Our Schools Are Killing our Children

I was recently on The Bill Kelly Show talking about bullying. Yet another child had committed suicide – in my mind, murdered by persecution from bullies he felt he could no longer bear to face.

Imagine a young boy, getting into his bed, the one with the colourful picture covers, that curled up in – fresh out of the bath – soapy sweet snuggly place where stories were told, hugs, kisses, and giggles were shared, and dreams were dreamed, tying a plastic bag around his head, truly believing that it would be better to cut his life short, forgo all of life’s possible adventures and joys, leave the people he loves, rather than face his oppressors once again. Do you imagine that before he put on the bag, the one he fearfully snuck and hid upstairs, he looked around his room one last time, wide eyes lingering on familiar posters and treasured mementoes? Can you picture him playing with his favourite toys just one more time, perhaps saying goodbye to his dog – getting one last slobbery kiss? Maybe he even did his homework one last time like he knew a good boy would. And imagine the poor father who found him.

It enrages me! Despite clear evidence that there are comprehensive anti-bullying programs available (such as the internationally reknowned Olweus Program) that prevent bullying and promote peace, many of our schools remain unsafe for the children who should find these places a refuge and a haven within which to grow and be nurtured. Far too many children DREAD going to school, and far too many children die or become severely damaged from the persecution they receive.

None of this will change until we become as serious about protecting our children’s rights as we are about the rights of adults. There is no way that we adults would ever put up with in our workplaces the kind of traumatizing tormenting that our children suffer from in theirs.

Imagine if you called your co-workers names, pushed them around, intimidated them, persecuted them. How long would you keep your job? You’d have to leave, wouldn’t you? Then how is it that bullies are permitted to stay in our schools? Oh yes, they might get an occasional suspension, but soon enough, there they are, back again with no change in behaviour or attitude, and the oppression continues, only now worse because of retribution. Small wonder that kids are afraid to speak up or intervene.

Our school boards, teachers, and administrators need to start taking bullying far more seriously. Until they do, I say they are complicit in the deaths that are caused by the murderous behaviour of the bullies they harbour. Until they do, I applaud the recent law suits filed by parents against schools for not protecting their children’s rights to a safe working environment. And I encourage parents to protest unsafe schools by refusing to bring their children to school until that school is safe. Think about it; in what other unsafe situation/environment would you ever leave your child? Band together with other parents. Join or form homeschooling associations. Do anything but expose your child to risk for suicide, depression, and demolished self-esteem – especially if you know your child is being bullied!

What further enrages me is when victims of bullying oppression are blamed for their misery. The message to them really is to stop being so damn different! Be more confident, be more social, look people in the eyes, talk more, etc. etc. Would you accept that advice at your workplace if you were being bullied there? Can we please begin teaching children right from the start about valuing difference rather than being threatened by it? The emphasis should be on preventing bullying behaviour, not on changing the behaviour of the innocent who may have a different way of walking, thinking, dressing, talking, being. Let nerds be nerds (I speak as a devout nerd).

A bully who continues to bully gives up his/her right to a public education. Your rights should never interfere with the right of others to enjoy the same. If they do, you need to be removed from the company of those whom you are damaging until you can prove you are able to safely return.

Until we start removing bullies, institute comprehensive early onset anti-bullying programs, and teach children how to respect and love each other with the same time and energy commitment we have to teaching them math, science, and english, we will continue to inflict suffering on our children. They will continue to commit suicide, or engage in other self destructive behaviour, or they will become destructive of others out of their understandable pain, bitterness, and rage. And then, when they die, or take a gun to school, or blow up buildings (when young or as damaged adults), we will once again throw up our well-wrung hands and stupidly wonder, “How could such a terrible tragedy happen to…”

Thank you for reading.


Appreciative Conflict Resolution

It’s become quite the sign of insightfulness these days to proclaim that conflict is healthy, necessary, and even generative of new ideas and energy. Like any truism, this assumption needs to be questioned. After all, if conflict is so great, why do we all want to learn how to resolve it?

By any definition of value, conflict at work is destructive. The only thing worse than conflict, is avoiding it. The best thing to do is prevent it. I should probably explain.

