Skills to Resolve Conflicts the Non-Violent Way

Courtesy Of AvpRaffi Aftandelia (in striped shirt) with participants in an AVP exercise on co-operation.
Imagine bringing together juvenile offenders, psychology students, refugees and representatives from non-profit organizations and asking them to spend 17 hours exploring their violent tendencies through interactive verbal and physical exercises. Would they go for it?

Absolutely, says Raffi Aftandelia, one of 30 facilitators working with the Russian branch of the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP), an international conflict resolution organization that has been coordinating such unusual groups in Russia for more than five years.

"At first people are often uncomfortable," he says. "But with simple exercises we're able to break the ice and get people talking about topics they don't talk about in their everyday life. In the end they really build up their sense of power and community."

AVP runs workshops that are designed to teach interpersonal conflict resolution skills through a series of step-by-step processes and role-playing exercises that explore different ways to respond to conflict situations.

Here's how it works: For 100 rubles each, more than 20 people attend an intensive 17-hour workshop over three days. Overseen by two facilitators, they participate in small group and one-on-one interactions that aim to build a sense of community and trust. The exercises focus on raising self-esteem and improving both listening skills and assertive methods of expression, as well as developing cooperative attitudes that avoid competitive conflicts. Participants are supposed to get in touch with what AVP calls "inner transforming power" to resolve violence.

Each workshop begins with participants gathering in a circle formation and introducing themselves by their first name and a word that begins with the first letter of the name. Intended to serve as icebreakers, the names stick throughout the sessions. "For example, I'd be Rainbow Raffi," Aftandelia says.

Then the group breaks into pairs, and people are required to tell their partner what they view as their positive personal qualities.

Previous participants in Moscow workshops have come from The Center for Legal and Judicial Reform, the Iskorka youth program, the Yaroflavna women's assistance organization, No To Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, and the Chechen refugee organization Warm Home.

The AVP program began in 1975. A group of inmates in a New York prison was working with juvenile offenders, trying to steer them straight. After their initial attempts failed, the prisoners decided to collaborate with a Quaker project on community conflict. Together they devised a successful prison workshop for the youths. Requests for more workshops followed and an official program -- AVP -- was born.

As the program traveled from prison to prison, it became obvious to the organizers that violence and the need for this training also existed outside prison walls. Slowly, AVP started working in schools, businesses, churches, community associations, street gangs, halfway houses, women's shelters, and elsewhere. Now its annual growth rate is 25 percent to 30 percent, and AVP has spread into 40 U.S. states. The program has also reached 22 foreign countries, including Canada, Costa Rica, Israel and South Africa.

A woman from San Francisco brought AVP to Moscow in the mid-1990s. An international team of facilitators from the United States, Canada and South Africa followed. At first AVP conducted workshops only in Moscow, but eventually branched out to St. Petersburg, Belarus and Georgia.

In 1997, Aftandelia, also a California native, took over as coordinator and made shifting organizational power from expats to Russians his top priority. Aftandelia now serves on a seven-person council of facilitators, and two Russian women run the show. Svetlana Sdobnikova is the coordinator, and Galina Orlova is the project manager.

For the most part, the AVP format employed abroad is the same as the one in the United States. Yet the program has had to adapt to certain cultural differences. "There are some small differences in the various programs, which are based on regional styles," Aftandelia says. "For example, here in Russia we make sure that there are always breaks for tea, because it's an important part of the culture."

Recently a group of expats has been drawn to AVP with the hopes of participating in an English-language workshop. Until now, all workshops have been conducted in Russian.

Korey Hartwich, an American who is working in Moscow as deputy director of the Global Jewish Assistance and Relief network, works with a forum of professionals in Moscow's non-profit sector. After seeing an advertisement for AVP in September, Hartwich began to ruminate about how it could serve the needs of Moscow's non-profit world and the expat community in general.

"I'm amazed by how much miscommunication there is between co-workers and how quickly arguments ensue," he says. "I remember reading in college about how diplomats in the Middle East are never supposed to back an Arab into the corner or else he will be forced to fight. I think that's true of everyone everywhere. A lot of people need help learning how to communicate in a constructive fashion."

Raffi has recently been trying to round up the 15 people needed for a workshop. Anyone interested should contact him at khartwich@hotmail.com.