Conflict Competence Blog

5 tips to think about conflict thoughts

October 18, 2015

Wouldn’t it be nice to change other people’s behaviour before it created conflict? The other persons acts or speaks, I form an opinion, and I react based on that opinion. A fast 3 steps to conflict. How does thinking about my thinking impact those 3 steps? Really? I think about my thoughts?

Perhaps it’s time to give thinking about thinking the attention it deserves.

Let’s start with 5 tips for thinking about thoughts that can help prevent or de-escalate conflict.

Thinking about thinking nurtures an internal conversation, such as how to:

1. Normalize anxiety.

2. Uncover resilience for coping with setbacks.

3. Know the Mindsets (watch Dr. Carol Dweck online).

4. Recognize surrounding clutter that negatively affects the brain.

5. Desist from so-called ‘multi-tasking‘ that overrides concentration, increases stress and decreases clear thinking.

Human brains work in patterns

We get into a cycle: Anxiety -> stress -> fear of failure -> engage the amygdala -> shut down the prefrontal cortex -> can’t think clearly -> anxiety -> stress -> fear of failure -> and so on. Conflict thrives in this pattern.

Shift the patterns of fear and anxiety that shut down high-level brain functions.

 

A Conflict Analysis of Why

April 20, 2014

When emotions are high, ‘why’ is almost always the wrong question to ask. It’s when emotions are calm and supportive that ‘why’ shows interest in someone’s thoughts and feelings.

Avoiding the word ‘why’ is work, but it works 

An excited father told this story the day after we practiced asking questions without using ‘why’. He pulled into a mall parking lot. His toddler in a car seat said, “Daddy, park there,” and pointed to her preferred spot. He parked in a different spot and the child screamed. He asked, ‘why are you crying?’ (a nonspecific and vague demand for explanation of behaviour he didn’t like). She ramped up her howls. He asked, “What was it about the other spot you liked?” (a specific, non-accusatory expression of interest in the other’s story). The girl sniffled and said, ‘It had a puddle in it.’

We should ask questions that get out the story. Here’s why. (That’s not a question)

The five Ws of questioning: Who, What, When, Where, and their sibling Why

The five Ws establish contextsAfter the people (who), issues (what), location (where), and timing (when) are known, ‘why’ is the vessel that pours the stories.

Well-timed, well-placed, well-worded questions are like art that touches nerves and opens hearts. Good questions clarify, test realities, raise new possibilities, and challenge boundaries that limit thoughts. However, questions starting ‘why’ – alone or with additional words – can continue or even escalate a conflict.

Formulate a good question before speaking it with these tips.

‘Why’ is a vague, nonspecific question. ‘Why’ demands an accounting, but of what? Specific questions are more difficult to form because conflict decreases our ability to articulate our thoughts. Thus, we default to easy ‘why’ questions because conflict compromises our clear thinking. The word ‘why’ alone can inflame argument or withdrawal into silence => conflict continues.

Vague, lazy questions get formulaic answers. The common answers to a ‘why’ question begin with ‘because…’ or end with ‘I don’t know…’ A ‘because’ justifies an action and often includes a counterattack. ‘I don’t know’ is a dead end. Either resists the call to account that’s demanded, which then deteriorates into arguing.  => conflict continues.

Why’ is a raft of assumptions floating in the guise of a question. ‘Why did…?’ assumes the party did something. ‘Why would…?’ assumes the person’s judgment is in doubt. ‘Why should…?’ assumes the suggestion is unworthy.  Assumptions about another contribute to the other’s defensiveness, which shuts down conversation. => conflict escalation.

‘Why’ implies blame. The usual response to being blamed is rationalizing motives, withdrawal from the conversation, or a denial so the person doesn’t look guilty.  => conflict continues.

‘Why’ perpetuates the pattern of communication that got the parties stuck in conflict. It might have started with some hurt. But, then the person who is asked ‘why’ feels the blame, confrontation or attack in the question and responds in kind. Additional ‘why’ questions contribute to everyone feeling misunderstood.  => conflict continues and escalates.

‘Why’ begs for a denial. The vague question gets a denial. ‘Why did you …’ leads to ‘I didn’t’ as often as it does an explanation. Denied action heads the conversation towards a dead end or heated argument.  => conflict escalates.

Without intending it, ‘why’ questions sound hostile and confrontational. Consider the tone of voice often associated with, for example, ‘Why do you want to know?’ or ‘Why do you care?’ The attitude is akin to ‘What’s it to ya?’ or, ‘Are you talkin’ to me?’  => conflict escalates.

Getting past ‘why’

‘Why’ questions intend to elicit understanding, not blame, incite emotion, or trigger denial. However, those are often the reactions to ‘why’ questions. Avoid the ‘why’ traps of ‘because’ and ‘I don’t know’ and denial with the other four Ws’ open-ended and non-judgmental specific questions substituted for their weak fifth partner.

Consider this: What’s the question underneath the vague ‘why’? What do you really want to know to show you’re interested in hearing the story. Then think of a good question worded to get that information.

When is ‘why’ safe to ask?

‘Why’ is sometimes appropriate. It can be a gentle probe for an explanation when the relationship is calm and supportive.

A simple test for using ‘why’ is whether the answer matters, and if so, to whom?

‘Why did you like that movie?’ implies the movie wasn’t likable, but so what? It’s okay someone liked a movie others hated. ‘Why was that your book club selection?’ shows interest in a book and no one else is affected.

However, if a relationship is in conflict over taste in movies and selecting books to read, the questions are loaded. The answers matter to those people.

‘What was the best part of the movie for you’ and ‘How does your book club select books’ removes the implied judgment.

Novel questions can prevent or deescalate conflicts 

Words have predictable or novel patterns in relationships. Conflict cycles over the same terrain with familiar arguments. Paying attention to language can create conditions that changes those communication patterns and decreases conflict. In complex adaptive systems, which conflicts are, changing one thing can change everything. Novel and thoughtful questioning enters the relationship system as inputs, and new possibilities for the relationship open.

 

A version of this article first appeared on mediate.com

The Mind Of A Mediator: my novel in progress

December 03, 2013

For the last seven or so years I’ve been writing a novel about a conflict manager. It’s been in the revision stage for six of those years. It stems from my interest in what goes on in mediators’ minds as we work. Writing the protagonist’s point of view has helped me think this through but I may never finish either the revisions or thinking about the internal workings of how I mediate. What genre this novel will be is unclear; I’m aiming for literary fiction in my highest aspiration and for just getting it published in my lowest.

We practitioners talk and write about many aspects of what goes on in mediation, especially best practices, research and our experiences (without party details – keeping confidentiality foremost). However, not much has been said about our in-the-moment thought and decision-making processes. Our love of conflict resolution analyses has not translated into writing about that moment of tension in which, with all parties’ eyes on us, we decide what to say or do next.

Do as I say – but do I know what I do?

We teach a linear stage or step model of mediating that is behavior based; do this, next that. However, we tend to use a nonlinear model that is cerebral based; think this, analyze that, or instinct based; feel this, emote that. In other words, the espoused theory of what we say we do in mediations, and the theory-in-use, (also called enacted theory), of what we really do and how we actually do it, may not align.

