Trash Can Conflict

Type of Initiative:    Opening activity, Conflict 

Source:  Rey Carr from Peer Resources

Published in:   Setting the Conflict Compass, by Michelle Cummings with Mike Anderson

Purpose:  Rey Carr created this activity as a way to begin a workshop on conflict resolution and prevention. He often works with workshop participants who have been "sent" by a superior to participate in a conflict resolution session.  This sometimes presents various degrees of attitude and/or resistance to participating.  Rey often found that participant had their minds consumed by other things—something going on back at the office or a conflict or situation that is bothering them at work or at home. In other words, at the beginning of any training session, participants may have a focus on things other than what the session will be about.  The activity Trash Can Conflict can help address some of the attitudes that may walk into your workshops. 

Props Needed:  Sheets of white paper, writing utensils, trash can or other receptacle 

Group Size:   1–50 

Directions:  Ask participants to take a sheet of paper and take three minutes to write down a brief description of a thought, concern, worry, interfering behavior, or other event that may keep them from fully participating in the workshop.  Inform the group that no one else will read what they write.  What they write is confidential. 

When they've finished writing, ask them to fold the paper in as many folds as possible and then make a unique mark on the outside of both sides so that they can identify their particular piece of paper. 

Then place a garbage can (or bin or cardboard box) in the center of the circle and ask the participants to act like basketball players and shoot their piece of paper into the receptacle. If they miss, they can try again. 

Once all the pieces of paper are in the can, make a big deal of lifting the can up while saying, “I'm now going to place your worry, concern, or interfering behavior just outside the door of the training room.  This should help you release this issue while you are here in the training. Anytime you find yourself thinking about it, please feel free to go out the door, search through the pieces to find your mark, open it and read it.  Then return to the group prepared to participate 100% again.” 

This usually gets a laugh but apparently provides a great deal of relief and reduction of conflict between being in the room and what was going on before they came into the room. Participants often seem more ready to learn and engage in the day's activities. During the day, it's not unusual for some of the topics that went into the can to come up as examples that participants want to work on or deal with more effectively within conflict resolution. 

Debriefing Topics:  This activity is typically not debriefed right as it is completed, but here are some questions you could ask near the end of the workshop: 

  • Was it helpful to write down an inner conflict/worry/concern you were having?  Why?
  • Was it comforting knowing you had permission to revisit the concern throughout the session?  Why?
  • How could you use this type of activity back in the workplace?
  • Is acknowledging the inner conflict we bring into the room helpful?
  • What behaviors would be counterproductive today?
  • Be sure to reiterate that everyone has permission to utilize their ‘conflict’ at any time.

Purchase from the Training Wheels store: Setting the Conflict Compass

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