Teambuilding Attitude Conflict Transformation Training The Philadelphia Prison System Experience

“Man, not another inservice! What a drag! And it’s on conflict resolution? I’ll show them how I resolve conflicts!”

If this is how your inservice training is received, read on.  

“As you could tell, I was not excited about being ordered to come to this training.  But now, after just one day, I’m glad I came and I look forward to tomorrow’s training.  It has been fun and I’ve learned practical skills I can use both at home and at work.” [Correctional Officer]  

What’s different about this training that makes 97% of the staff of the Philadelphia Prison System [PPS] say it was excellent [70%] or good [27%]?  What makes the PPS invest two and a half years in this training? We will answer these questions and how other prison systems can establish this kind of ongoing training.  

The PPS is a typical large urban prison system with five institutions and 2300 employees. For two and a half years, they contracted with Collaborative Resolution Services, Inc., to provide training for their staff in communication, conflict resolution and team building skills. After the success of this program in Delaware, and the support of Delaware’s Commissioner of Corrections, Stan Taylor, PPS felt confident enough to proceed with the training of all their staff, from top to bottom, i.e., from warden to CO. In the end, over 70% of their staff received the training.

The training focuses on how to prevent or effectively resolve “staff on staff” conflicts, which can destroy morale, impede teamwork and decrease effectiveness. Not only are there immediate dramatic positive changes in the work culture, but these changes are not short-lived. The independent six-month follow-up evaluation showed 84% of staff continuing to use the skills learned with co-workers and 87% with family and friends. Interesting enough is that 71% were also using the skills with inmates.

The model is experiential in design, with virtually no lecture. Our responses to conflict are learned from our life experiences, i.e., they are experientially learned. To develop new behaviors, we must learn them in the same fashion. This is exactly what the Teambuilding Attitude Conflict Transformation [TACT] training model does. To try to learn new behaviors by listening to a lecture on conflict resolution does not have long lasting effects. To quote an old Chinese saying, “If I hear it, I will forget; If I see it, I will remember; but if I experience it, I will understand.”

In addition to useful and practical information being presented, the unique quality of the training is the method by which it is conveyed; i.e., the participants are actively engaged in the learning process. They have fun, maintain a high level of energy throughout, learn by experience, open up to new ideas as a result of the trust and respect that develops, and they create their own sense of community. The design of the workshop begins with breaking down barriers and building a sense of trust among participants. This is done in several ways: by fun activities, focused group tasks and non-threatening sharing exercises.

First, the participants create their own “community commitments” which are guidelines by which they will interact with each other, e.g., be respectful, be honest, listen to each other, keep personal information confidential, be open minded, participate, be punctual and have fun. Next we get to know each other’s names by using fun and often humorous adjectives attached to our first name, e.g., Dynamic Dave, Beautiful Brenda, Sensational Steve, Happy Harry, Awesome Ann, and so on. By using first names, everyone is treated as equal and not addressed by rank, which results in the participants beginning to relax.

Next they talk in rotating pairs about such topics as: someone I really respect and why; how my family handled conflict when I was growing up; and something I’ve done that I’m proud of. Participants share what they feel comfortable sharing and, as they do so, they begin to feel more at ease with each other.

The next major section focuses on attitude and how that can affect the outcome of a conflict. We talk about “Transforming Power,” which is an attitude that can change violent or potentially violent situations into less violent, nonviolent or often positive outcomes.

We also discuss specific tools for changing attitudes. Next we look at the causes of conflict and the five styles of approaching a conflict, i.e., competing, accommodating, avoiding, compromising and collaborating. Participants get an opportunity to practice these styles which helps them gain a better understanding of their value and when it is appropriate to use each one. The third through the fifth sections focus on the three major conflict resolution skills, i.e., Active Listening, I Messages [assertiveness] and 6 Point Problem Solving. All the participants practice using all the skills in role plays they create from their work experiences. Finally, in the sixth session, we summarize what they have learned and the impact it has on teamwork. They break-up into small groups and discuss what they individually can do to improve the teamwork on their job. We end with an evaluation and participants writing a personal contract stating goals they wish to achieve as a result of the training.

There are many factors that separate us, e.g., rank, profession, gender, race, ethnic group, belief system, etc. It is important to honor these differences but not let them divide us. In the workshop setting, everyone is treated as equal with focus on what we all have in common; whether a Major or a secretary, an 11-7 CO or a nurse, and so on. The more diversity among the participants, the better the workshop experience, so at each workshop we have participants from several departments and various ranks.

This type of experiential conflict resolution training will have more impact if it is ongoing, so new employees can be exposed to it early in their employment. The more staff that receive it, the more support for positive change will exist. The training does not tell staff what changes to make, but empowers them, i.e., shows them the attitude and the tools to make those changes they feel need to be made, and it all begins with changing themselves first. Line and support staff have been trained as trainers to enable this program to continue beyond the completion of the contract with Collaborative Resolution Services, Inc. Training of Trainers workshops were given for line staff, none of whom had any previous training experience.

The number of participants is limited to 20 for both maximum diversity and community building. The training is for 21 hours and extends over three days. It is important to have supervisors in every workshop because it shows support for the training, and that the system accepts the fact that all levels can benefit from this training. It also is consistent with the concept that you must have “top down conditions for bottom up change,” i.e., true lasting change must start with the line staff, but must also be supported by administration and policy.

Any prison system could implement its own program within six to nine months if it fully committed to it. This means a training every week and full administrative support, including assigning staff, especially apprentice trainers so they can get the appropriate amount of experience. The training model is simple and clear enough that any prison would have more than enough potential skilled trainers within its line staff.

At the end of the contract, PPS decided TACT training was so important it needed to be part of all new staff orientation. The Training Academy staff were trained in TACT and incorporated the training in the second week of orientation. They found the training experience of new cadets improved as a result.