Conflict at work has certain symptoms such as stress, anxiety, strained relationships, grievances and litigation, presenteeism, employee turnover, loss of productivity, increased client complaints, absenteeism, sabotage, injury and accidents, disability claims, and sick leaves. Still think conflict is healthy?

Conflict has costs. A 2005 UK survey by Roffey Park found that “78% of managers are suffering from work-related stress, 52% have experienced harassment, 46% have seen an increase in conflict at work.” (Roffey Park [online], Failure to manage change heightens stress, harassment and conflict at work, survey reveals, Jan. 05). And “The total value of lost work time due to stress is estimated to be $1.7 billion. (WarrenShepell [online], Health & Wellness Research Database, 2005).

One way to understand the negative nature of conflict is to see conflict as war, perhaps on a small interpersonal scale, but war none-the-less. Conflict involves fighting, defending, attacking, winning and losing. By its very nature, conflict is destructive. There is no such thing as “constructive conflict” no matter how euphemistically we’d like to frame it.

Conflict needs to be resolved, but it is worthwhile to understand the conditions from which it emerges. What is it that transforms a different perspective or healthy disagreement into destructive conflict?  After all, upon reflection, most would agree that passionate disagreement, not conflict, is vital to organizational growth and learning. The difficulty may lie in our inability to distinguish between the two.

Conflict is personal. It is not based on what is best for the organization or the relationship, it is a contest based on “you and me”. Conflict escalates and thrives on the assumption of negative intent, blaming others for our feelings, finger pointing, withdrawing and pretending, indirect communication and gossiping. A good rule of thumb to take the personal element out of workplace conflict is to relate all conflict resolution back to your organization’s Mission Statement. “How is this issue preventing us from achieving our mission? It can’t be about us, it has to be about the team.”

Conflict emerges from feelings of insecurity due to perceived threat. It can come from a perceived need to stand up for values. Conflict may also arise from opposing needs such as time or work priorities and of course it can come from misunderstanding. It’s important to remember as well that not everyone is well-intended; there are indeed some people who do thrive on conflict and seek to create it.

Conflict always has an emotional component to it, and that is why one can never truly win a conflict with people they care about or even just need to work with. You may “win” your point, but in the process you may hurt the other person to such a degree that they no longer trust you or care to be with you. It’s been said that there are only three outcomes from a conflict: Win & Win, Win & Lose, or Lose & Lose. I would say that the only positive outcome is Win & Win where both parties walk away feeling they have gained something. Lose & Lose is a process associated with compromise, and though many people value that as a solution it really does not help for anyone to feel compromised. And as I mentioned, there truly is no such thing as Win & Lose because you lose what’s important through winning your point.

Conflict resolution is much more than a cognitive process of determining solutions. Since conflict is emotion based, the resolution process must include a strong emphasis on what people need when their emotions are aroused. Think of what you need in the midst of a conflict. If you’re like most people, you need to be heard, respected, valued, and appreciated. If you receive all of that you are much more likely to be able to de-escalate your part of the conflict and then, and only then, proceed to the solution stage of the process.

So what exactly is resolution? It is not an agreement/consensus. It is not a result.

Resolution is a process which leads to a solution that all parties can live with in such a way that your organization’s or relationship’s productivity is enhanced. Again, it is important to take the personal component out of the conflict and make the process of resolution about the bigger picture.

Here is my Appreciative Conflict Resolution Process. It is “appreciative”, not of the conflict, but of the people who are trying to resolve it. Follow these steps and you will both resolve conflicts and prevent them in the future:

1) First ask for time. Too often we rush into someone’s face because we’ve now mustered up the courage to do so and of course that would set anyone on edge.

2) Identify the perceived issue and why it must be resolved. Remember the “big picture.” “Exactly what is the issue and how does it relate to our mission?”

3) Express own perspective about issue. “I” statements work well as they emphasis the presence of multiple realities.

4) Express own feelings about the issue. Without blaming, acknowledge the emotional component. Are you hurt, angry, afraid, frustrated?

5) Ask about the other’s perspective. Too often we just get things “off our chest” and forget to invite dialogue.

6) Ask about the other’s feelings. Demonstrate empathy and caring.

7) Take responsibility and apologize if needed. Many of us struggle with saying “I’m sorry”, but it’s a vital skill to have.

