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Image by Peter Secan

More Specific Agreements


Recently I had the great pleasure of watching some very talented peer mediators at work at University High in Los Angeles. These students, mostly juniors and seniors, handled a variety of cases in less than an hour from name calling to difficulties with a teacher. They are well trained and give us all hope for the future.


While I was there I noticed something about the written resolutions that interested me, and that gave me something to consider for our own resolutions, whether they be in a formal mediation settings or in informal agreements about something with colleagues and friends.


The resolutions included agreements to be more patient, respectful, and use better communications, and I wondered what these terms meant, exactly. Does an agreement in such general terms help people know what is expected in the future? Will they know what specifically to do or not do, how one demonstrates respect or patience?


It occurred to me that we need to be specific about what the agreement means behaviorally. For students, saying they will be more respectful can mean many things, but maybe, if the conflict is about calling each other names, then the resolution has to be that they agree not to call each other names any more. If the agreement says we will be more patient, then maybe we have to define what patient means in this case, and for the students, maybe it means not interrupting. If the agreement says that they will try to communicate better, then what would that mean in any specific case? Not gossiping? Talking directly to each other to sort things out rather than talking to friends?


The important point is that, even for adults, we sometimes agree to things that sound good but aren’t specific enough for us to know when we have made another infraction, so we inadvertently repeat the offense. To avoid the problem, maybe we can each take a minute before the end of a conversation to say, “OK, here’s what I think this means. Is that what you think, too?” This approach allows the other party to think of questions that might not have arisen before, or to think of situations where the agreement might not apply or can’t be applied for some reason.

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