Think about any mediation, and there was most likely some heart stopping moment when you realized that the parties were expecting or needing you to do or say something. But what? Each intervention, every reframe or summary, and any caucus, has a potential to be a bifurcation point: that is, an instant in time that changes the parties’ path to something different, with no chance to return to what the path was before you said/did something.

How do I know what I think about where power is?

We sit in the mediator’s chair, usually at the head of table, and if you are like me, your mind is playing air traffic controller with dozens of intervention ideas and possibilities behaving like planes in the air. Depending on the mediator’s individual conflict resolution philosophy, orientation, experiences, and training, some ideas for interventions may land safely, some may be diverted to a different airport, some may remain in a holding pattern, and some may disappear from radar. The factors that influence our immediate decision-making in the nanoseconds between having the feeling/thought we should intervene and some sort of intervention in the form of words coming from our mouths, remain somewhat mysterious. How do we actually decide the precise moment to intervene and what that “best” intervention should be? Or, how do we decide that the ‘best’ intervention is none at all, while we sit silently watching the radar screen in our minds where our ideas and the parties’ interactions have near misses?

Not all of decisions have the same weight or impact. A mediators’ decision making scope ranges from early on: ‘I don’t have a conflict of interest and am available, therefore I will do this case’, to the day of the session and having coffee available, to which party speaks in what order, and every potential bifurcation point thereafter. But, the decisions often seem to occur without conscious discernment of the scale in importance or significance of each decision point. We do what we know how to do and trust that our individual decisions will not cumulatively impact the parties’ decision-making, because we believe that the decisions are theirs to make. Do we know this is, in fact, even true? Does the principle we espouse of decision-making being theirs apply to every decision or just to the ones involving the substance of the conflict?

That begs the next set of questions: what is the relationship between decisions we make about process and decisions parties make about content and substance? Do our decisions affect their decisions, and if so, how and to what extent? How innocuous/true is our belief that we only guide the process and the parties control the decisions and any outcome? Are those two decision streams silos or systems? If the decision streams are silos, our decisions about process should have no effect on the parties’ decisions about outcome. But if our decisions about process are part of the system, what we do does indeed risk affecting how they decide their own outcome. Do we take ownership of our own power and influence over their decisions?

What if beliefs about how I think are – shall I say – incomplete?

Decision-making is taught, researched and theorized. Dozens of decision-making models exist. Do we know which skills or models might be most appropriate in the multiple and complex contexts of various mediation styles? Do we even pay attention to what decision-making model we enact or espouse?

There are endless musings on decision-making that could inform mediator effectiveness. These are questions I have been pondering for the last few years. I still have more questions than answers; here are some preliminary thoughts about the instincts of our decision-making and impacts it might have on the conduct of mediations and outcomes.

1. From the first inquiry into a mediator’s availability until the mediator dies or retires, a mediator’s impact on a conflict’s decision-making path is engaged. In complexity science terms, a conflict is path-dependent: meaning how it goes depends on how it starts and what happens to it along the way. Conflict does not start at the mediation room door and stop when hands are shaken goodbye. The mediation and decisions made during it are added inputs in the conflict’s path so we should know how that works and how we work.

2. Which decisions are more important is revealed over time. Because mediators see only a fraction of the conflict, we may never know our impacts. Conflicts are comprised of discrete events as points in a time series that can be plotted. Interventions become part of the time series, incorporated into the conflict story no matter what the outcome. We can affect the conflict outside the boundaries of the mediation room in unknowable ways because we are part of the system. Our presence in the room was an input that can amplify or dampen conflicts’ changes over time.

3. Boundaries around conflict decisions are permeable. Linkages among decisions are not always clear. Maybe no one decision felt big at the time, but decisions’ effects’ are nonlinear, which means they can accumulate and cascade. If we just look at interactions in a linear and simple context, we risk missing important data about the conflict and our inputs into it.

4. Orientation towards risk affects capacity to decide. We talk a lot about mediation style and models, without considering that our risk tolerance and our capacity to use those models and styles are interconnected in our unique comfort zones. Do we pull back from lines of inquiry that feel dangerous to us or wade right into a morass?

5. Acceptance of ambiguity and uncertainty may be essential mediator traits, since only imperfect information exists. We stand in the tension of dichotomy and paradox without knowing anything beyond meaning we make of what we are told when we are under pressure to perform. Not only do we take for granted we understand how our meaning making machinery affects our decision-making skills, we also trust we understand how parties in the room make meaning that affects their decision-making.

6. The neuroscience suggests our decision-making performance may be hard wired in our brains, while the educational psychology suggests our decision-making performance can be improved. Is it either, or both of these that are correct or is the sum of the two greater than the individual parts? The science and art of decision-making suggest that what we do may be much more than what we understand we do, or it might be less than we assume we achieve.

In short, we pay more attention to advancing knowledge of skills without incorporating the complexity of decision-making. The intersection of decision-making, power, and mediators’ analysis of the risks and unfolding process as it unfolds is an overdue discussion. We make dozens of considered decisions about and during interventions with no idea of the eventual impacts. The power we wield over decision-making from our ‘impartial’ chairs may be a blend of fable we tell about our work and fact that we ignore.

Conflict analysis of Dialogue

June 09, 2013

There are many conflict management processes

Tuesday I conducted a Dialogue with a team that had been in conflict for – by their reckoning – about ten years. They were so skeptical of conflict management and reluctant to discuss their issues that I suggested we try Dialogue instead of mediation.

They humoured me. At the Dialogue’s conclusion, they declined to schedule another session, and expressed disappointment that Dialogue was just talk when they needed magic. We politely thanked each other and said goodbye.

There are many possible good outcomes

On Friday, I phoned the team lead to check in. She reported with pleasure that the team experienced its quietest few days in years. Something profound changed between Tuesday and Friday for a team that hadn’t been keen to participate, had engaged half-heartedly, and then was frustrated that Dialogue isn’t about reaching agreement.

It was reasonable that after a decade of tension they all wanted the conflict to end. I understood they’d resisted opening up to mediate their differences and then preferred to achieve an agreement. And yet … without that, now there was some peace in the workplace.

The group last week had lived their conflict story for so long that it was hard for them to Dialogue about their values rather than dialogue (talk) about their dislikes and disagreements. Even where their values diverged, they listened to each other. By the end of the Dialogue process, they related to each other at a richer level of their shared humanity.

There’s dialogue, and there’s Dialogue

Capital ‘D’ Dialogue is a method for giving a structure to talking. Dialogue isn’t structured the way mediation is.

Dialogue isn’t about an issues list, agenda, interests under the positions, staged model, and settlement. After the introduction and initial question: ‘what’s important to you’, I’m mostly silent. When the group tries to problem solve, blame, revert to task orientation or discuss specific disagreements, I gently bring them back to discussing their values, what they stand for, and what they cherish.

Much has been written about how Dialogue differs from debate, discussion and mediation. Few use it. That makes sense at a human level. Getting signed Terms of Agreement is more immediately satisfying for both mediator and parties.

