Creating a Climate for Consensual Living
By Anna M. Brown
Consensual living is a process, a philosophy, a mindset by which we seek to live in harmony with our families and community. It involves finding mutually agreed upon solutions, where the needs of both parties are not only considered but addressed. Everyone’s wants and needs are equally valid, regardless of age. Conflicting wants or needs are discussed and mutually agreeable solutions are created or negotiated which meet the underlying needs of all parties.
There are several key factors that help create an environment where consensual living can thrive. First, there needs to be a climate of respect and trust. Trust in a child’s ability to know their body and know their mind. Respect for their feelings as true, valid and important. If a child feels safe and comfortable they can explore their feelings and are more interested in understanding the feelings of those around them. There is no room for punishments or rewards in this environment. Punishments and rewards are really just tools of manipulation and when you are working together as a team for shared solutions there is no need to manipulate.
It is critical to have the belief that there really are solutions. In fact, the reality is that there are often many solutions. It is just a matter of hitting on the one that works for everyone. That process can be broken down into a few steps but will become more fluid and simple the more it is practiced.
The first step is to identify the underlying needs. Often there is a stated need or desire. When in conflict, it helps to go deeper. It may just be that the two stated needs are in conflict on the surface. When you get to the underlying needs, typically there are several ways they can be met. When you have the underlying needs on the table then new alternative solutions are more apparent.
For children and adults both, understanding how biological needs play into problem solving is critical as well. The short cut for this is the much talked about HALT theory – Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. When we are hungry or tired it is hard to see beyond our immediate needs, our head is not clear to be creative, this goes for kids too. When we are angry about something, that anger can become misdirected and interfere with communication. The same for loneliness, our behavior can really be a call for attention, which is often a need for engagement. So when we keep in mind that the underlying need may be biological it helps us find solutions more quickly. Sometimes stopping to address the biological need is all that is required to get us back on track.
At times, conflicts can be heated. There can be a lot of emotion behind requests. In those situations, it is often helpful to begin with some basic communication skills like validation and reflective listening. Both of these tools help us to explore the underlying needs. Validation is the simple process of acknowledging what someone is saying with no judgment, “you really wish that …”, with no “buts” attached. Often times after a few minutes of validation the person feels free to move forward to more in depth communication, but sometimes validation is all that is required to resolve a situation. Reflective listening is similar but it used more for clarification, “what I hear you saying is that you don’t want to be here now”. This allows the person to hear how what they are saying is being received. At that point, they can agree and feel validated/heard or can restate to make their point more clear.
Once everyone feels heard and validated you can move to “I” messages to state your own needs for a given situation. That gives the person you are talking to a chance to hear your feelings. Sometimes it is easy to fall into “you” mode. “you make me. . .” but if you can stay with the “I” statements the lines of communication remain open.
Another helpful tool is to assign positive intent. When we look at someone with whom we are in conflict, sometimes we feel they are deliberately trying to thwart us. If you can shift that paradigm and begin to apply positive intent it, again, leads to more open communication. This involves believing that everyone is doing the best they can right now, that they want to be a part of a solution and that they aren’t attempting to stop your needs from being met. Everyone wants harmony to return.
After everyone involved is feeling heard and understood, you can move on to the creative problem solving step. This can look different each time. Often it is a series of ideas being thrown out by each party. Each idea is accepted, rejected or modified to fit the underlying needs which have been communicated. This often requires “thinking outside the box” always keeping in mind the underlying needs. At times, we enter this step with preconceived notions about how it should turn out. When we can release this, we are able to access the full range of possible solutions. Children have an amazing gift for problem solving and tend not to fall into that trap. Let them lead the way when you are feeling stumped.
While, on paper, the process seems a bit laborious, once a commitment is made to live consensually, the fun begins. When your energy is used to work together as a team to meet everyone’s needs, you create an environment of mutual respect, consideration and joy. The skills gained by daily practice transfers to all kinds of situations where people come together and reach an impasse. Each time, it becomes easier and easier, the tools become habit and over time for 99% of situations solutions will be found quickly. For the 1% of occasions where it takes a while, the time will be spent in positive connection with the other person, not locked in a negative, adversarial exchange. As everyone becomes secure in the fact that their needs will indeed be met and honored, they are able to branch out and enjoy engaging in the process of helping others meet their needs. It becomes a fluid partnership, a beautiful dance of connection.