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Writing Assignment (To be submitted for evaluation).


While it is impossible for a distance learning/correspondence class like this to make use of in-class exercises and role-plays, we have included a number of small-scale exercises to demonstrate a few key points. These exercises ask you to apply a few proven techniques to your day-to-day interactions and prepare brief reports summarizing the results. If you don't want to do this, an alternative assignment asks you to critique several stories describing how people have actually dealt with similar issues. These stories can come from personal observation or new reports. The assignment is to try three of the following five exercises.

Option #1: Active Listening

Essential to any effort to improve the conflict process is for the parties to accurately understand the interests, positions, and motivations of one another. Frequently, the parties exchange information in emotional and acrimonious settings where they focus their energies on arguing their positions rather than listening to their opponents. They tend to assume that they know what they know what their opponent believes and they tend to believe that anything their opponents says is meaningless posturing. What they need to do, they assume, is concentrate on planning their rebuttal so that they can score as many debating points as possible. The problem with this approach is that one's assumptions are often wrong, and their worst case images often incorrect. While a more accurate understanding of the parties' positions is unlikely to resolve the conflict, it can do much to make it more manageable.

Active listening is a technique designed to replace rebuttal planning with real communication. The basic concept is simple. It calls upon the parties to conflictual conversations to first carefully listen to their opponent's statements and then repeat those statements in their own words, emphasizing not only the content of the statement, but the emotions or feelings as well. (One might respond that the other seemed particularly frustrated (a "feeling" word) because he was faced with a difficult situation when... (the substance of the problem). By focusing both on substance and on feeling, the disputant can confirm that he or she correctly understands both aspects of the problem. If the listener's interpretation of the situation is wrong, the opponent has an opportunity to correct the misunderstanding, which might have otherwise gone unnoticed. While this might, at first glance, seem like a waste of time, it is amazing how many misunderstanding are actually uncovered. It is also important to let people make corrections. Often people make statements which their opponents interpret as quite inflammatory, even though they were not meant in that way. People need to be able to say that they didn't mean it.

Roles are then reversed to give the other side a chance to make their views understood. The discussion is also slowed down a bit so that people have time to adequately plan their remarks. (This is because they are being asked to give up the "planning time" that they usually have when others are speaking.) Their opponents can then verify whether or not they have heard correctly. This then gives the opponent a chance to correct any misunderstanding before they unnecessarily complicate the conflict. This process greatly increases the accuracy of images that contending parties have of one another, while also forcing the parties to address each others concerns and not just exchange unfounded accusations.

The assignment is simply for you to use this technique in a discussion on a contentious issue and prepare a 750 word report on what you did and how things worked.

Option #2: Facilitation

A crucial element of successful problem-solving is an ability to conduct productive meetings which do not get bogged down in interpersonal attacks or sidetracked by lengthy discussions of tangential issues. Meeting facilitation techniques offer a very successful strategy for preventing such problems. It works best for small group sessions involving between five and fifteen participants. (Larger groups are usually split into a number of smaller groups.) For a complete discussion of this very useful approach you should consult Michael Doyle and David Straus, How to Make Meetings Work, Wyden Books, 1976.

For the purposes of this exercise, this simple description should be sufficient. The first of the two key elements of this approach is the setting of constructive "ground rules," which clearly establish standards of polite discourse which everyone is expected to follow. Also important is a clear agenda so that everyone knows the purpose of the meeting and how their comments will fit into the larger process. Examples of such ground rules are the following:

The second element involves some type of public recording procedure. The goal is to assure people that their ideas are being recorded and will be used in later stages of the decision process. This generally involves publicly recording each participant's comments on newsprint taped up around the meeting room. The resulting permanent record also makes it much easier for people involved in later stages of the decision process to accurately remember people's concerns and any agreements reached. In addition, it is much easier to persuade people to move on to other issues if they are sure that their comments will be remembered.

The assignment is to participate in a facilitated meeting (which may be organized by yourself or others) and prepare a 750 word report summarizing what was done and how well it worked. (If it did not go well, you might suggest ways the facilitation might have been changed to make it more effective.)

Option #3: Compromise Generation

The key to the successful interest-based bargaining is an ability to craft workable compromises or what Fisher, Ury, and Patton call "options for mutual gain." The assignment is to craft a compromise for some conflict that you are associated with and show how it serves the interests of all parties. If you can, present your ideas to the parties and see if they might wish to pursue it. Again, prepare a 750 word report summarizing your efforts and the results.

Option #4: Constructive Public Statements

Many people who are engaged in public policy conflicts make public statements advocating their position. Often, however, these statements do not have the intended results because the parties do not fully appreciate the destructive potential of conflict dynamics such as escalation. Your assignment is to collect 3-5 letters to the editor describing various citizen positions on a controversial public policy issue. Next prepare a 750 word critique of these letters suggesting ways in which they might be changed to more effectively advance the author's interests.


Option #5: "I" Versus "You" Statements

Conflicts typically arise when one party has a complaint against another. The way in which these complaints are voiced can do much to limit the risk of destructive escalation while increasing the probability that the person will respond positively to criticism and correct the problem. One very simple way of increasing the chances of a constructive response is to use "I messages" instead of "you messages." For example, instead of saying "you are being unfair" say "I feel like I'm being treated unfairly." This simple rephrasing gives opponents an opportunity to either explain why they are not being unfair or modify their behavior without losing face. It also reduces the risk of an escalating cycle of accusations and counter-accusations. The assignment is to try this technique in an appropriate situation and write a 750 word essay describing what you did and how well it worked.

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