To hear Dialogue unfold in real-time is a wondrous experience. But, it does mean letting go of control, agendas, judgments, staged models, and problem solving; in short, of all the things we’re paid to do to get things done efficiently in the time allotted.

The best example of Dialogue available for watching

The brilliant movie, 12 Angry Men, is named on almost all Best Of the Silver Screen Lists of the past 100 years.  In it, Henry Fonda plays juror number 8. He is the only one of twelve jurors who wants to consider the evidence before finding the accused guilty.

The summary of the movie is often: Film_591w_12AngryMen_original“A dissenting juror in a murder trial slowly manages to convince the others that the case is not as obviously clear as it seemed in court.”  http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0050083/

This not really correct. #8 doesn’t convince anyone of anything. We’re so unaccustomed to Dialogue that we see argumentation and persuasion and convincing when it isn’t there. In true Dialogue form, over the course of about 90 minutes, Juror 8 listens, asks questions and listens more.

#8 asks the other jurors to consider the evidence. He asks if they’re certain. He questions their beliefs, values and what’s important to them. He inquires if the evidence guides them to where they want to go or if they’re making it fit where they already are. It’s Dialogue shining in its brilliance. And we barely recognize Dialogue enough to accurately summarize what the movie is about.

small_bohm.jpg

David Bohm’s Proposal for Dialogue is found on various sites on the Internet. It’s a different way of talking. It’s worth shaking the dust off the Dialogue model in our communications toolbox to give it a try.

 

 

 

An Improbable Fairy Tale Of Alien Romance

May 03, 2013

Chapter One, Looking

There was once a lovely planet with a magenta sky and cinnamon flavored water. Although the planet was small, it was possible to see it in the universe if you were in the right place at the right time and knew where to look. The people on the planet belonged to many different social groups that lived together in communities, getting along with the others as best they could. It happened, on occasion, that someone from one group would develop feelings for someone from another group. That was seen as harmless by all the groups, but was not encouraged.

Such was the situation for two individuals that you might have noticed if you were looking in the right place at the right time. You could have seen BeeLa, a happy female of the Sparkle group, accidentally meeting Nonie, a quiet male of the Tinkle group, through no fault of either of them. Both had long lived contentedly alone, and neither had been actively seeking the complications of a relationship – and most particularly not a permanent relationship outside their own social group.

The first insight they gained was that feelings could guide someone where good sense would counsel one not to go. How we feel directs how we think and act, not the other way around.

So it happened. Nonie made an offer to BeeLa that, at first, she found easy to refuse. She was happy with her solitude as a single Sparkle and, even had she not been, she was not looking to change her life with a Tinkle, charming or otherwise. But charming he indeed was, and the offer he made was intriguing. He offered her only himself and her independence at the same time. Against everyone’s better judgment she accepted the offer just as it was, without any negotiating.

Chapter Two, Cross-Cultural Couplings

You might well ask if there was a reason that Sparkles and Tinkles, or any of the other social groups on the planet for that matter, did not couple with each other. In fact, there was a reason. It was easier to couple with someone of the same social group. This is their second insight: feelings can often take the hardest path possible. The hard path might not lead to happiness, but it certainly has the potential to lead to learning.

Sparkles and Tinkles, like all social groups, have their own cultures, rules and norms of acceptable behavior. No rule or norm was universally true for every culture, for all the time, or for every situation. Cultures, rules and norms are excellent things to have; they make it possible for social groups to function because everyone knows what is acceptable and how to behave. Cultures, rules and norms do everything from establishing the colour that means ‘go’ to determining what is beautiful, what is rude, and what is good to eat. Every part of life is described by culture, a rule, or a norm, whether we know it or not.

Coupling with someone from another social group could get confusing about how things actually worked. The Sparkle culture described certain things as good behavior and correct thinking, and the Tinkle culture described certain things as good behavior and correct thinking. But they were not necessarily the same things. This could be a challenge in couplings between individuals from the different social groups. Figuring out another’s culture, norms and rules required flexibility, perseverance, and a nimble mind.

Chapter Three, Specifics of Sparkles and Tinkles

Specifically, Sparkle culture evolved around personal privacy, and setting boundaries around what was your business and what was my business. No matter how close we might be in kin or friendship, you minded your own business and I minded mine. That was considered the only polite way to be in a relationship among Sparkles. Curiosity required poking into other people’s business. Thus questions, as a general social rule, were considered inappropriate. Loving a Sparkle meant respecting those boundaries of personal space.

Tinkles, in contrast, were curious by nature and got rewarded for asking questions early and often. No question was considered too stupid or intrusive to ask, even of strangers. Tinkles’ boundaries existed, but quite far away from their personal space, leaving plenty of room for inquiry. Also, Tinkles did not have the same number of rules of behavior that Sparkles had; a trait that might make Sparkles view Tinkles’ culture as messy, whereas Tinkles might view Sparkles’ culture as rigid.

Another difference in the two cultures was their verbalization of feelings. Tinkles said what they felt as they were feeling it, such as telling a loved one about that love just because it felt good to a Tinkle to say it. In Tinkle culture, if a male did not tell a female he loved her, it was because he didn’t. Sparkles also had strong emotions, but their norms were more constraining in speaking about their feelings. If a Sparkle male loved a female, he expected her to continue to know it until he told her otherwise. Females should not expect emotionally revealing discussions with beloved Sparkle males.

Tinkles were adventurers and Sparkles were homebodies. And so on. Perhaps you can see where this would lead for BeeLa and Nonie?

Chapter Four, BeeLa and Nonie together

BeeLa, as a typical Sparkle, needed a lot of privacy and her personal boundaries were set quite close to her. Nonie proclaimed that he was the perfect male for her. He was much quieter than the usual Tinkle, which suited her need for alone time. Nonie did not seem inclined to profess love as soon as and whenever the thought popped into his heart. If he had, it would have made BeeLa uncomfortable, thinking that he was needy and clinging, two characteristics the reserved Sparkles found very off-putting.

Therefore, BeeLa was prepared to give Nonie a chance to be part of her coupling, which was how these things happened on the lovely small planet with a magenta sky and cinnamon flavored water. Those with whom BeeLa and Nonie associated were concerned, but offered unconditional support if it made the new couple happy to be together. Without that support, they would have felt isolated. That was their third insight; individuals, even in couples, do not function in isolation from their community. No matter how much personal space they require, they also need to belong to a social group.

The coupling went very well at first. Everything that one did was a delight for the other one. Nonie was thrilled to learn that BeeLa liked the same cream, hung her decorations in the same way, and enjoyed the same music as him. BeeLa enjoyed that Nonie did the same sports, knew the same stories, and had the same values as she did.

Then Nonie started behaving like a Tinkle, telling BeeLa he loved her whenever his heart felt it. At first, BeeLa thought that was sweet and replied, “same here.” After a while, it began to feel smothering, as if Nonie were colonizing her. When Nonie said he loved her, her reaction became, “whatever.” Nonie felt rejected, which made him insecure in the relationship, so he did what any Tinkle would do – he tried harder to be more loving so that BeeLa would respond lovingly, which made her withdraw because, to her Sparkle sensibilities, that was cloying.

