Whether people decide to comply with mask wearing or make a scene about it could hinge on some simple techniques.
In a video shared this semester, USU Communications Studies Lecturer Clair Canfield, who is also a certified mediator, outlines the steps everyone can take to deescalate a potential conflict, including ones over facial coverings.
The video comes as USU started enforcing a mask-wearing policy this fall semester and will re-evaluate it for spring. According to the school’s website, it “requires that everyone wear a face covering or disposable mask in all university buildings and vehicles, and outside anytime you cannot practice social distancing.”
“Conflict is full of potential — I’ve seen it have the potential to lead to beautiful outcomes, to be the doorway that helps people get what they want and connect more,” Canfield says at the start of the video. “I’ve also seen the potential it has to lead to violent and destructive outcomes.”
Although he doesn’t specifically mention it in the video, the “destructive outcomes” Canfield speaks of have happened all too often in the era of the pandemic, as videos have been posted online of some people refusing to comply with mask wearing in public places.
Canfield mentioned those videos when a reporter asked whether the deescalation film was his idea. He said he was approached by Joe Ward, the dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, who knew of people in his college who were concerned about potential conversations they might have to have with faculty and students about mask wearing.
“I’m sure you’re aware that mask wearing has somehow become pretty politicized,” Canfield said in the interview. “They were concerned that faculty might not have the resources or support they need to handle a conversation like that. So I was asked if that was something I potentially had some interest in collaborating on with them. I presented some of my ideas and they moved forward with it.”
The video can be seen at http://bitly.ws/9NHz (URL is case-sensitive).
Just as some in CHaSS voiced concerns about potential conflict with mask wearing, Canfield states in his video that students might feel the same way.
He says conflict stems from people’s values, which can bring up “strong emotions.”
“When you understand more of what’s happening in conflict, it helps you develop a mindset — and when you pair that with a skill set, it can help you develop hope so you can deescalate a conflict,” Canfield said. “Hope starts with humanizing the other person.”
Ways people can do that, he said, include by being considerate of the other person and not being judgemental about them.
The way a person interacts with someone is to have “openness” — in verbal and nonverbal cues, listening and asking questions, Canfield said in the video.
“When we approach … with openness it helps to deescalate,” he said.
Part of that openness with a person involves asking questions that involves “a perception check,” said Canfield, which has three components: describing behavior, offering two interpretations and asking for clarification.
Canfield used someone noting another person not wearing their mask as an example of how to execute the “perception check” approach.
“I might start with what I initially perceived: ‘You know, I noticed you’re not wearing your mask today and I’m not sure if that’s because if you don’t want to wear one or maybe it’s because you forgot it,’” Canfield said. “And then ask for clarification: ‘What’s going on?’ or ‘Can you help me understand?’”
Canfield concluded with a breathing technique called the “box method” as a way for people to check in with their emotions.
Amanda DeRito, director of crisis communications for USU, said in a recent interview that asking someone to wear a mask does not always have to involve the deescalation, as not all inquiries are confrontational.
Most times a simple, polite reminder to someone that they should wear a mask does the trick, she said.
“I think a lot of us employees find ourselves in the position where we can remind people,” DeRito said. “Sometimes, they even have it in their hand and they just forget. The vast majority of people want to do the right thing … and help the community.”
Mask wearing as a conflict
In an interview, Canfield said the viral videos circulating online are concerning to him.
“I recognize there has been a tendency for issues that people don’t agree with to become conversations where people will become very polarized. Sometimes conversations lead to violence — essentially, pushing people further away from each other,” he said.
Canfield continued, “I’m always looking for ways we can understand each other and talk about issues rather than become polarized and push each other further apart, so (the videos are) … hard to watch.”
Asked how public health became so polarizing, Canfield said people can find “all sorts of ways” to have conflict over things “that aren’t really representative of what’s going on.”
“Conflict is oftentimes not about what we think it’s about,” he said. “We get stuck in positions of what we think we want or what we want other people to do, but, in actuality, there are deeper needs.”
So while mask wearing, on the surface, may be something that public health officials encourage because the science supports it, people who refuse to wear them could easily see the issue as one having to do with their political identity or constitutional rights.
“This is why people can have really intense conflicts over things like which way you put the toilet paper roll on and whether or not the toothpaste cap is put on,” Canfield said.
He said conflict can quickly escalate in public.
“Conversations that need to happen one-on-one … are being put on a public stage,” Canfield said. “Ideally, you have those conversations in private.”
Pressed on whether his deescalation strategy could work if someone were witnessing a person throwing a tantrum in public, Canfield said it “can be useful.”
“These are things that are going to be more effective than the way people typically handle things,” he said.
Though Canfield has heard feedback from others praising his video since its release, he hopes his method doesn’t have to be used at all.
“That’s always my hope, is that people don’t have to deescalate a conversation because it never got that bad in the first place,” he said.
Having said that, he hopes people can use the video to help them and their relationships.
“My hope, if people watch it, is they would learn a little bit more about what causes their conflicts, why they can feel so strongly in them, why they can get intense and that they will be able to understand what some tools might be that they can use to improve the situation,” Canfield said.