Turn Conflict into Collaboration: A Nickel Gambit

by Rick on July 22, 2019

Mary, the physical education teacher, sent Nina to my office for disrespectful behavior. The level of teacher frustration and the repeated offenses caused me to call the parents and ask them to come in so we could all talk.
When she heard that her parents were coming, Nina reacted as if this were the worst possible punishment I could give her. “Please, please, please, don’t talk to her,” Nina pleaded.

“You can’t seem to stop being disrespectful, and we have to get to the bottom of this,” I said. “I have to involve your parents.”

We decided that we would have a meeting when Loretta came to pick Nina up from school that afternoon.

As the meeting started, Nina slouched in her chair in a pout. Loretta immediately snapped at her to sit up straight, which Nina, getting angrier, did. We discussed the problem, but we all felt that we were getting nowhere; Nina and Loretta were both locked in an angry prison.

Finally, I said, “Nina, do you feel under pressure?’
“Yes. Everyone is always on my case, and I never do anything.”
“Do you think you need to be perfect?”
I smiled a big smile, leaned back from the round table at which we were sitting, and said, “I understand. You are acting as if you are in a different school.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, here you don’t have to be perfect—we don’t want you to be perfect. We don’t even want you to try to stay out of trouble.”
“What?” asked Nina, as Loretta tried to look unsurprised.
“Yes. If you are trying to stay out of trouble, you are not trying to learn.
“You are playing the wrong game. You are here to make mistakes. Your mother is sending you here to make mistakes and to learn from them. If you never make any mistakes, you will never learn.”
The expression on Nina’s face changed from tense puzzlement to relaxed openness, and she said nothing.

“Look, you need to change your mind about something. Here, we don’t want you to be perfect; we want you to learn. When you make a mistake, the important thing is not how bad a mistake it was, or whether it was your fault or not. The important thing is to turn it into a learning experience. We expect you to make mistakes. For the next week, I will give you a nickel for every time a teacher criticizes you and you receive it. Criticism is not a punishment; it is a gift.”

Loretta said nothing. Nina just looked at me, almost—but not quite—smiling.

“So here is the drill,” I said. “At the end of tomorrow, you come see me and tell me how many mistakes you made that you admitted, and I will give you a nickel for each one.”
“Is that it?”
“Yes, that’s it. You come see me at the end of the day tomorrow, and collect your nickels and we will see how much you can earn this week, okay?”

The next day, Thursday, Nina didn’t come to see me, but I kept an eye out for her at dismissal. When I saw her, I asked, “How much do I owe you?”
“I made three mistakes,” she answered.
I reached into my pocket, pulled out a dime and a nickel, and gave them to her. “See you tomorrow,” I said.
She didn’t come to see me on Friday, either. But when I saw her at the end of the day, she said, with a big smile on her face, “You owe me ten cents.”
“What for?”
“I interrupted Ms. Quinby twice.”
“Okay,” I said. “Here you go.” And I gave her a dime.
That was the end of it. There were no problems for the rest of the year. It was the best use I ever made of a quarter.

What is the business of an educator, anyway? To lead Nina’s character out into the world to contribute constructively, gracefully and creatively to it. At the core of this enterprise is practice—a lot of practice—continuous practice at turning conflict with others into collaborations and partnerships.
This kind of leadership usually includes five steps:

1) Treat the other character the way you would most fondly hope she would be rather than the disrespectful, angry person she seems to be. Position yourself to be an educator, who will believe in and listen for her genius.

2) Consult your genius on your least defensive self-protection if the other person insists on being uncooperative.

3) Exercise leadership by defining common interests and a common purpose that satisfies the growth needs of everyone involved.

4) Speak with authority in ways that brings out the authority in others. Provide feedback that is hearable, seeable and doable. Show, don’t tell.

5) Delight. Delight as our collective genius has some fun creating new possibilities that were beyond our ken when we started.

These five skillsets are necessary and sufficient for turning conflict into collaboration. Trying to stay out of trouble and/or fear of making mistakes interfere with the creative thinking it takes to turn conflict into collaboration.




{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Maren Schmidt August 2, 2019 at 9:30 am


Good morning and aloha!

Loved how your collaboration technique turned that situation around.


Rick Armstrong August 26, 2019 at 1:02 pm

Your story reminded me of a very unexpected success I had teaching a community college math class where behavioral problems are less common. In a College Algebra class, one 20-ish extrovert would comment at least 10 times a class: on topic; related topic; the weather; or his day. My subtle cues were ineffective. At the end of class one day, I explained my issue and said, “Each class, you can ask up to 3 questions: math, weather, whatever you wish.” He agreed. To my shock, it worked! 🙂

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