To counter his fear that he was losing BeeLa’s attention, Nonie asked BeeLa questions to show his interest. At first, BeeLa thought it was sweet and shared her stories. Over time, she felt verbally invaded. The more she retreated, the more he tried to show interest in her.

Chapter Five, Self-Defeating Acts

From being delighted in the things they shared in common, they became strained over the differences in cultures, rules and norms. It looked to be leading to the end of the coupling. Nonie figured BeeLa had the most needs: for space, for rules and for things done her way. All he needed was affection and to occasionally share fun activities.

BeeLa, on the other hand, was pretty happy with the way things were. When Nonie was too intimate, she got irritated until he backed away into his personal feelings of rejection, which fit her expectations of a couple just fine. It was, she reasoned, his problem to deal with any feelings of rejection or neglect that he chose to entertain. The cycle became: Nonie showed his interest, BeeLa reacted with her withdrawal, that led to his feelings of rejection, which renewed her satisfaction that he was now leaving her alone, so she became sweet, and Nonie showed his interest again, thus sparking a repeat of the pattern.

One day, Nonie sat glumly thinking about it, and concluded that, if one of them were to change things, it would have to be him, because BeeLa was most content being coupled with him when he felt rejected enough to leave her alone. So, asking her to not reject him was unlikely to succeed, since that change would work against her being satisfied.

He could not set about changing his way of being in the coupling without help in understanding Sparkles. It was not enough to understand BeeLa because much of her needs and expectations were culturally based. He sought an expert in Sparkle culture who was not a Sparkle, since a Sparkle would just think BeeLa was correct, and judge Nonie as being wrong. That was his fourth insight: being in the culture does not necessarily allow you to see it objectively. The judgment of a different culture is made through the lens of your own culture, and your own culture will feel right to you.

Gadgets were a social group that, like all social groups, had its own culture, rules, and norms of acceptable behavior. Gadgets had a well-developed sense of humor and laughed at almost everything. As a result, they had almost no tragedy in their lives because they did not view life’s setbacks as misfortune. Death, for example, was one of their funniest rites of passage. Thus, they were gifted in their understanding of the foibles of life, romance, and dramas the social groups conjured for themselves. Most comedians on the planet were Gadgets. If you had a problem, a Gadget would put into perspective.

Nonie called a close Gadget friend. Terbah laughed, of course, at Nonie’s seriousness, and said they could meet that afternoon. That was a fifth insight: it helps to have someone who is willing and available to laugh and talk.

Chapter Six; Laugh to Insight

Terbah was brutally, humorously honest as they sat in a garden with containers full of cinnamon and dried plant flavored liquid, enjoying the outdoors.

“Whatever makes you think that the social groups were supposed to understand each other? Gadgets’ best material comes from the innate inability of the groups to figure each other out. If I give you ‘the secret’ to understanding Sparkles or them ‘the secret’ to understanding Tinkles, I lose much of what’s funny in my shtick.”

Nonie did not find this helpful or comforting. “Surely there has to be something that will bridge the communication gap. Isn’t there a compromise possible?” It was a statement more than a question.

“You’re seeing a communication gap, where BeeLa’s seeing too much communication. I encourage you to find an engineer who can build a one-lane bridge that is big enough for vehicles to enter at one end and too small for them to exit at the other end. The big vehicles enter at the big end, while the small vehicles enter at the small end. When they meet in the middle they have to stop. That’s a compromise, and all you’ve got is gridlock in the middle of an impassable bridge.”

“So, am I right in having too many words and emotion going onto the bridge at the big end, or is she right having few words and emotion going onto the bridge at the small end?” Nonie was genuinely confused about who was to blame for the metaphorical gridlock in the non-existent middle of the imaginary ill-designed bridge.

“Trust a Tinkle to simplify this complex issue to an dichotomous choice of right or wrong. You are both right and neither one is wrong. You can’t make her wrong for not being expressive or interested enough, and she can’t make you wrong for being too curious or expressive. You can both try, but you might as well make the sky wrong for being magenta, or the water wrong for tasting like cinnamon.”

Chapter Seven; Compromise, Resolution, Transformation

“Okay, if compromise isn’t the way across the bridge, what are the other choices; to continue as things are or break up?” Nonie was losing sight of the Tinkle cultural trait of optimism.

“You’re again simplifying the complex; this time to create a false binary. If you identify only the extremes, then you get a choice of only two, of which one has be made good, and one has be made bad. It’s like saying that only small vehicles can use the bridge, or everyone has to stay off it, or at the middle all those who drove the big cars on will exchange with all those who drove the small cars on to continue the journey. It’s a forced, false choice. There’s also an underside to a bridge and magenta-space over it. Last I checked Tinkles didn’t have wings, but your social group evolves quickly, so don’t give up hope. But keep your driver’s license current just in case.”

Nonie suspected Terbah was mocking him but ignored that. “As it is now, my end of the bridge is wide enough for all my verbiage and exuberance, while BeeLa feels comfortable at the small end for her smaller verbiage and lesser curiosity. Both entrances to the bridge fit our individual needs until we get to the point in the bridge where we met. Then it is neither big enough for me to proceed, nor comfortable enough for BeeLa to proceed. And neither of us could turn on the narrow bridge to return the way we each entered. In other words, neither of us can win if we do it only my way or only her way. So, compromise is a partial win that leaves no one completely satisfied. I give up, Terbah, what’s left to try to resolve our problem?”

“Resolution only ends the current problem that’s been identified. Like, you both agree to buy one vehicle that will fit both ends of the bridge. Then, tomorrow the problem needing resolving is what to do with the old too big and too small vehicles. A compromise resolution is she agrees to talk more and you agree to talk less. Who’s happy with that? No, my friend, what you want is transformation of how the two of you interact when the problems arise, as problems always do. Change the interaction, or the way you look at the interaction, or the resources you have for addressing the interaction. Change something about how you interact around your problems. What makes a joke funny? Surprise. Irony. Novelty. Satire. The unexpected. Try something you haven’t tried before.”

Chapter Eight, Getting Off the Bridge

Nonie thought he was starting to understand. “If I was coupled with a Gadget instead of a Sparkle then, if I understand you, I would initially be delighted at your humor but I would become put off by the fact that you found my serious expressions of love and interest funny.”

“Just as I would go from finding your seriousness charming to finding you dull for being so serious. Gadgets rarely couple with other social groups; you’re a great audience for us but not sustainable in the couple gene pool.”

“But it isn’t your fault you find everything funny and everyone a potential audience. That’s part of Gadget culture and rules and social norms.”

“Yup, my point exactly. Expecting me not to find the humor in every situation is not much different than asking you to say something in less than a paragraph, with a back-story and more detail than BeeLa can possibly absorb. Or than asking BeeLa to give you a rich and full description of what she saw during her day. She isn’t interested because she isn’t interested. It doesn’t fit her rules of coupling.”

