3 Revelations on Student Conflicts

Band directors wear many hats. Teacher, facilities manager, repairman, web developer, graphic designer, accountant, historian, carpenter, and public relations officer just to name a few. After “teacher,” the hat I think I wear second most is “therapist.” I teach 5th grade through seniors, but it seems to consistently be middle school students who are the ones reaching for the security blanket I keep in my office specifically for crying children. (It's a soft blue wolf blanket I got from Walmart.)

Over the years, I found myself having the same conversation over and over again with different students. From all of these conversations, I have found that students commonly benefit from one of three revelations: 1) the Golden Rule is wrong, 2) story, not action, fuels emotion, and 3) The Relationship Cup analogy. My hope is that the way I have worded these three revelations may aid you when you talk with your own students, or when training your own student leaders on how to recognize and handle conflict.

1. The Golden Rule is Wrong

Teachers commonly say to elementary students “treat other people how you want to be treated.” Anyone who has ever taught middle school or ordered a pizza for a large group of people knows how this logic is so commonly contorted. Let’s engage in a small thought experiment.

Say you are ordering pizza for a large group of strangers. You are not sure what pizza they like, but you know that you like supreme pizza. Supreme pizza is a little more expensive, but it comes with every topping! If they don’t like the topping, they can just pick it off, you reason to yourself. It can literally be any combination of toppings! You excitedly hand over the cash to the delivery guy (leaving a generous tip), and rush to show your friends how much you thought and cared about them: 5 large supreme pizzas.

Pizza!

The room is less than thrilled. Sally is allergic to olives and can’t even have residue on her pizza. Scott was hoping for at least one plain cheese. More than a few others were not fine at all with sticking their fingers in their food to fish out, well, the fish. The crowd that you anticipated would be delighted at your philanthropic gesture, ended up resenting you for it. Why? You gave every person at that party exactly what you would have wanted. You treated them exactly how you wanted to be treated, and at no small expense! Why, then, were there a half dozen people giving you the cold shoulder?

Because the Golden Rule, as it is taught to elementary students, is a drastic over simplification. Luckily for us, it can be fixed by changing up the words just a little bit. Instead of “treat others how you want to be treated” the golden rule should read:

“Treat others the way they want to be treated.”


People are different. Not everyone likes supreme pizza. That is the reason we have 40 varieties of spaghetti sauce! (Excellent TEDTalk by Malcolm Gladwell on this subject if you are interested.) Not everyone wants to be treated the same way. What is wrong with the Golden Rule as it is explained to elementary students is that it teaches young people the false assumption that all people want the same things when this is clearly not the case.

A trombone player blasts his instrument in the ear of the clarinet player in front of him. You scold him to stop saying “how would you feel if someone did that to you?” To that question, the trombone player looks at you excitedly and says “I would love it! It’s so much fun!” The trombone player does not even know why he is in trouble. Honest to goodness, he truly believes that he is treating her correctly because he loves to be startled like that. The trombone player is smiling and relaxed. He has no idea what is wrong with this behavior.

I have found that is mostly an issue for the outlier students. The students who have few social relationships because they keep to themselves or because they are so overly outgoing they push others away. For these students, this revelation is critical. The way to treat people well is not to treat them how you want to be treated, but to treat them how they want to be treated and the only way to know how they want to be treated is to ask them.

Appendix for the philosophical: upon further reflection, you may realize that treating people the way they want to be treated is to treat them the way you want to be treated. Because you want to be treated the way you want to be treated. The Golden Rule is not really “wrong,” it just takes some deeper thinking to get to apply the rule in this truer sense. Saying “the Golden Rule is wrong” is a click-bait conversation starter that helps break some student’s attachment to the previous vernacular.

2. Story, Not Action, Fuels Emotion

“But when Jack does it, it is okay!”

Here’s the situation. Michael sees Jack playfully slap Roman. Roman laughs. Then, Michael slaps Roman. Roman gets angry and Michael is confused. What happened? Why is it that when Jack slaps Roman, it’s fine, but when Michael slaps Roman, it’s not fine? That is because while the action and intent to to play may have been identical with both Jack and Michael, the way Roman interpreted those actions was entirely different.

Story is everything!

People do not feel or think things based on what happens; people feel and think things based on the story they tell themselves on why something happened.


When Jack slapped Roman, what was the story in Roman’s mind around what just happened? Possibly he was thinking “oh that Jack! He got me back from lunch!” or “Jack is so silly!” Contrast that with the story Roman told himself when Michael slapped him. Perhaps, Roman thought “Gosh! Michael always does this. He’s such a jerk.” or “Michael hates me. That’s why he hit me!” You can see how Roman arrived at two distinct emotions from the same action. If just the action drove Roman’s emotion, both instances would have led Roman to feel the same way. This is not the case because it is the story Roman tells himself, not the action that drives emotion.

There are several implications of this theory.

