Photo by TheCulinaryGeek on Flickr

Picture a stand-off between multiple parties.

Perhaps it is between representatives of two nations sitting across a long polished table as they butt heads over a piece of land, or perhaps it is between red-faced members of an organization fighting over a budget item, voices raised, or maybe its kids on a grassy field arguing about which game to play.

In our case, this morning, it was between our 9 yr old son (on sofa, arms crossed, body tight, face scowling) and his dad (on living room rug, visibly slowing down his breathing to be "patient," feet planted firmly).

As with most such cases, the disagreement is initially played out not at the level of intentions, values or underlying needs (safety, choice, consideration) but at the level of STRATEGIES or actions (my son wants to eat his Top Food Choice for breakfast; we want him to eat Third Food Choice, so I could pack Top Food Choice for his school lunch; we have been out of Second Food Choice for a couple of days now).

It may or may not help you to know that, because our son's diet is severely limited by health considerations, balancing tastiness, variety and nutrition in his meals can be a challenge in our family. Or that my husband is working hard, right now, to be "patient" and engage in (and model) nonviolent, non-coercive approaches to conflict.

The bottom line is that there is always a story. Both sides have unmet needs and, often, underlying tensions on which the conflict seems to build. And that is exactly the point I want to make today.


As with many stand-offs, large and small, the clock in our home this morning was ticking, and our son seemed deeply entrenched in his position - giving things a simultaneous sense of semi-urgency and semi-hopelessness.

Thus, my husband, with the intention of showing kindness and sowing harmony, offered a compromise. He'd make a quick run to the grocery store for Second Food Choice and our son would (a) eat Second Food Choice and (b) work on getting himself together to where he could speak to us respectfully again.

Waiting for my husband to return from the store I puttered around the kitchen, silent and brooding. My lived experience - and my understanding of conflict through years of studying Non Violent Communication and Restorative Circles (a particular restorative justice practice developed by Dominic Barter in the Brazilian favelas) - told me that this would not be the panacea we hoped for.


Sure enough, after having gotten Second Choice, as agreed upon, my son attacked his sister over a small act, using a sarcastic and angry tone with her that left her confused and pouty. Hearing our son speak rudely to his sister after the trouble he had gone to that morning, my husband now erupted in anger.

Pausing everyone I spoke about what I was seeing.

"Hey guys!" I said, "I am guessing you both believe, right now, that you did a favor for the other. Is that true?"

"Well, yes," my son said as though that was obvious. "I am doing you guys a favor by eating what I did not want to eat."

"What!!" my husband said. "You are doing ME a favor when I spent some of my shaving time and work prep time to get YOU something you wanted??!! And then I come back and instead of being grateful you are mean to your sister!"

"Yes," I reminded my husband, who has been on the Restorative and NonViolent journey with me all these years. "I know you were being kind and patient by going to the store - and I feel a lot of tenderness towards you for doing it. But - in terms of addressing the issue, I did not have a lot of hope that it would work."

"Why not?" my son piped up, his mouth stuffed with Second Choice.

"Well, this is what the theory says - and my lived experience shows. When we jump right to Action, skipping the phases of the process where we find out what each person is feeling and needing (not their wishes, but the needs underlying the conflict) we wind up with two people who feel slightly resentful and disconnected because they are focused on what they each gave up to make things work."

Thus, while our son was able to let go of the specific strategy he wanted that morning, the "underlying conflict" between us was not appeased or addressed through the compromise.

In a world where minutes seem to be a precious resource and conflict happens so frequently, it may seem counter-intuitive to take the time needed to engage in a restorative process in which dialogue is used to hear the needs of each party and the focus is on creative solutions that  "expand the pie" (as Deepak Malhotra says in his brilliant Negotiating Genius text) rather than nibbling away at it.

Yet, the danger of compromise is that it leaves all parties feeling like their plates are half-empty rather than half full.

The trick, I believe, is to have faith (belief not always based on proof) that a little extra time in the front end (using a restorative process) will wind up saving a ton of time (and pain and disconnection) on the back end - and create solutions that are more sustainable.

But don't take my word for it. Try it yourself. I don't want you to feel like you are compromising!

About the Author

Elaine Shpungin Ph.D.

Elaine Shpungin, Ph.D., is the director of the University of Illinois Psychological Services Center.

You are reading


Three Strategies That Transform Classrooms and Change Lives

Real tools used by real educators to make a restorative shift

What if We Had a Week for Restoring Relationships?

Making Time to Repair Burned Bridges in Our Busy Lives

The Restorative Power of Recalling Who We Really Are

The role of loving reminders in responses to conflict