Nonviolence Education Call #3: Six Steps to Reconcile Conflict

Post by Joseph Gardella

This summer, the Metta Center for Nonviolence hosted a conference call series on nonviolence education and building community that focused on how and why nonviolence may be particularly effective for reconciling conflict in schools.

Special guest Robin Wildman, a nonviolence educator from Broad Rock Middle School in Rhode Island with 25 years of teaching experience, led this three-part series on June 9th, July 14th, and August 4th from 5 – 6pm PST. Topics included breaking down conflict, understanding core nonviolence principles, and reconciling conflict.

Throughout, participants were encouraged to read:

Letter from a Birmingham Jail and King’s Pilgrimage to Nonviolence.

You may find summaries of the previous calls at the following links:

Call 1 on Breaking down conflict

Call 2 on Six principles of nonviolence

We appreciated participants’ questions, engagement, and participation throughout the calls!

In the final call in our series, Robin Wildman spoke about King’s six steps to reconciling conflict. Click here to listen to an audio recording of the discussion, and click here for a full copy of Joseph’s notes.

Background of King’s six steps to reconcile conflict:

Dr. King first wrote about four of the steps in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”. He went to Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 to support civil rights direct actions and was put in jail. Local clergymen wrote a letter to Dr. King that argued that he was an outsider and didn’t belong in Birmingham and their local affairs. They essentially argued that they were doing well and that the African American population should wait instead of engage in direct action. Dr. King wrote a rebuttal letter, now famously known as the Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Among multiple statements, he justified choices to pursue direct action through explaining these steps for engaging with conflict.

Six steps to reconcile conflict

Step 1: Information gathering

  • Learn all you can about the problems you see in as many ways that make sense. Some examples of places to gather information include reading news or bulletins, talking with people involved, processing other media, self-reflection, other forms of communication, etc.
  • The goal of this phase is to find out the truth of the situation.
  • Teach students to be skeptical of their initial reactions following conflict (“Doubt your first impression”) and instead, ask questions about what happened.
  • This step often requires asking questions of multiple people involved in a given situation.
  • Students should be encouraged to ask adults for support.

Step 2: Education of self and others

  • Dr. King wrote about this as self-purification.
  • Armed with the information one has gathered, one can help those involved in the conflict so that they might better engage with the conflict.
  • Conflicts can often be solved through information gathering and education.
  • Sometimes this includes building a team of people to understand and find a solution to a conflict.

Step 3: Personal Commitment

  • Ask yourself, or students, about the conflict you or they are in: are you willing to invest the time and energy to resolve the conflict? In other words, are you prepared to face what might come when working through the conflict?
  • Sometimes it is helpful to engage commitment with others: through singing, talking with a friend or going to a mass meeting. Other times, it’s helpful to engage commitment through meditation, reflection, or other personal contemplative practices.

Step 4: Negotiation

  • Talk about all sides of an issue, including those who are deeply affected and are contributing to the conflict.
  • A goal of negotiations is to come to win-win solutions (See principle 4 at this website).
  • Negotiation can take a lot of hard work and patience.

Step 5: Direct action

  • In Birmingham, they had gone through all of the steps, and because attempts at negotiations failed,  they engaged in direct action.
  • The purpose of direct action is to create a crisis and foster such a tension that the community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.
  • Here is a list of some kinds of direct action one might take
  • In schools, direct action sometimes includes talking with an adult.

Step 6: Reconciliation

  • This is the goal!
  • Reconciliation is always in the one’s mind when working on a “win-win” negotiated solution.
  • Robin suggests a four part process to reconciliation:
    1. People must acknowledge the truth. Everyone has a part in the conflict, and when everyone acknowledges the truth, then we know that we are on the right path to restoring a community back to its whole.
    2. Work with community members to devise a way to demonstrate that they are sorry. Demonstrating an apology involves changing behavior.
    3. Work to repair relationships that were harmed in the conflict.
    4. Seek forgiveness and restore a communal relationship for the sake of the Beloved Community. This sometimes means simply restoring an relationship such that one can say hello and smile at each other. It doesn’t necessarily mean re-establishing a friendship.

