BOSTON — During the last school year as a high school peer mediator, I stood before a group of 30 freshmen and asked them to say what came to mind when they heard the word "conflict."
"Anger. Fighting. Argument. Problem. Guns. Gangs. Being tough and not a sissy. Bill Clinton. School. Work. Home. Friends. Boyfriends. Girlfriends," went their list of negative connotations.
Then I asked for some positive reflections on the word, and they said there weren't any. So I wrote the word "listening" on the chalkboard, and a flood of positive words came: "Working things out. Think before you act. Open-minded. Calm. Caring. Making the effort. Being the bigger and more sensible person."
Sometimes all it takes is a little pebble thrown to create a large ripple effect.
And that's why I spent two of my high school years as a peer mediator - bringing students together to overcome their differences in ways that teach them more positive ways of processing thoughts and emotions in situations of conflict.
I came to truly believe in this process and often saw disaster turned to success.
When I heard about the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., last spring, I felt - from my own experiences in handling the sensitivities of kids who feel like outcasts - that there had to be some Columbine students who knew how badgered these kids felt before they went over the edge.
If there had just been someone who could refer them to a place where they felt safe to vent and be heard out, maybe the tragic events wouldn't have happened.
Sometimes when a person feels distressed and helpless, the difference between a tragic ending and a positive one is simply someone lending an ear.
At my high school, peer mediation is offered as an alternative to discipline through the school administration.
A peer mediator is a neutral student who doesn't take sides in a dispute. Listening, respect, and trustworthiness are musts in helping disputants cooperate and come to a peaceable resolution each can contentedly agree to.
The process really opened my eyes to the way that unhandled little problems that seem innocent enough on their own, can snowball into unwanted catastrophe.
Like the girl who just wanted some positive attention and caused a chain reaction of gossip and conflict with a little white lie about dating a cute guy she really didn't.
Or the two guys whose good-natured joking escalated into play-fighting then took an offensive twist and ended in a hallway scene of real shouting and threats.
Or the case of three students who were scared and upset by one of their peers who they thought was a teacher's pet. They'd convinced themselves she was lording over them with power that, as a student, she couldn't possibly possess.
Nasty words, threats, and misunderstandings are what would land students in front of me in my role as peer mediator.
When students choose peer mediation, the first order of business is to be sure that all parties in a dispute are ready and willing to work together to resolve the situation. Next, the mediator states the ground rules: no name-calling, swearing, threatening, fighting, or interrupting. The disputants sit together and must speak through the mediator and not to each other. This helps them to listen instead of interrupt each other.
Each side has a fair chance to present its case. The mediator doesn't take a side, but helps gather viewpoints of all parties by asking open-ended questions and letting each party explain his or her problem.
The goal is to have the disputants create their own win-win options, evaluate those options, and create a verbal and written agreement which is signed by all involved.
A successful mediation ends with a handshake, to bring a sense of civilized closure.
As a peer mediator, I often felt that the insight I gained - and wished my peers were gaining too - was the ability to stand back from a problem and study all its facets.
Conducting a mediation often felt like those moments at a movie when you know what the next turn of events is going to be and you want to reach out and scream to the characters "Stop! Turn around and run away, don't be stupid!" Sometimes you're able to see everything unraveling, yet the characters seem completely clueless to what's happening.
We all possess the knowledge and skills to communicate with each other in a civilized way.
Unfortunately many of us choose not to. We all want to be praised, respected, treated kindly, and listened to.
So why has it become such a hassle to treat others in the way we'd like to be treated?
Although it may seem difficult to train people to be reasonable when they feel most vulnerable and defensive, I truly believe it can be done.
The more people are exposed to skills used in experiences like peer mediation, the more they'll think about them in their times of conflict, the more they'll try to incorporate them into their lives. And these are lifetime skills that everyone should possess.
*Mattea Cirrincione enters Purdue University next week. She graduated in June from Maine East High School in Park Ridge, Ill.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society