of conflicts among students are difficulties between friends and school mates, and she was not thrown off by the use of texting and Facebook.
Ms. Gilbert scheduled a peer mediation session for the girls. As has happened countless thousands of times over the past 3 decades, Alice and her friends--with the help of student mediators like themselves--shared their stories and feelings, came to understand one another's perspectives, and ultimately, together, found a way to make peace.
Though in the "developed" world we live in an electronically hyper-linked culture, we are at the same time more personally dis-connected from one another--neighbors, classmates, co-workers--than any time in human history.
Now more than ever, it is essential that we provide opportunities for young people to speak directly to one another. It is important for the students themselves, whose developing conflict resolution skills will enable them to solve problems, make connections, and build community. And it is important for the rest of us, who in short order will depend upon their ability to do so.
Please share your thoughts...