“So, I was becoming irritated with BeeLa for ignoring me, and expecting one of us to change our nature to suit the other. You are suggesting that we change how we interact with each other instead. So she could continue to be solitary when she needed to be, and I could continue to be gregarious when I needed to be. But we would not find that a problem because our new attitude towards the interaction was more understanding, more compassionate.”

“You got it Nonie, and I would contribute to that, even more trusting that the positive interaction in the moment would carry you through the present and next temporary irritations.”

Chapter Nine, If it doesn’t change you or me, what does it change?

Nonie mulled over the insight and listened with part of his brain as Terbah proceeded to make fun of his situation and tell old jokes about couplings, which on other days would have had him laughing until he gasped to breathe. Terbah, seeing that Nonie was neither laughing nor paying attention, rose to leave. Realizing how rude it was to not be the audience that Gadget culture, rules and norms thought he ought to be, Nonie started to promise his full audienceship if Terbah would stay.

“Call me when enough time has passed that your current calamity has become a comedy.” And, the sixth insight was that humor would go a long way to changing calamity into comedy.

Nonie wished Terbah farewell and sort of watched as his friend moved away. Gadgets did not exactly walk so the movement was worth watching, even for a Tinkle whose normally bottomless brain was now feeling full. Long after Terbah was gone from the garden, Nonie was still looking in that direction, unblinking, with his thoughts a bucket of colors, fragments, and pending breaches in his barrier to knowledge.

Eventually, he believed he had made sense of it. He struggled to frame another insight: a compromise was good enough for the time being but might not resolve the bigger issue; for example, agreeing on how much they talked. A resolution might solve a bigger issue; such as they might agree to some overall balance in talking, shared activities and alone time. A transformation, on the other hand, could change the nature of their interaction over how they addressed all their issues in the short and long term that left each of them meeting their own needs, and also being aware of and meeting the other one’s needs.

Compromise wasn’t enough. Only a transformation of the nature of the relationship could allow them to be themselves, and also with each other. Assuming he had that right, he still was not entirely sure where to go from there. However, he believed he and BeeLa could figure it out.

Chapter Ten, If a Bridge is Non-Functional, Change Something

Nonie still sat alone in the garden considering the insights as the magenta sky glowed darkly. He thought he was coming to understand the insights.

When it was time to make choices, it would be easy to grab at the first solution that came to mind. If his was the big, unusable vehicle, for example, whereas a small vehicle might fit both ends of the bridge, using only the small vehicle made sense. However, he thought he could also envision a lot of other possible solutions. The bridge was the bridge and if it was already built, he could go around it, re-engineer it to fit both size vehicles, change the nature of all vehicles to fit at both ends, get out of the vehicle to walk the bridge leaving a vehicle at both ends, or build another bridge that fit.

“BeeLa wasn’t necessarily wrong in the coupling,” he said aloud to the now dark magenta sky, “unless she was made to be wrong so that I could be right. If she manages her feelings of irritation and silence, and I mange my reactions of rejection and enthusiasm, we haven’t changed us, but we have changed how we interact together.”

He figured he did not need to tell BeeLa this in order to fix things. BeeLa was right and he was right. Therefore, it was how they each managed their interpretation of the interaction between the two of them that could be transformed. Without consulting her, he could begin to not feel rejected and neglected when she needed to be left alone. The only thing that would change would be his interpretation of her attitude, acts, words, and intentions. It wouldn’t take long before she would be ready for the discussion about giving him the same benefit of the doubt when he expressed his jubilation and passion.

He snapped a mental picture of what that change would look like: the attitudes of compassion, patience, warmth, and kindness, replacing the attitudes of irritability, impatience, rejection, and unkindness. If they made the effort, it would meet BeeLa’s needs and his needs, and it would become a habit. It was a habit worth forming, not just for this relationship, but also for how to live in the lovely planet with a magenta sky and cinnamon flavored water that contained many social groups, and all sorts of conflicts.

The End

first published on mediate.com May 2008

Complete list of available posts

March 13, 2013

Welcome to my posts about various aspects of conflict and the skills of being conflict competent. Navigate to topics of interest using this list of titles. The categories are on your right. Let me know if there’s a topic you’d like added.

  1. Transforming Conflict Attitudes December 31, 2008
  2. It Depends: Finding balance in conflict January 31, 2009
  3. Conflict is a Relationship March 15, 2009
  4. You don’t need permission to change a conflict March 23, 2009
  5. Are peaceful workplaces possible?

    April 20, 2009

  6. Know your thinking and belief style to be conflict competent April 29, 2009
  7. Good Manners = Good Conflict Management

    May 07, 2009

  8. Missing girl children: Conflict Prevention? June 30, 2009
  9. Lesson on Conflict from the Galapagos Islands June 30, 2009
  10. Disappointed Expectations are a Source of Conflict July 31, 2009
  11. Apologies have a role in conflict management August 31, 2009
  12. Pandemic panic conflict November 01, 2009
  13. Blind Spot analysis November 28, 2009
  14. Conflict management lessons can come from anywhere January 06, 2010
  15. Conflict management and the movies January 26, 2010
  16. What does it mean to be conflict ‘competent’ February 21, 2010
  17. Mediation Myths March 22, 2010
  18. Conflict Analysis of Theory of Mind April 25, 2010
  19. Being difficult and being yourself May 29, 2010
  20. Conflicts from confused roles and responsibilities July 26, 2010
  21. Clear roles and goals reduce conflict and stress August 22, 2010
  22. Relationships matter as much as technology October 22, 2010
  23. Hollywood can teach about conflict management November 17, 2010
  24. High salaries don’t guarantee conflict competence January 1, 2011
  25. A conflict analysis of anger May 5, 2011
  26. Immediate success can nurture future conflict July 7, 2011
  27. Metaphors for conflict competence September 9, 2011
  28. Conflict management helps set goals and reduce stress December 12, 2011
  29. Professionalization of Conflict Resolvers August 8, 2012
  30. Ali and Nino; a better path to restore honour without killing March 01, 2013
  31. Interpersonal conflict isn’t a spectator sport March 3, 2013
  32. An improbable fairy tale of alien romance May 2, 2013
  33. Conflict analysis of Dialogue 9 June 2013
  34. The mind of a mediator: my novel in progress 3 December 2013
  35. A conflict analysis of ‘why’ 20 April 2014
  36. Four tips to improve conflict competence 16 Jan 2015
  37. 5 tips to think about conflict thoughts 18 Oct 2015

 

Don’t you just hate it when the computer eats your articles? I sure do. This list includes some posts I wrote and didn’t manage to save before upgrades to my site downgraded them into oblivion.  I can recreate some of them and would happy to try if you ask.