8) Brainstorm solutions. Way down the list is collaborative problem solving. You’ve earned this place through doing the above. A great tip is to do so sitting “side by side” looking out at a flip chart. It’s very hard to fight with someone while you’re sitting facing outward in the same direction as it emphasizes an experience of partnership.

9) Settle on a solution. That’s not always possible, but going through the above steps will make it much easier to “agree to disagree.” That in itself can be a solution.

10) Thank each other for caring. This is often overlooked, but very important to do. People respond well to appreciation. Thanking them for caring enough to work through things with you will set a great tone for your ongoing relationship.

11) Set a follow-up check-in. It’s important to do this to ensure that everything continues to be well, that there aren’t any left over pieces, and to send a strong message about the value of the relationship.

Conflict is not necessary at work. The freedom to express passionate differences is. Creating a work environment true to the Voltaire saying, “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” will transform the energy behind conflict into creative exchanges of views and ideas by people who feel safe to differ. A diverse workplace does not just refer to such variables as ethnicity, culture, gender, ability, sexual orientation; it includes inviting diverse perspectives.

Adhering to organizational values helps create a safe environment where people can passionately yet respectfully disagree. Valuing direct communication, genuine “open-door” policies, transparency about organizational issues and decisions, on-going expressed appreciation of colleagues, inviting passionate dialogue and playful debate, challenging the idea not the person, and establishing a team-first culture all will contribute to preventing conflict and encouraging creative differences.

Bullied Lobsters

It’s the beginning of my annual “Meatless March,” a month I dedicate to acknowledging the suffering and sacrifice of animals. It’s a month where I face the inherent contradiction between referring to myself as an animal lover and my love for eating them. It’s a month where I try to raise awareness of the need to find ways to minimize the suffering of the living creatures we use to satisfy our appetites. I’m not ready to give up eating meat, and I imagine most people won’t, but I think we would like animals raised and killed as humanely as possible. There are those that believe that from the animal’s point of view, there is no humane way—just as we humans likely believe there would be no “animanely” way for animals to raise and slaughter us. I can’t argue with them other than to say that some positive change is better than none.

What has this got to do with bullying? Bullying comes from a perception of difference, a misuse of power, and an absence of empathy. People who are bullied (both children and adults) are perceived to be different in some odd or unpopular way. Victims of bullying are vulnerable, and the people who bully them cruelly exercise power. And, it is only possible to bully someone if the bully is able to detach emotionally from the experience of the victim. That’s why empathy training in schools for children has been so successful in preventing bullying. If you feel the feelings of people, you won’t bully them, because if you did, you would feel their pain, fear, and degradation.

Consider the lobster and our ability to eat it after it has been boiled alive. It takes the average lobster 2-3 minutes to die. The only way we can enjoy eating it is by detaching ourselves from its experience. Its difference from us makes it easier for us to do so. We can accentuate the difference by focusing on the oddness of its appearance (based, of course, on the template of us being the perfect standard). It helps to tell ourselves comforting stories about the differences in our respective nervous systems, just as was done in the days of vivisection to justify dissecting live animals such as dogs without anesthetic. We can get away with this terrible cruelty because lobsters are vulnerable and it’s easy to exercise power over them. (Imagine wrestling a person-sized lobster into a boiling pot and you’ll get the picture.)

But what if we didn’t? What if we took a stand against suffering of any kind, by any being, no matter how small, vulnerable, or different? What if we didn’t cloak experience in terms such as “harassment” and “bullying” but went to the heart of it and called it “pain” instead? What if we built a society where every being, no matter how small, no matter how different, had a right to the absence of pain, fear, and degradation? What if we fostered empathy for all the beings that we share the world with, and they didn’t have to justify receiving our mercy by looking or acting like us, or being our friend, or being related, or wagging a tail, or carrying us over jumps, or purring? What if we adults modeled universal empathy to the children we admonish to not bully? I think bullying rates would drop dramatically, don’t you?

So next time you’re at Red Lobster and you’re considering eating that sweet tender meat, ask them if the lobster would be bullied
boiled alive. Tell them you will only eat it if it’s killed humanely. Tell them about the “Crustastun”: and insist they buy and use it if they want your lobster-eating business. Do your part to end bullying; one lobster at a time.