By Chris Amirault, Ph.D., and Christine Snyder, M.A., coauthors of Finding Your Way Through Conflict: A Guide for Early Childhood Educators
Conflict has lots of facets, and engaging in conflict skillfully takes a lot of insight and practice. We’re convinced that there’s one tool in particular that can help you develop your prowess in conflict: a method called looping.
What Is Looping?
Looping is a three-step conflict resolution practice that allows you to lead the conflict resolution from the inside out and gives you specific tools to avoid bad habits. And it is based in the key research insights that help folks understand what happens in conflict. Looping allows you to set aside your brain’s insistence that it has a situation all figured out. When you do this, you open up space for considering impact, contribution, and a more complete reality.
When we began the research for Finding Your Way Through Conflict, we knew we were going to deepen our understanding of the foundational concepts behind the work. We devoted a lot of time to exploring recent thinking about the importance of recognizing and honoring the difference between intent and impact, blame and contribution, and, especially, what our brains perceive and reality.
As we integrated those insights into our book, we started to share them in presentations with both small and large groups, and folks seemed quite engaged to learn that content. But when it came to putting those new insights into practice, they seemed to struggle—and we have a theory about why.
Last year was a tough year for everyone. Sustained racial violence, the pandemic, and the election season often conspired to turn our focus inward. It seems that as we limited our social interactions and kept our physical distance, tightening our media bubbles and doing all we can to stay safe and sane, we lost some of the ability we had to let others into our world.
We arrived at this conclusion after doing our workshop for hundreds of people at NAEYC, Zero to Three, edWeb, and elsewhere. It’s as if many folks have forgotten what it means to listen, particularly to others with whom they disagree. Unfortunately for our COVID-exhausted selves, the only way through conflict is to engage with people we might find idiotic, misguided, or otherwise wrong.
We’re convinced that getting through 2021 will demand a return to listening well, and looping is just the process for developing that skill.
Learning to loop is like learning a new dance, and like any interactive choreography, looping requires a willing partner. That jerk on social media who isn’t really reading your posts, the uncle at the Zoom family reunion who calls you names, a colleague who “uh-huhs” throughout a conversation without paying attention: you can’t loop with these folks! But we’ve found that if you can lead with the following three steps to engage conflict with looping, your commitment to active listening may enable others to hear the same music and start dancing with you.
Step 1: Inquire
First, inquire. You can initiate a dialogue by prioritizing someone else’s perspective, but you must dig into that perspective with true attention, respect, and interest. The questions are simple: “What happened from your perspective?” “What do you mean when you say that?” “Can you tell me more about how that felt?” Initiating a dialogue is easy peasy, truly!
The hard part, of course, is listening carefully to the other person’s answer. Make eye contact and, especially if you’re on video chat, nod as the person responds. Show the other person with your body that you are listening. And please don’t talk for a while. Your mouth can make your ears shut down.
Step 2: Restate
When you have asked a few thoughtful, sincere questions about the situation and listened carefully to the other person’s responses, you’re ready for the second step: restating what the person said. Don’t summarize or paraphrase; do your best to restate the person’s words as precisely as you can, avoiding substitutes or synonyms. Show that you respect the person’s perspective by replicating it using their own words.
When restating, it’s always a good idea to check your work. “Did I get that right?” “Do I understand you correctly?” and similar questions will help you do that. Get the most complete picture you can.
Step 3: Acknowledge
Finally, the last step involves acknowledging the legitimacy of the other person’s perspective on the situation. You can use sentences like, “I can see how you’d feel that way,” and, “That perspective really makes sense to me.” Of course, you have to mean these words when you say them. And that can be a hard thing for our brains to do in conflict.
So before you begin acknowledging, remind your brain that acknowledgment is not agreement. You are not saying “You are right and I am wrong.” Rather, you’re moving beyond right versus wrong, getting your brain unstuck from blame and judgment, and trying to expand your perspective on the situation. Doing so requires that you engage the other person’s perspective with sincerity and respect, and acknowledgment is key to finding your way through conflict with that person.
Looping is key to successful conflict resolution, but it takes practice. Fortunately, there are fun ways to learn how to inquire, restate, and acknowledge with colleagues, friends, and family. Here’s one that takes all of five minutes.
Find a partner and ask them, “What’s the weirdest movie, TV show, music, book, food, or habit that you really enjoy? The weirder the better!” Then start looping: inquire about the weird thing, getting details and asking why they like it so much; restate those details using the person’s actual words; and acknowledge that—however weird you may think it is—their kooky predilection makes sense.
When you practice, keep an eye and ear out for your weak spots. Did you ask only one question during your inquiry? Did you lose track of the person’s words, making restating difficult? And, especially in your acknowledgment, did little judgments like, “Well that is weird for sure!” creep in? Now you know where you need to focus your attention when looping in a real conflict, when your brain is going to have an even harder time doing those things!
We’ve often ended our most recent presentations with the best endorsement we can think of for looping: given the challenges of 2020, along with your safety and sanity, wouldn’t you like to have another person truly, authentically interested in connecting with you? We sure would! So here’s to a 2021 where we’re all looping our way through difficulty, dancing with each other through even the toughest times.
Chris Amirault, Ph.D., is the school director of Tulsa Educare MacArthur in Oklahoma, and for more than three decades has dedicated himself to high-quality education, teaching courses and facilitating workshops on early childhood education, conflict, assessment and instruction, ethics and professionalism, challenging behavior, family engagement, antibias education, and equity. Prior to his arrival in Tulsa, he lived in Mexico, working as a consultant focusing on organizational culture, change management, and QRIS system design in Oregon, Rhode Island, and California.
For thirteen years prior to that, he served as executive director of the Brown/Fox Point Early Childhood Education Center affiliated with Brown University in Rhode Island. During that time, he also taught early childhood education and development courses for area colleges and universities and served as a mentor and coach for providers throughout the community.
Christine M. Snyder, M.A., has worked in early childhood education since 1999 as a teacher, center director, author, and trainer/coach. She holds a master’s degree in early childhood education and a bachelor’s degree in child development. She is currently director of the University of Michigan Health System Children’s Center and assistant professor in the college of education at Madonna University in Livonia, Michigan.
Previously, she was an early childhood specialist at the HighScope Educational Research Foundation in Ypsilanti, Michigan, where she focused on developing professional learning for teachers and curriculum for preschoolers and infants/toddlers. She facilitates training throughout the United States, internationally, and online, and has published several books, articles, training DVDs, and other classroom resources for teachers. She lives in Michigan.
Chris and Christine are coauthors of Finding Your Way Through Conflict: Strategies for Early Childhood Educators.
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