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.
THE DANGER OF COMPROMISE
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!"