When I first entered the field of Alternative Dispute Resolution in the late 80’s I envisioned myself being a Mediator and facilitating a process called Mediation. My colleagues and I who entered the field at that time were passionate about this emerging work and wanted to share it with our communities. The name of our firm reflected this; Sound Options Mediation and Training Group, LLC. We would provide Mediation and teach people to Mediate.
As our work continued to develop we learned that this focus was too narrow. Conflict intervention services went beyond “traditional” mediation and training focused on a broader range of topics. We changed the name of the firm to the Sound Options Group, LLC and focused our work in the areas of Mediation, Facilitation, Personal/Professional Development, and Conflict Systems Design.
Once again we find ourselves revisioning and redefining our work. While this process has been percolating for the last few years, it became somewhat more focused for me recently while reading, Staying with Conflict: A Strategic Approach to Ongoing Disputes by Bernard Mayer. The following are two quotes from this book.
“Staying with conflict relies on the ability to remain productively, creatively, and even serenely in a state of nonresolution (not to be mistaken for irresolution). Many of us who help others with conflict are not particularly good at living with nonresolution. If there is a problem we want to fix it, if there is a conflict we want to resolve it, and if there is uncertainty we want to find the answer. Staying with conflict, however, requires us to live with unsolved problems, unresolved conflict, and more questions than answers. A need for certainty and closure often gets us into trouble; it impels us to act as if we know more than we do and to solve problems superficially or ill advisedly, and it limits our ability to think creatively and broadly about difficult issues.”
“The choice we face in most conflict is not between reaching an agreement and continuing the conflict, although this is how it is often posed. The true challenge is to see the resolution process as an ongoing part of the conflict process. Wise agreements solve problems, but in the case of enduring conflict, their more important function is often that they allow the conflict to proceed as constructively as possible. We see this in every arena of conflict.
Staying with Conflict: A Strategic Approach to Ongoing Disputes by Bernard Mayer
Two concepts have been useful for me as points around which to organize my own reflection at this time. First, our work is not necessarily about resolving conflict. In fact we are experiencing what Maier refers to “stubborn” or “enduring” conflict. These are complex contexts that may not have an ultimate resolution. Our role is to support those experiencing the conflict to engage it in an ongoing way and make decisions that will “allow the conflict to proceed as constructively as possible”. We are not focused on ultimate resolution of the conflict but rather on developing constructive patterns and strategies for reaching agreements while maintaining the ability to stay engaged.
Secondly, Mayer introduces the notion of a Conflict Specialist as an alternative to Mediator or Dispute Resolution Professional. You may wonder what difference it makes. I see two areas of significance. First of all it expands the number of roles we might take in supporting individuals and groups engaging conflict. Traditionally we have used the term “third party neutral” to describe our role. This is often used as a broader term than Mediator or Facilitator. However, I do not believe it is broad enough to encompass the roles of teacher, mentor, coach, advisor, or consultant that we find ourselves taking in support of our work. We have developed experience and expertise in the context of conflict. How we share this with those we serve is becoming more complex and nuanced as we support the ongoing engagement of conflict.
It also has ramifications for those we work with. The skills of Conflict Specialist are not just for those few of us who have committed ourselves professionally to this context. If conflict is a part of our daily experience personally and professionally, then we are in fact talking about life skills. For us this translates into how we build capacity in individuals, organizations, and communities to engage conflict. I have often told people that we primarily do two things; we help people to have difficult and challenging conversations and we teach them how to have these conversations more effectively.
As I move forward with this redefining process I will be engaging the following questions:
- How do we effectively integrate the expanding roles embedded in the construct of Conflict Specialist while maintaining integrity with our core values and commitments?
- What are the essential concepts, processes and skills necessary to develop personal and professional competence for engaging conflict and how do we support individuals and groups to build this capacity?
- What other bodies of work are informing our work and how do we incorporate it into our learning?
These questions will be at the heart of my posts for the weeks and months to come. I welcome any input feedback and thoughts. Let me know what you think.