BC Teachers’ Dispute: The Need to Find Common Ground

Today we are very pleased to feature an article recently penned by Mediate BC Roster Mediator Julia Menard.  She explores the complexity of the current BC teachers’ dispute from the perspective of a conflict resolution practitioner:  how can we move through impasse (even a seemingly intractable impasse)?  Her insightful article is the third piece in her most recent newsletter.

BC Teachers’ Strike: 3 Tips from a Mediator

As some of you may know, we’ve got a fierce battle going on in BC at the moment. All our teachers in the public school system are out on strike and the educational system has come to a grinding halt.

By the time you read this, perhaps the teachers and students will be back in the classroom. Nonetheless, these 3 tips for how to break an impasse, is useful for any of us In a stuck position in our discussions.

1. Stop Blaming – Start talking about impact

It’s easy to tell someone else that they are wrong. Each side in a conflict easily slips into blame. It’s a common thing to do when we are in pain. And, it’s not helpful. It makes the other party feel defensive, not open. This can provoke counter-attacks and it certaintly doesn’t lead to any learning. Instead, express how the situation is impacting you. Speak about your experience, not about the other party’s. With the teachers’ strike, each side in this dispute, and all the followers in each camp, can get more vigilant about not blaming the other. A key to de-escalating the rhetoric is to shift from the language of blame to the language of commitment. What are you committed to? What’s important to you? What do you want and are hoping for? This more future-focused language also makes it easier for the “other side” to agree with you. What you focus on, grows.

2. Stop Pressuring – Start creating space

Each side is trying to pressure the other side into agreeing to something. Have you come across this kind of dynamic in your own life? If someone starts pressuring and pushing you to do something, what’s your natural inclination? If you’re like most people, you’ll want to resist, push back, walk away or ignore. It’s the same dynamic with the teachers’ strike. The BCTF is pushing to force the government to negotiate. The government is pushing to force the teachers’ federation to negotiate. Both parties want to negotiate – but neither can easily agree to it if it’s expressed through pressure. A key way to de-escalate pressure is to stop demanding something happen, and refocus on what both parties want. This creates more space for something to happen. In this situation, the pressure is coming from the teachers being on strike. There’s a pressure to resolve the issue so the teachers and students can get back in the classroom. That’s not a helpful environment to negotiate in. That’s kind of like negotiating with a gun to your head. Way too stressful. To start to de-escalate, both parties need to separate the strike from the contract talks. Put the kids and teachers back in the classroom. Put the negotiators back in the negotiating room. Create more time and space for the discussions to happen.

3. Stop Demanding – Start dialoguing

Each side is demanding agreement to their own solutions and rejecting the solutions from the other. What’s more helpful is to be flexible with solutions, but firm on the values driving those solutions. So, for example, the BCTF proposed the solution of binding arbitration. The government didn’t want that solution. Instead of seeing this as one party offering something and another party rejecting it, it’s more helpful to see it as one party proposing something that needs to be explored. Values drive our solutions and values are as important as how to implement them. The other party counter-proposed (more or less saying “no”). This also needs to be explored. As anyone in sales knows, the word “no” is only the starting point in a negotiation. Both sides need to start to get curious about what is behind their various demands.

The key question to ask in any impasse is “What’s most important here?” If we ask that question with the last proposal for binding arbitration, one can guess for the BCTF, it might be quick resolution. For the government, saying “no” might be to maintain influence on the outcome. So, digging a bit deeper reveals two criteria for any new solution to be “win-win” – that is: quick resolution and maintaining autonomy. Another proposal is the BCTF would like Clause E80 thrown out. The government would like it kept in the discussions. What’s important to both here? The BCTF wants to maintain autonomy, the government wants quick resolution. They each want the criteria of the other!

Does this surprise you? It no longer surprises me. When you peel back the layers, you find in most disputes incredible common ground. Both parties want to get back to dialogue. Both parties want to maintain their autonomy. Both parties want to serve their constituents. They need to be exploring, clarifying and discussing each of their impasses in mediation. Both parties want to go to mediation. I think if they both pick up the phone, the mediator they first approached, Mr. Vince Ready, will answer.

“An ounce of mediation is worth a pound of arbitration and a ton of litigation!” -Joseph Grynbaum

Julia was also interviewed on CBC radio Victoria last Friday (September 5th).  Take a listen here. You can learn more about Julia by visiting her Mediate BC Roster profile and visiting her website www.juliamenard.com.

What can the BC mediation community contribute to this important issue?  What processes/approaches do you think will assist in getting kids back to school?  We look forward to hearing from you!

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