Conflict, crises and developmental opportunities

By Michael Harslem, June 2012

Many of the battles for power which occur in other circumstances do not exist at Waldorf schools, do they? That is they view of many “idealists” who see self-governance as the realisation of a non-hierarchical space with equal responsibility among all those involved. But in reality the opposite is the case. Severe conflicts and diverse battles for power occur precisely in idealistic communities with high objectives, claims and expectations. The pressure rises when parents, who through their children are personally affected and frequently strongly emotionally involved, demand an ever greater right of co-determination as the sponsors of the school.

Waldorf schools have a greater conflict potential

We can take it for granted that the potential for conflict is greater in Waldorf schools in particular than in other schools or organisations. Special circumstances at these schools contribute to that in particular measure. On the basis of anthroposophy, they have developed an education system of their own which raises high expectations among the parents who see it as something positive. On the other hand there is mistrust and criticism of this education system both among the public and in its own circles which subjects all those involved to increased pressure to justify what they are doing. Those affected quickly feel under attack and criticised and are quick to react. Their commitment means that many are strongly emotionally involved – emotions which provide fertile ground for conflict.

Pupils, parents, teachers

Children have to pass through various crises in their development. The age-specific subject matter which is taught in lessons, learning which is largely free from anxiety and the togetherness of the class community means that the children are allowed to live and go through their developmental crises to a greater extent than in other schools. This means that conflicts and obstacles are experienced by the children personally in a more intense way and are also taken home. But increasing numbers of parents no longer consider these crises in their children as normal but see them as a threat to their children and themselves. They are afraid that their children are not developing properly and react with the corresponding sensitivity.

Waldorf parents have high expectations of their school. That is why they frequently act against teachers when their children encounter problems, against other children and parents, and also against the school.

The teachers as a rule undertake their educational and administrative tasks with great commitment and hard work. They have a strong interest in the development of the pupils and must come to grips with the content they are teaching to a much greater extent. They are more strongly dependent on the effect of their personality and the age-related preparation of the subject matter because they do not have the normal instruments of sanction, which are available elsewhere, at their disposal. Furthermore, they have to deal with a wide range in ability and, in addition, with a number of children who really require special educational support. Then there are class sizes of mostly about 35 pupils. As a rule, the teachers have high expectations of themselves. In that they are also complying with the model expected by parents who project their expectations on to the teachers. Added to that there are still the many different tasks of self-governance of the school which mostly have to be undertaken without professional support. That frequently leads the teachers into a situation where they become overloaded which means that they are no longer able to respond fully adequately to problems.

School as a platform for social learning of all involved

This diversity of interests offers a broad platform for mutual recrimination, disappointed, misunderstandings  and tensions to arise. Unfortunately coming to grips this great range of social tasks is rarely part of the kind of learning that is consciously undertaken in Waldorf schools. There is still relatively little of a preventive nature done in this field. But the conflicts which arise can help to activate these areas of learning in the community, create an awareness of them and get people working on them.

Each conflict contains a great potential of forces which break open and destroy existing circumstances, connections, forms, habits and structures. Therein lies the task of conflict to promote development. The dynamic of a conflict lives off the reciprocal interplay of action and reaction which keep ratcheting each other up. That is accompanied by an ever more intense emotional involvement of everyone involved with a hardening of positions, exaggeration of the arguments, fixing of enemy stereotypes, vilification, emotional excesses and over-reaction on all sides. In the words of the conflict management expert Friedrich Glasl – a “demonised zone” is created which draws everyone involved under its spell and keeps them there. Once such a situation has occurred in a group, every subject can be used to continue to act out the existing conflict.

Crisis as a help in conflicts

How do we get out of such a situation again? A crisis can provide good assistance to work on a hot conflict. It is mostly required to create an opportunity to deal with the conflict.

Crises are moments in which uncertainty arises, in which the people involved must decide whether and how they want to continue. Each conflict has situations in which something like a pause, a momentary stop of the dynamic occurs. That is mostly difficult to bear and therefore immediately precipitates the next action.

Whether an exit from the conflict is possible depends on the degree of suffering of the individual people involved. At the start of a conflict it is still easier to turn round. The interest in limiting the damage is still considerably greater at this stage than in later phases of escalation. An effective solution here too – as in all subsequent escalation levels – is the agreement of a ceasefire and the offer of unilateral “disarmament”. Sometimes the conflicting parties still manage to agree that between them, mostly however the help of a third party is sensible and necessary.

But the further a conflict advances, the deeper the trenches, the greater the hurt which has arisen through the conflict itself become – always ascribed to the other party, of course. If at this point one of the parties wants to end and resolve the conflict with external help, this can also become part of the conflict: the conflict about conflict resolution. It is mostly ignited by whether external help is needed at all and who is acceptable as a neutral instance for mediation.

External conflict mediators

Here the people not directly involved in the conflict but affected by it often prove helpful. As the conflict places the existence of the organisation at risk, it painfully affects them to such an extent that they actively involve themselves and force the parties to the conflict to accept external mediation. In conflicts in a college of teachers, the trustees sometimes take this role. In conflicts between the trustees and the college of teachers such demands arise among the parents. In disputes among parents, teachers intervene.

Once a conflict mediator has been accepted by all parties, the first important step to contain the conflict has been taken.

As a rule, the external conflict mediator will first of all talk with each party separately in order to get an overview of the content and size of the conflict. These conversations already represent the start of working on the conflict as each party can put its point of view without interruption and everything is brought out into the open which has been pent up. These first talks as a rule already change the whole nature of the conflict and its climate.

Working on conflicts

After the conflict has been diagnosed, a start is generally made on bringing some order into the field of conflict: who are the central figures, who is only peripherally involved or not involved at all but only affected? Then all participants are made aware of the escalation mechanisms which drive the conflict so that the forces at work there can be recognised. Creating such an awareness of the forces at work in conflict serves to deprive it of its emotional feeding ground in the surroundings and to shrink the “demonised” zone. The ceasefire agreement and its monitoring allow for the gradual reestablishment of communication and for the rebuilding of trust between the parties involved to begin.

Then the actual conflict is worked on with the central figures who are in conflict. This is a difficult and painful process for all involved which requires a lot of patience and tact but must also be conducted with a certain strictness and in a sustained way. Furthermore, it requires a lot of time. The chances of success in major conflicts are slim without professional training. What the solution looks like always depends on the parties involved and the role which the conflict plays in their personal biographies. It is mostly a long road until some insight is achieved that all the injuries and damage were necessary to reach the stage at which it was possible to work on the biographical obstacles in this way at all.

The conflict mediator is repeatedly put in the position of having to set boundaries to block the road back into the conflict. Because often the conflicts have become habitual over many years and are part of the life patterns of the people involved. Recognising this and then, furthermore, changing such life patterns is hard work.

If conflict management is successful, new and often very decisive perspectives on life open up in most cases for the individual person and new developmental perspectives for the organisation. Every conflict which is constructively worked on as a result of the crisis bears within it new developmental opportunities for the individual person, the group, the whole organisation.

About the author:

Michael Harslem, from 1978-1998 upper school teacher in history, social studies, architecture as well as managing director in Überlingen. Since 1998 developmental coach for individuals and organisations in the fields of personal development, development of the social organism, learning to learn and practice research.