Thursday, November 5, 2009

Conflict Mediation

For the last few weeks at the shelter, Renewal House staff members have been mediating a great deal of conflict among our residents. I find this work to be the most draining of all the work we do. We must first negotiate and re-negotiate schedules so that everyone can sit down together, and it takes time and energy to listen to each person’s side of the story. But the conflict also has a life of its own at times. And when we do finally sit down together, those involved in the conflict often have nothing to say at first, or they are resistant to being open and honest. Sometimes, they explode in full-fledged anger.

Anger is a tricky thing. All of our families of origin had different ideas about anger and if, how and when it should be expressed. All of us manage anger differently. Some of us cannot help but show it – others sweep it away under a distant rug in the hopes it will just stay there. And yet, in many ways, anger is a good thing. There are many things in this world and in this life that we rightfully could be angry about. Have you seen that bumper sticker that reads, “If you’re not ENRAGED then you’re not paying attention”? I appreciate the sentiment and yet I’m aware that none us is has been provided with instructions about how to express that rage.

What we need are some lessons on how to express anger. Children are not given a lot of room to express anger. And anger in adults, particularly women, is not a trait that is deemed attractive or even acceptable.

The residents we work with get very angry. They are angry about having to live in a shelter. They are angry at the system (courts, social service agencies, etc.), which is not always helpful to them. They are angry about not having access to housing or decent childcare or healthcare. They are angry about the violence they have experienced or that their children witnessed. They are angry about losing their jobs and having to move. They are angry at their ex-partners. They are angry at the world that appears -- and often is -- so unjust to them. And most of us would agree that they have every right to be angry.

The question for Renewal House staff is how do we help them express and channel their anger in ways that are helpful to them rather than harmful?

At a recent meeting with the Department of Children and Families, one of the social workers observed that once someone is in their system, they must fight pretty hard to get out. Once a child abuse and neglect report is filed, the family or individual is under scrutiny for years, and even a slight mistake can lead to a threat of their child being removed from the home and/or losing custody altogether. One of the families we are working with at Renewal House is struggling in this area. And it is hard for the parent to see that any expression of anger she directs toward a security guard, childcare worker, or even another resident in the shelter can lead to an investigation and further concern over her “fitness” to be a parent.

This past week, I have watched our staff manage conflict after conflict after conflict. Of course, this is a normal part of their work, but we have seen over this last week an increase in clashes and a heightened level of tension. In the conflict resolution meetings, we acknowledge that their anger is ok, but the way in which they are expressing it is not always helpful or appropriate. It is an educational moment that most of us never receive. For when we show anger in our society, we are often shunned, ignored, or even reported.

The opportunity we have at Renewal House is to sit with residents in their anger without reacting, condemning or condoning. We simply say, “Here is a moment that can be educational for all of us. Let us help you now before your anger puts your safety and well-being in jeopardy.” Helping people work through their anger issues is difficult work, but it offers great opportunities for people to make personal changes in their behavior that will bring them more inner peace and healthier relationships.

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