First, when section leaders jump in to de-escalate problems, they should not focus as much on what was physically. Instead, focus on the story of “why” something happened. Specifically, the why in the minds of the two people in conflict. See if they fall into one of these three categories:

  1. It’s a false story on the receiver’s end. The doer explains himself and the receiver can work on controlling their story.
  2. It’s a false story on the doer’s end. The doer did not realize that his actions were making the people feel this way. The section leader can help the doer plan concrete steps to avoid the behavior in the future and can give the receiver a script for how to react if (when) the doer messes up again.
  3. The stories align. It is actual malice. The doer is to apologize and face other restorative justice.
More often than not, I find students are in the first two categories. Either the doer or the receiver are misinterpreting the actions that lead to heated emotions. Rarely is there actual illintent from anyone involved.

The second implication of this principle is a method of self control.

If a person wants to control their own emotions, they are to focus on controlling the story they tell themselves surrounding the actions that occur.


Trying to force yourself to not be angry is quite difficult. Instead, the savvy student leader can practice mental flexibility by coming up with as many other “stories” as possible for why an action occurred. Maybe Daija is late because she is taking care of a sick relative. Maybe that bus is driving recklessly because there is a bomb on board and Kevin Bacon and Sandra Bullock can’t go slower than 50 miles an hour or the bomb will explode. Maybe Michael hasn’t practiced at home because he is the only one at home and needs to cook dinner and otherwise care for his younger siblings.

I have come across many students (and adults!) who behave as if they are victims of their own emotions. I can’t help it, they say, they made me mad! Don’t give other people that kind of power over you. Acknowledge that you can be in control over your emotions by being in control over the story you tell yourself. Practice being flexible on the stories you tell yourself.

The better and more creative we can get at controlling our story the better we will be at following the age old advice of “presuming the positive.” The better we can get at presuming positive intent, the more level headed we can be when we approach the conflict. The more level headed we are when going into conflict, the better chance we have at handling the situation with maturity.

It’s the story, not the action, that fuels emotion.

3. The Relationship Cup

Dr. Stephen R. Covey has a wonderful analogy for relationships being emotional bank accounts. Every time you do something nice for someone, follow through on a commitment, or otherwise treat them the way they want to be treated, you make a deposit into that relationship’s account. When you are mean, break a promise, cancel a meeting last minute, or otherwise treat that person poorly you make a withdrawal from that account. If you want a person to do something for you, you have to have enough in the account.

Your closest friends and family may have higher account balances than a stranger due to the many deposits you make. And a stranger even may have a higher balance than someone with whom you habitually do not get along due to all the withdrawals either you take or are taken from you. The idea is that if you want to be a leader, you need to have the emotional capital with everyone in the band. As such, you need to plan to make intentional deposits into everyone’s accounts.

You cannot automate these deposits. You can’t just throw out a “nice job today, Carley!” and expect that to do the trick. (Although, it is much better than if you are doing nothing!)

Praise, if given, must be specific, immediate, and genuine. 

Just like counterfeit deposits at the bank will lead you to jail, counterfeit emotional deposits will act as major withdrawals if discovered as disingenuous. Likewise, specific and immediate praise is much more powerful than their opposites. It’s the difference between “good work at practice,” and “I really appreciated how you hustled back from the water break. You are helping us be a better band with your hustle!”

I love Covey's emotional bank account; however, younger high schoolers and middle schoolers do not have the daily experience of working with a bank account. Making deposits and withdrawals, while sensible, are not always tangible to these younger students. Because of that, I like to use the analogy of a Relationship Cup.

The Relationship Cup:

Think of every person you interact with as holding a cup: a Relationship Cup. Any time you do something that taxes the relationship - break a promise, make a hurtful joke, cancel plans last minute - you pour a little bit of water into The Cup. When The Cup overflows, bad things happen - you fight, your parents ground you, or you stop getting invited to things.

Perhaps you can think of someone who you know who has a high water level with you. Every little thing they do is awful. Sometimes, the little things they do aren’t even that bad, but just because they are the one who did it, the tiny mishap is unbearable.

Any time you do something that is good for the relationship - writing a thank you card, spending quality time with them, smiling - you make The Relationship Cup a little deeper. When The Cup is deeper, there is more room for the accidental splash of water in from mistakes. You trust them a little more to be yourself around. The deeper The Cup, the stronger the relationship and the more joy exists.

Sometimes, the water from one negative event overflows one Relationship Cup and spills into the others. If Emma snaps at you out of the blue one day, it may not be that your relationship is destroyed. It may be that her cat died that morning and her Cup is just a little too full to handle anyone. This is why it is so important to have friends with deep Cups to help carry the water!

The Relationship Cup

Another important lesson is that, while you may need the cooperation of the other person in the relationship to deepen The Relationship Cup between the two of you, you do not need anyone else to pour out some of the water. Taking care of yourself (physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually) can help you manage the water in your own Relationship Cups so you are not just the victim of a shallow relationship.

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I hope some of these things are helpful to you in how you discuss emotional conflict with your student leaders. For student leaders to be the most effective, they must be able to identify and manage their own emotions AND the emotions of others.

If you have more advice on conversations you have found that work, I would love to hear them in the comments section of the blog! A candle loses no light by lighting the flame of another candle. Let us all benefit from your experience.

Until next time,

NT
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