Culture, Communication & Conflict with Dr. Chris Amirault

Happy Real World Wednesday! Slide1This week we have the pleasure of introducing Chris Amirault.  Dr. Amirault is the President of the Rhode Island NAEYC affiliate, Chair of the Council for NAEYC Accreditation, and served as a founding facilitator of the NAEYC Equity and Diversity Interest Forum for many years. He directs Brown/Fox Point Early Childhood Education Center in Providence RI. Prior to directing Brown/Fox Point, Chris was the Director of the Institute for Elementary and Secondary Education at Brown University. He has taught early childhood at several universities and facilitated workshops on diversity and equity for almost three decades.

As a part of his work, he’s been designing and facilitating workshops on culture, communication, and conflict. This fall, we’re looking forward to a week-long series of interactive posts that dive deeper into this important and complex topic.  But for now, Chris engaged the Forum in a rich reflection exercise and discussion on our Facebook page.  He prompted the group to:

Reflect on your relationship to your culture, your communication style, and conflict, and finish these sentences:

When in conflict, here’s what I do well:
When in conflict, here’s what I don’t do so well:
When in conflict, here’s what drives me absolutely crazy:

This is how I communicate best with others:
This is how I prefer to address conflicts:
You can help me be a better colleague by…
I will work to be a better colleague by…

Many participants–including Chris himself–shared their answers publicly, demonstrating a great deal of openness, honesty, and vulnerability.  Reflecting on the activity, one participant then asked, “I wonder how much the questions relate to personality rather than culture?”  Chris responded,

One of the key points from the literature on conflict resolution and diversity is that we all live our cultures in our own ways — and, typically, we can’t see those particular habits, values, behaviors, judgments, and so on. These questions are meant to prompt both awareness of those things and to require that we all state explicitly how we live them.

Another participant added, “A key piece to resolving conflict is recognizing the individual participants in the conflict as inherently different folk – most likely in culture and personality. By using tools like the one Chris presented, we are encouraged to recognize our own culture (which, especially in dominant cultures, is largely invisible to us)* AND its effects on our personality. That is to say – we should be striving to ask and answer questions that…

  • Help us identify how our culture and personality affect our practice.
  • Help us identify how our personality and culture affect each other.
  • How our culture and personality benefit and enrich our practice, and…
  • How our culture and personality could be hindering or otherwise having a negative affect on our practice.

…and then use what we’ve discovered to approach our workplace relationships in more productive and fair ways.”

Chris concluded the thread by sharing:

Thanks to everyone for participating! As you can see, different individuals inhabit their cultures in a variety of ways, but conflict brings out a lot of unspoken values, assumptions, and challenges to our work. Of course, as early childhood educators, part of our job is to provoke conflict in developmentally appropriate ways with the children we serve; scaffolding the shift from parallel to cooperative play is a good example of this.

In addition, early childhood educators can get stuck in their own very adult conflicts, which create toxic learning environments for children. Very often, shared cultural values are exposed within those conflicts, and often they contribute to the conflict rather than helping to address it. What does it mean to listen? to engage? to respect? to value? to collaborate? to “have my back”? to trust? to defer? to accept? to negotiate? to concur?

The folks at the Harvard Negotiation Project remind us that every difficult conversation has three parts: the “what happened?” component, the feelings component, and the identity component. Learning how to move through the components requires respectful listening that engages and incorporates another’s perspective, starting with the historic details and drilling down to the very notion of who we are. While these three components are very broad brush strokes, in my own work on equity and diversity they’ve been helpful in illuminating the insights that conflicts offer.

Of course, that’s hard to do when you’re in a conflict! So often we have to start with the simple act of trusting someone whom you really, really don’t want to trust, so that you can view the world through that person’s perspective. And that’s where the commitment to equity and diversity fits in: if you are going to commit to doing this work, you have to accept that conflicts can only be resolved by learning to accept the perspectives of others, including those who may or may not share your culture, your power, your values, and especially your deeply held truths.

If you found this exercise interesting, I urge you to share it with a colleague. At the end, repeat back what your colleague has told you, to demonstrate that you’ve listened and learned. Then keep your eyes peeled for an opportunity to engage in a week-long interactive experience around this same topic soon!

To learn more, check out Stone, Patton, and Heen’s “Difficult Conversations,” or click on this useful overview of these issues with the University of Colorado’s Conflict Information Consortium: http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/culture-conflict


*I really appreciated this point about the dynamic in which members of dominant cultures are often unaware that they have culture too. I’ve found that the Center for the Study of White American Culture has lots of great resources: http://www.euroamerican.org/

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