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Back to Basics

by Phyllis Pollack
May 2011 Phyllis  Pollack

A few months ago, my colleague Maria Simpson, PhD., in her weekly Two Minute Training (February 15, 2011), mentioned a story she had heard the previous day on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition about a pre-school that was teaching conflict resolution to four year olds. Contrary to what occurs in most pre-schools, while these pre-schoolers had lots of energy and were very active, they did not fight, yell or whine.

Intrigued, I hunted down the story on NPR and learned that the school was The Clara Barton Children’s Center in Cabin John, Maryland (, and passed this information on to my colleague.

But, I was still curious about this success of conflict resolution among 4 year olds. So was my colleague as she took up this topic again in her next Two Minute Training column on February 22, 2011. It seems that this school employs a “Solution Kit” provided by the Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL) at Vanderbilt University ( According to its website, CSEFEL is dedicated to “…promoting the social emotional development and school readiness of young children [from] birth to age 5.” (Id.). It is funded by the Office of Head Start and Child Care Bureau. (Id.)

 The “Solution Kit” is simply a poster that, using pictures, shows 10 different ways to end an argument:

  1. Get a teacher (i.e., use a mediator or a third party objective neutral.);
  2. Ask nicely (i.e., have a calm non-confrontational conversation about the issue; make it a conversation of curious inquiry, not a cross-examination.);
  3. Ignore (i.e., don’t react to negative personal attacks ; let them roll off your back, remain focused on the needs and interests of the parties or on the issues; NOT on the person.);
  4. Play together (i.e., work co-operatively and together to create options by which each party will gain, thereby developing a “win-win” resolution.);
  5. Say “Please Stop” (i.e., have a discussion about the opposing and/or conflicting underlying needs and interests of each party and how best to meet them; again, focus on the interests of each party and create options that will meet each party’ s needs.)
  6.   Say, “Please” (i.e. be polite and respectful  to the other party; separate the people from the problem – be soft on the person, but hard on the problem.);
  7. Share (i.e., compromise; do not engage in distributive bargaining in which the goal is that one person wins, and the other loses (zero sum game) but rather engage in integrative bargaining by which both parties “win” by compromising.);
  8. Trade (i.e., engage in “give and take”. Prioritize your interests and  concede issues that may be of little value to you but important to the other party in exchange for ones that ARE important to you but of little value to the other party so that each party obtains what is important to her.);
  9. Wait and Take Turns (i.e., be patient; actively listen – really listen, and don’t interrupt - to what the other party is saying so that you can understand what are the needs and interests of the other party and thus be able to figure out collaboratively how to meet both her needs and interests and yours.); and
  10.  Get a Timer (i.e., use the element of time as a way to resolve the dispute either by setting a time limit on the discussions which will force the parties to focus and concentrate on the issues: or by setting up a timetable by which certain elements of the resolution must be accomplished (e.g. an installment plan).)
In addition, CSEFEL also   provides a “Problem-Solving” poster that  is so simple, it puts us mediators to shame, if not makes us redundant.  It describes in 4 easy steps how to solve a problem:

1.  What  is my problem? (i.e.. define the issue(s));

2.  Think, think, think of some solutions (i.e., brainstorm, brainstorm and then  brainstorm some more and think “outside the box” as may be necessary!)

3.  What would happen if…? Would it be safe? Would it be fair? How would everyone feel? (i.e., consider the consequences and effects of each potential resolution; take each possible scenario for resolution to its logical (and perhaps not so logical) end. )

4.  Give it a try (i.e., “Go for it! or “Let’s roll”)       


If four year olds can grasp these basic concepts of conflict resolution and problem solving, shouldn’t adults be able to so, as well? Obviously, adults should be able to but, just as obviously, we often do not.  I suspect that the reason is that we lose sight of the forest for the trees.  We  get so caught up in  the minutiae of our day to day fast moving, multi-tasking  lives, that  we often do not see the “big picture” (much less look for it!). We forget to step back, take a deep breathe and look around. The older I become, the more firm is my belief in the adage that “less is more”.  Getting back to the basics envisioned in the Solution Kit and Problem Solving poster appear to be the key to better living. Or, to repeat another good adage,   “ Keep it simple ….! “ 


Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as well as their own needs better than any mediator or arbitrator. She does not impose her views or make decisions for the parties. Rather, Phyllis assists the parties in creating options that meet the needs and desires of both sides.  When appropriate, visual aids are used in preparing discussions and illustrating possible solutions. On the other hand, she is not averse to being proactive and offering a generous dose of reality, particularly when the process may have stalled due to unrealistic expectations of attorney or client, a failure to focus on needs rather than demands, or when one or more parties need to be reminded of the potential consequences of their failure to reach an agreement.

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