The final four on my top 10 list represent some of my more recent learning. They are elements of an emerging shift in the way I understand the work of conflict engagement and have expanded the context in which I choose who I will be and what I will do while engaging conflict. Let’s look at the final four.
7. Moving Forward: An early lesson for a mediator is that the process is not about resolving the past but about assisting the parties to move forward toward a more desired outcome. It is believed that resolution of the presenting conflict will get the parties “unstuck” and create a foundation for moving forward with mutual purpose and in pursuit of mutual benefit.
While I continue to believe the fundamentals of this, I find that in many cases it is more complex than simply resolving the conflict and moving forward. I am increasingly aware that in many cases in which we reach a settlement, the conflict remains unresolved. While agreements are reached about issues related to the current manifestation of the conflict, the deeper conflict remains.
In some programs in which we provide services, statistics are kept on settlement rates and attempts are made to assess the “durability” of agreements reached. For many of us in the field, the focus on this type of data is not always useful and may in fact be very misleading as to the long-term value of conflict engagement resources. Yes, we are committed to moving forward as we navigate the complexities of conflict engagement. We need to expand the context in which we assess this objective.
8. Dealing with Imperfection: In his book, Staying with Conflict: A Strategic Approach to Ongoing Disputes, Bernard Mayer introduces us to “stubborn” or “enduring conflict”. He describes some of the dilemmas of engaging conflict of this nature.
- No Comprehensive Solution Will Solve the Problem but the problem must be addressed
- Struggle is necessary, cooperation is essential
- Decisions must be made in condition of profound uncertainty
- Need to live with ambiguity but find the energy that derives from clarity
This more clearly articulates some of the challenges to moving forward identified above. Much of the language used to date to describe our work focuses on the goal of conflict resolution. If you and I can just sit down and have a productive conversation we will resolve our differences, and everything will be great. If I can sit down and facilitate a challenging conversation for your team, you will resolve your conflict, become unstuck, and become productive and effective.
I do not mean to disrespect, in any way, the work of our field. I do want to point out that in many ways it is so much more complex than what I have described. It is messy work and often moving forward does not always look like what we would like it to look like.
Years ago, I asked an early mentor of mine what they thought were the key characteristics of an effective mediator. Optimism and perseverance were their reply. Still seems appropriate in the face of profound uncertainty and imperfection.
9. Long Term Perspective: We can no longer define the engagement of conflict as a discrete event in time. For those of us who might define ourselves as conflict averse, we must shift out of the paradigm that conflict is something to be resolved or fixed, so that we can make it go away.
In my first Mediation seminar, conflict was defined as two or more people who interact and perceive incompatible differences related to their resources needs, and/or values. Conflict manifests itself in the way we choose to behave in the context of this interpretation. In my first post in this series, I spoke to the issues of independence, interdependence, and mutual purpose in the context of healthy and thriving communities. Given this definition of conflict one can pretty much assume that conflict will never be fully resolved or fixed but will continue to be part of our collective experience of interdependence.
Too often when faced with this reality we choose to avoid the conflict and live in what Scott Peck refers to as “pseudo-community”.
Conflict is part of our daily existence. Who we choose to be and what we choose to do in relationship to it must come from a long-term perspective.
10. Conflict Engagement: When asked why they choose to work as part of a team, many will identify the value of the diversity of perspective and experience as part of their response. If this is true, then we are not always well served when we are focused on managing, resolving or fixing these differences.
We must increase our capacity to engage, be with and explore conflict for the value to be found. We must confront our desire to avoid conflict and learning to engage it with some level of hope and optimism. As I write these words I struggle with the sense that I will be perceived as being somewhat naïve.
In the book referenced above by Bernard Mayer he invites us to shift the way in which we see our function from:
- Prevention to Anticipation
- Management to Support
- Resolution to Engagement
We are just getting started.