I was privy to an exercising of craftsmanship in negotiation this week.
Year 10 teenager walks down my corridor, purposeful strides, head bowed, frown burrowing into his face. He is not happy. It is mid-lesson. Very Senior Teacher has arrived early for their lesson and is preparing themself in the department base but comes out at the sound of unexpected footfall. The student slows; this is not a teacher you ignore without ramifications. He asks the student where he’s come from and why he’s not in his lesson. Before the student answers the ‘on-call’ Head of Year emerges through the doors in pursuit of the teenager.
“He’s walked out from Mr X’s lesson and decided to walk away from me”, says Head of Year to Very Senior teacher. “Is this the case Michael?’. The tone is calm, enquiring, but authoritative. “He’s refused to hand over his phone”, interjects Head of Year before student has time to respond. “And he won’t give it to me either”.
The challenge is set. WWYD. (What Would You Do?)
“Is this the case Michael? Did you refuse to hand your phone to your teacher? And why did he want it”. The facts are established. “He had it out in the lesson and was texting” interjects the Head of Year”. This provokes a reaction. “Yeah, well he’s no right to have it” responds Michael to Head of Year. Very senior teacher realises that he needs to narrow the negotiation to him and the student. Calmly, factually “OK Michael, were you using the phone in the lesson? And were you asked to hand it over to Mr X?” “I’m not giving it to no-one”, responds Michael. “But were you using it in the lesson?” “Yeah, but I was switching if off at the time”.
“OK, well you know the school policy on phones Michael, they’re not allowed in lessons and as you’ve admitted you were using it you need to hand it over now.” Michaels resistance leads him to claim “I’m not handing it over. Last time I handed my phone over it came back with the screen scratched. No way I’m giving it over”.
Very Senior Teacher positions himself between Head of Year and student so that only he is in Michael’s eye-line : “When did this happen Michael – you say you had to hand your phone over before?” (clever – establishing precedence) Michael replies “Last year. Handed it over and when I got it back the screen was scratched”. (touche – establishing reasoned justification for non-co-operation). A pause. “Well that was before I arrived at the school. I can’t claim to know what happened before I was here, can I? What I know is, that in all the time I’ve been here every phone that has been handed in (good choice of term – not ‘confiscated’ – sounds more a choice of the student) has been returned in exactly the same state it was passed over.” (Establishing a high standard of respect towards student property. Student argument negated). Michael thinks. “I’m still not giving it over”. (Impasse – but student’s position has weakened to straightforward refusal to comply).
The Constrained Choice
“Well, Michael. You know the situation here. If you choose to refuse to pass your phone to us for safe-keeping (neat choice of reassuring offer), then you know it will mean you are excluded. Which I’m sure you don’t want, but you are going to have to make a decision here. You know the policy. It’s either a case of letting us look after your phone until the end of the day – or an exclusion on your record.”
Michael thinks. “Well I don’t want to be excluded.” Pause. Given thinking time for the alternatives. “But I don’t want my phone scratched”. Setting up for the deal-clincher. Very Senior Teacher; “I give you my personal assurance, Michael, that if you let us look after your phone (caring phrasing again), then you will get it back in exactly the same condition that you give it to us”. (Inclusive – bringing the head of Year back into the negotiation). Long pause. “All right then.” Michael hands over his phone.
The Very Senior Teacher asks that Michael hands the phone to the Head of Year (compensates for the earlier refusal they received), and says to Michael, “That’s a really wise choice, Michael. Getting an exclusion would have done you no good at all. I think you’ve made a sensible decision there.” Michael nods an acknowledgement. “I’ll see that your phone is put in an envelope and left in the main office for you to collect at the end of the day. Can you go with your Head of Year now and he will see that you are looked after until the end of this lesson.”
(This was an incident that took place outside my office recently. It was a master-class in defusing and resolving the type of issue that happens many times a day in numerous schools. I witnessed an exercise in ‘mutual respect’ towards all parties to achieve the necessary ends).