  1. Peacemaking Sports (with references) 2008
  2. Conflict when the Goals are the Same 2008-05-07
  3. Personal Decisions Create Peace 2008-04-24
  4. Conflict Life Cycles 2008-06-16
  5. Travel for dialogue while we still can 2008-7-1
  6. Conflict Mental Maps 1 2008-7-25
  7. Managing Conflict Reduces Stress 2008-8-2
  8. Problem solving for success 2008-08-08
  9. Preventing Conflict 2008-09-21
  10. Interpretation and Conflict Competence 2008-09-21
  11. SideTaker.com – no wonder we lack conflict competence 2008-09-22
  12. Deliberative Democracy – talking about difficult public issues 2008-09-29
  13. Conflict Patterns 2008-10-12
  14. Interconnecting Peace, Environment, Safety Health 2008-10-19
  15. Talking with the enemy 2008-11-16
  16. Dissent is okay 2008-04-06
  17. Perfect Storm, Perfect Opportunity 2008-11-25
  18. Having a difficult conversation and being yourself 2010-05-29

Interpersonal conflict isn’t a spectator sport.

March 13, 2013

Four Tales, One City.

photo credit http://www.fergie.ca/aboutcal.htm

photo credit
http://www.fergie.ca/aboutcal.htm

The city where I live is in conflict over how to grow sustainably. The issue turned into a war of words the media (especially the Herald’s story Two Tales, One City although four tales are told) fed on for over a month.

While many called the fight an immature power struggle among City Hall’s elected representatives, bureaucrats and industry, I analyzed it as normal. Debates occur at systems’ bifurcation points (the point at which there is no return to try another path if the one taken doesn’t work out). For many reasons, I was delighted that citizens got involved in the high level conflict.

Interpersonal conflict isn’t a spectator sport. We question whose facts are correct, what agendas hide, where strings get pulled, and when/how conflict might end. This can clarify what’s going on and how it got to be that way.

I can use this conflict as a good example of many conflict strategies, such as timely apologies, use of media, public education of change, and the complexity of conflict. In teaching conflict management, I prepare negotiation and mediation role-plays with back-stories for each role. Learners act as the conflict’s parties. I encourage learners to participate from the perspective of their party’s role.

j0149396_2f5b47b02From the role-plays, learners conclude parties’ motives are usually honest, no one is entirely right or wrong, and every party has a valuable perspective contributing to solutions.

Conflicts are data about people who care enough about a system to argue, which makes resolutions robust. Systems exert energy to maintain the status quo, called dampening change. System inputs also amplify, bringing uncomfortable turbulence and uncertainty until we adapt to change, as we will.

Conflict needn’t get personal and often does. That’s normal. Passion, not indifference, builds a great city.

Thanks to anonymous parties, whose facts and names are changed to protect identities, for the gift of rich new material. Here are sample handouts:

people1_fwCommon information: A city grew quickly to over 1 million population with a large footprint and rapid home price increases. The current disagreement is over future growth. There’s lots of land available but some say sprawl is expensive, subsidized and unsustainable. Others like suburban living and deny it’s sprawl. Some city councilors and developers believe proposed changes would limit homeowner’s choices. Some who agree development changes are necessary question what change should happen. Recently, the debate got emotional among four parties, each claiming to have been misquoted and that the others’ statements are untrue. It’s been simplified into a power struggle over suburban growth or inner city intensification. This either/or frame has polarized the conflict. The Mayor has called a meeting of the four main perspectives to resolve the conflict.

The four parties to the meeting individual information:

176402467_5fc369ba58_tMayor: Your election as mayor changed local politics. Your vision city building remains popular. The city hired a chief planner to change development and urban planning processes, which you want, but you don’t agree with freezing suburban development. You’re impatient to get on with transforming the city’s long-term sustainability and will use your power against naysayers. You believe the developer’s representative owes you an apology. Your goal: Defend your vision, make the chief planner earn your support, and get everyone to agree.

chief planner.Chief Planner: You knew the city’s urban sprawl was framed as the buyers’ right to choose where to live. Before you’d accept the job, you requested assurance council supported transforming how planning was accomplished and what development plans were approved. So you were blindsided when a city councilor took shots at you in media and council chambers. You can’t compromise planning principles because that’s what you were hired to do. As an employee you speak ‘truth to power’ including to the Mayor. Your goal: Transform city sprawl, and build citizen support through public speeches about 21st century planning.

councilorCity Councilor: It isn’t the chief planner’s place to make speeches, criticize, and usurp council’s authority to set policy. You believe in housing choices, respect for the way communities have always developed, and clear role definition between employees and elected officials. The Mayor is enamored with change. You stand up for developers who help the city prosper. The development and builders’ industry is a powerful lobby and you’re wary of being perceived as under its influence. Your goal: Silence the chief planner unless he defends industry’s right to acquire developable property and profit, while you want to be seen as objective.

industry repRepresentative of the development and building industry: You speak for the industry. The chief planner says he’s streamlining development approvals but he also criticizes the developments being approved. You called him on his mixed messages and defend the industry contribution to the city’s quality of life. People should not be forced into locations or homes suiting city policies. The Mayor is well educated but doesn’t represent everyone. You want to suss out councilors who agree, and donate to their re-election campaigns. Your goal: Ensure members’ continued right to acquire serviced land, build suburbs, and support growth oriented councilors.

Ali and Nino; a better path to restore honour without killing

March 01, 2013

What can a novel teach about one man’s individual capacity to resist thousands of years of cultural tradition that harms women? One turning point in a story gives me hope for cross cultural conflict management.

imageAli and Nino, a novel published in 1937 in German, will enjoy new life when the movie now in development hits big screens. The paperback version landed in our family bookshelf shortly after the story was translated into English. The story is summarized on the movie website: http://www.movieinsider.com/m9807/ali–nino/

At the beginning of the 20th century, Ali Khan and Nino Kipiani live in Baku, the cosmopolitan, oil-rich capital of Azerbaijan, which is a melting-pot of different cultures. Ali is a traditional Muslim boy and Nino is a Christian Georgian girl with sophisticated European ways. Despite their differences, the two have loved each other since childhood and Ali is determined to marry Nino as soon as she finishes school.

The novel is a great read. It’s also fun to delve into the mysteries of its authorship, controversies about plagiarism, and online analyses of the plot.

Spoiler alert – Ali found Nino in a situation where he felt justified to murder her, and his friends supported the ‘honour killing’. But Ali didn’t do it. Ali loved his tradition, his religion and his country, and died defending those values. Yet, when Nino expected to die at his hand, Ali spared her. He’d killed her abductor, so what caused him to spare her?

If it were only a love story, it would be easy to rationalize Ali’s refusal as not killing the woman he’d loved since they were children. Clean, neat explanation; very nice for Hollywood that sells love stories. I’m wondering, is that all there was to Ali’s act? Selfishness? Love? Compassion? Fearing loneliness without her? All of these? Even more profound – Ali found it in his heart to understand what had happened from Nino’s perspective and he forgave her.

Ali and Nino married after her ‘defilement’ and lived happily. Ali, an aristocrat, resumed his privileged station with Nino visibly at his side, contributing to their government’s policy development in world affairs.

To those who believe that murdering a female is a solution to anything, the novel stands for the proposition of an alternative route to purification and restoration of honour. It wasn’t Ali’s compromise act or rejection of his cultural tradition. Their happiness as a couple, as parents and as citizens contributing to their country’s wellbeing was grounded in Ali’s deliberate decision and forgiveness that he had the personal strength and integrity to make.