Some additional notes about using the Six Steps to reconcile conflict:

  • Reconciling is not the same as resolving conflict. Reconciling insists upon repairing relationships that were harmed during the conflict.
  • One can use all of the steps, repeat them, or just use some of them.
  • They can be used out of order and sometimes steps must be repeated.
  • However, one must always use the steps with a commitment to reconciling conflict. That is, no matter what order one uses them, they must strive to ultimately reconcile conflict.  

Helpful school practices:

  • Use an Agape box for notes where students may submit concerns privately. To set the ground rules for the box, let students know that you (the educator) will check the box for notes each day. Student and teacher will meet to discuss the conflict and how the student would like to proceed (e.g. which Steps to use).
  • Teachers’ roles in conflicts may vary. At times they should talk with the student, help them with gathering information, coach students about how to engage with the Steps, or perhaps ask the student how the student would like them to be involved.
  • Lead Nonviolence trainings for parents. And, send home materials that explain the Six Steps so that parents better understand what their children might be trying to achieve when engaging conflict using these steps.
  • Robin’s school has transformed the in-school suspension model. They now have a reconciliation room where students go to work on a reconciliation plan following a conflict. Students fill out a reconciliation plan with prompts to consider each part of the plan and an assistant principal or other caring adult might review the plan with the student. Schools might reconsider their punishment practices and use of consequences that let students know that they’ve done something wrong, must take responsibility for their actions, but also let them know that they are cared for and have capacity for learning from and righting their wrongs.
  • Do a nonviolence-oriented activity everyday for the first few weeks of school. This will help build community. Robin uses activities from her nonviolence manual, and recommends starting training on the first day. She frames these lessons as the most important lessons that students will learn all year because they will help the students do everything else in school, and in life.

Example: First Day of School Activities

Robin knows that students are nervous because they are coming from a variety of different schools. She also pays attention to how students are doing and invites them to share how they are doing by participating in an activity where they respond to four questions on Post-it notes that she then puts on the board. They respond to:

  1. How they are feeling,
  2. What Ms. Wildman can help them with this year,
  3. What kind of classroom they would like to have, and
  4. What is their favorite thing about school

She will then note any themes across Post-it notes and talk briefly about them. Next, she will jump into activities that will continue to build relationships including introducing others. These kinds of activities encourage perspective taking and empathy. She continues to use team building activities over the first week.

A success story of students using the six steps in action:

Students were concerned about their lunch food options provided by the school. So, they engaged in using the Six Steps. They gathered information by circling all of the unhealthy foods offered at lunch on a menu. They then wrote a list of some alternatives. Then, they wrote an invitation to the head of food services to talk about this. He was surprised when he came to talk about this with the students because the students had arranged themselves into a circle and engaged with him using practices associated with nonviolence. Throughout negotiation, they learned about some reasons for why food choices were made. They also achieved success because the head of food services changed some of the menu items as was requested. Given that this happened at the end of the year, and most of the students were graduating, the positive changes were mostly made for younger students, a true example of Agape!

Questions for further thinking:

  1. What everyday classroom activities or processes are particularly amenable to integrating all or parts of these practices?
  2. What are supportive classroom and school-wide practices that might facilitate an effective use of these practices? What are some practices in your school that might obstruct or make the use of these practices more challenging?
  3. What are other dynamics that happen in schools that could benefit from reconciliation (i.e., repairing harmed relationships)? One example might be re-entering schools after being out of school in a juvenile justice system.
  4. What digital media would you recommend other teachers to view or process related to this material?

Additional resource:

This is a link to a video called “Dinner for Two”. It is a cartoon that beautifully illustrates the Six Principles, Six Steps, and the Levels and Types of conflict, all of the aspects of Kingian Nonviolence that were spoken of on the 3 conference calls.

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