Professionalization of Conflict Resolvers

August 12, 2012

Those of us speaking out against creating certification for conflict resolvers don’t seem to have a lot of allies. The weight of popular opinion is that certification with standardized credentials should (must) be done. I appreciate an opportunity to present a cautionary point of view.

Conflict Resolution is an ancient tradition

A first exposure to our field is often sibling rivalry and the parental response to it. Some of us may recall reading the Bible story of King Solomon’s solution to two women claiming motherhood of the same child. To this day he is synonymous with wisdom in resolving intractable conflicts. Conflict resolution is not something we recently created.
Many cultures have a tradition of taking conflicts to the elders, religious leaders, respected community members, or other wise men and women who earn that prestige on the basis of their personal qualities and position in the community. Those esteemed people act in the role according to their instinct and ability. Their cultures survive the lack of credentials for the role.

The conflicts of today may seem more complex and wicked. Some are. However, it is still the respect for and trust in the conflict resolver that should inspire people to bring their conflicts to her or him. To think about measuring the performance of elders, who have the role because of tradition and respect, puts a different perspective on the debate. Too often the standards are academic and the qualities of trust and respect, which are hard (not impossible) to measure, drop off the list. To the extent that conflict resolvers of color or ethnicity are disadvantaged in the credentialing process, the field would be wise to expand the conversation about credentials to encourage mediator diversity.

Standardizing the process

Since the mainstream acceptance of conflict resolution is what we wanted, what are some of the issues generating anxiety? Some are straight forward, such as, is conflict resolution a profession? What does competence mean? What is an appropriate model of intervention? What body, if any, should have responsibility for monitoring the field? What level of training entitles someone to practice? Should there be controls over what each process can be called? Who now speaks for the peace and conflict “movement”?

While these are interesting and important questions, which conflict resolution process are we asking the questions about? We do have a conflict resolution continuum and we know that many models are available. We understand that the list is not exhaustive, and some models were unheard of a decade ago. With the questions answered and processes standardized, are we stifling the creativity that gives conflict resolution its value? Let’s explore the discourses around credentialing.

Conflict Resolution is Interdisciplinary and Inclusive by nature

The discourse of standardization suggests that there is a best practice and the principles can be quantified. There is no one profession that can say it owns conflict resolution, or can claim that theirs is a more correct model. Mediation, for example, has historic roots in labor, civil rights, family, community justice, courts, game theory, cooperative problem solving, organizational development, communications, industrial relations, and more recently, complexity science, to name only a few. Law, which lays claim to much of the mediation field now came somewhat late in many ways to the conflict management movement.

Whatever the original discipline of conflict resolvers, they bring the sum total of their learning and experience to their conflict interventions. There is room for innovation and evolution in the conflict resolution universe. We should be encouraging more people from different disciplines to find new applications of the models and to bring their many skills to us.

If there had been credentialing bodies in the 1930s when mediation began to flourish, it is unlikely that innovations we today believe are good mediation practice would have found their way into our repertoires. Exclusionary requirements, such as needing the certification of one discipline or another, or some over-riding body, are contra-intuitive to the flexible, evolutionary nature of conflict resolution.

Education of users is the best protection

One of the more prevalent discourses for credentials is the need to protect consumers by telling them that a conflict resolver has met minimum standards. However, in reality, this would be neither protection nor a standard of excellence. There are at least two embedded concerns to unpack in this. The first is finding a competent mediator in the first place, and the second is recognizing competence during the mediation process.

Finding a competent mediator happens now, in the absence of any standardized process. The free market offers options ranging from word of mouth, referrals, reference checks, Internet searches and pre-retainer interviews. Websites such as doctor rating service site (e.g. http://www.ratemds.com and http://www.ratemymd.ca) are models of how public opinion is available to anyone with time at a wired computer. Rosters are available in multiple places and formats. Should those be standardized? Perhaps it’s more important to have sufficient credible information in accessible and user-friendly formats.

The second concern is working with the selected mediator before and during the mediation session. Once the certificate of mediation competence is awarded, the certificate holder is still working behind closed doors within the bounds of confidentiality. The service user has no way of knowing if s/he received a competent service unless he/she has some conflict management competency.

The best protection, for users and providers alike, is to educate everyone about what good practice looks like. If parties want a transformative mediation and get a head-banging evaluator, they should understand it is the style of that intervener and the model s/he uses – not mediation in general – that is different than their expectations. If users know the differences, they can obtain what they need in the way of service.

The alternative is to keep conflict resolution as mysterious and labyrinthine as the law, so that only practitioners understand it and problems must be turned over to the practitioner for resolution. This is contrary to the stated claims of conflict resolvers that conflict resolution processes are empowering to the disputants and gives them control over the outcome. We cannot have it both ways. We either keep the knowledge and control or we share it widely. If we truly believe that conflict resolution is empowering and returns control to the parties involved with the conflict, we should not be the ones drawing lines around where that empowerment and control ends for them and begins for us. In short, we have to walk our own talk.

Conflict Resolution is a life skill

Another discourse is that conflict resolution requires hours of training and practice for proficiency. Hopefully, that is true. However, it also not true. What we do is largely common sense and everyone should have access to the knowledge behind it. A valid critique of this comment (by Diane Levine, to whom I am grateful) is that once in a conflict, the skills we easily use in times of calm are difficult to call upon. This is the reason mediators add value to the conversation. If everyone had the life skill, our services might not be necessary. However, the fact that conflict makes us subjective does not shift the fact the mediation skills themselves are ordinary and should be taught to everyone. Credentialing can turn a life skill into an esoteric ritual that only the ordained can practice.

Our goal should be to have every school child trained in and understand the theory and practice of good interpersonal relationships. There should not be any mystery about conflict resolution that demands that only professionals are licensed to practice. If we are to successfully transform the future into a peaceful place to live, a first step is to give everyone the required skills, not hoard them for a privileged few who qualify. The proliferation of conflict resolution training courses is a start. For example, an organization might sponsor a Human Resource expert’s training in the expectation the HR expert would then provide in-house mediation services for staff. If the organization and staff are getting value from the HR expert having this additional skill set, must the HR expert then have to meet qualifications external to the needs of the organization? Let us not set roadblocks in the path by letting people take the course, then making them qualify to apply the knowledge.

Conflict Resolution personalities

The discourse about testing as a guarantee of quality assumes that the right things are being tested. Taking a generic 40-hour training course, practicing the requisite number of hours and passing a test may entitle someone to a credential. It does not guarantee that they will be adequate conflict resolvers. One size never did fit all.
Recently, about a dozen very experienced conflict resolvers created a list of the qualities that make for an excellent conflict resolution personality. These included such attributes as clear thinking, calm, appropriate risk taking, wisdom and a sense of humor. Those don’t appear in four-step models that are the basis of mediation training.

Conflict resolution models abound and so do personal styles. A good blend of conflict resolution model and personal style may create an excellent conflict resolver. Someone with a good conflict resolution personality may use an intuitive, unregulated model all their own and be excellent at intervening successfully in conflicts. Someone else, with good technical skill in the four-step model, may have a completely inappropriate personality for resolving conflict. Credentialing may not be designed to or capable of assessing that. We do not know the answer to this question yet because it is not part of the standard test.

No matter how critical some may be of another intervener’s personal style, there will be a client and a conflict for which that style may be suitable. If the teacher, religious leader and community elder have conflict resolution personalities, they should be a part of the conflict resolution universe, without having to apply to yet another discipline for permission to do their jobs.

Whose interests are being served?

The discourse of providing a public service by pre-screening competence is high-minded and noble. Is it real? Where is the push for credentials coming from? My clients do not ask if I have a certificate of competence from any organization. Nor would a certificate to practice offer them protection if I have an off day during the intervention I do for them.

Since we are skilled at getting to interests, the questions might be asked: Who would benefit from an embedded system of credentials? What do the organizations pushing for credentials say is their motivation?

When I read the papers of the task forces of the various organizations lobbying for credentials and barriers to practice, the majority of them are geared towards convincing the profession to accept the need for credentials. Thus, the argument put first is that it will assist in obtaining work. I have no problem with this, since the right to work is important. However, since we are trained to get interests on the table, let us be honest if it is our own interests driving the move to credentials, with the public interest as a cover.

It seems to be the certificate granting agencies that stand to gain the most. They write the rules, collect our fees to apply to get the letters after our names, administer the test for a (large) fee, and then charge ongoing amounts for keeping the certification current. It is an administrative empire being built on the backs of people doing work that they have been doing for years without the piece of paper. The value added to the practice, the client or the practitioner by this new bureaucracy is not yet quantified.

Where is the research?

The discourse of –˜everyone knows that some practitioners are incompetent’ suggests that someone has done some data collection and found incompetence everywhere. If credentialing is the answer, what was the question? Is there research showing that a large swath of incompetent conflict resolvers are out there giving bad process and harming clients, the administration of justice and the general reputation of the field?
We certainly hear anecdotally about some conflict resolvers we would not want to recommend because we disagree with their style. Do we have any statistics about how prevalent or frequent this is, to justify a new category of jobs called conflict resolution regulators? Is the push to credential warranted, or self-protectionist, empire building? Is it good risk management or an institutional money grab from conflict resolvers and their organizations? Is it the search for status as a new profession, or some other entity altogether? It would be helpful to know what harm is being addressed to better understand if credentials are the mitigation for that harm.

Alternative solutions

Perhaps we should be listing the main characteristics of each of the processes along the continuum. We could list the models of each of those processes and the best practices of each of the models, followed by the qualities of an excellent conflict resolution professional for each of the models. Only after that should we even consider such mundane criteria as the number of hours of course work required. As each innovation, evolution and mutation of a process arises in response to need, we could share the new knowledge by expanding the attributes continuum.
We should be emphasizing the best practices inherent in the many rich conflict resolution models, the need for depth of knowledge of the theory, core values, principles and the requirement for a conflict resolution personality that is appropriate to the models a person intends to practice. We could honor the depth of indigenous knowledge of the elders who have personal qualities and skills we do not yet teach.

The micro-skills of each particular model are the easiest issue. Yet it is towards those minimum standards of the micro-skills that the bulk of the energy in the debate about standards and credentials is directed. If we are going to test for competency, let us enhance the palette of what are important mediator qualities for the clients and users.

Conclusion

Professionalization under the guise of public protection seems to really be protection for the self-interest of the practitioner. It will keep the untrained – by our definition – out of the practice thus excluding the elders, the community workers, the intuitive naturals, those with stature in their cultures and others who have been doing the work for years without recognition or credit for the value of the work they are doing. It will marginalize those who cannot pay the thousands of dollars to be steeped in our standard first-world model that barely recognizes the voices of the other gender, cultures, races, classes, experiences or locations. Those who are ‘othered’ by the standard model of practice, which will be enshrined in the push for standards and credentials, are the very people who would gain the most from processes that champion empowerment, recognition and control over the conflict in the hands of the disputants.

Conflict management helps set goals and reduce stress

December 10, 2011

Clearly understanding roles and goals greatly contributes to stress management in many situations, whether in a family or organization. Uncertainty is stressful and becomes blame, confusion about who does what, and feeling what work you do is unappreciated. In one case I mediated, the manager and employee had such different ideas of what each one’s role was, that their goals were constantly clashing. By the time I was invited to help, the manager’s goal was to find a way to get rid of the employee, while the employee’s goal was to undermine the manager whenever possible. They were both very stressed and mistrustful.

By asking opened-ended questions to frame the conflict management approach in the mediation, we were able to reopen the communication about what was underlying the conflict:

1.Determine the particular reason for having a goal.

In this case, it didn’t take long to discover that the reasons for the two goals made sense to the two parties. They’d been tripping over each other because of unclear roles and expectations. Once they saw that as a shared goal, they could discuss the hurtful things they’d done and said to each other.

The reason for a goal is fundamental to the approach to setting the goal. If the reason is to meet a target, such as sales, then setting the goal might have quantitative questions: how much, what size, which territory, who is responsible etc. If the reason for the goal is to support someone’s personal growth and development, the questions might be more qualitative: what feelings, whose perspectives, when in time, is it in the job description etc.

2. Discover the nature of the relationship between the people involved in setting the goal.

Power played a big part of their mistrust and enmity. The manager had lots and wielded it in ways the manager thought appropriate to get the work done; the employee felt abused. When that was on the table, the employee could commit to working in the clarified job duties without needing to be whipped to do it.

The context for the goal setting influences the process. Is there a power differential that might set of tone of the more powerful person dictating goals to the less powerful person? Is the relationship so strained that the people involved might never be able to agree on who has what role or responsibility? Is it peers who are collectively setting a team goal that all will be asked to meet?

3. Delve into how empowered the people involved are.

The company shared some of the responsibility for the conflict because it didn’t have clear job descriptions or expect regular performance evaluations. In other words, the manager had also felt abandoned in trying to do a good job in management. The employee became much more obliging when it was apparent there were opportunities for both to grow in their jobs.

A common scenario might be a supervisor, who we’ll call R, giving a yearly performance review to a staff member, who we’ll call D. In this scenario, R and D may have a distant relationship based on past history of irritating each other, or a friendly relationship because they think on the same wavelength. R must still reflect on what his/her intentions are for the meeting with D to set her/his goals. The choices for R would range from: having a friendly conversation because all is well with D’s work, to having a disciplinary tone in which consequences are set out if D does not meet R’s expectations, or anything in between.

4. Develop a clear intention for the process of setting goals

One of the outcomes both were particularly happy about was the decision to meet more regularly to discuss their shared goals and set new expectations. They each wanted more structured goal setting and mutual support.

If you intend to set achievable goals, have an understanding of the power dynamic and options for how to frame the conversation. Some questions to ask yourself before going into the goal setting meeting might be: what assumptions do I have about the reasons, goals and employee; are those assumptions skewing my intention; if I change those assumptions do the intentions change?