Conflict Competence in fiction and non-fiction

The Mind Of A Mediator: my novel in progress

December 12, 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 6, 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.”

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.


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 5, 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 May 2008

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

March 3, 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:–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.

Metaphors for conflict competence

September 9, 2011

It was a real pleasure to be in a workshop with Bernie Mayer on Friday in Edmonton Alberta. I learned a lot and very much enjoyed the conversation with about a dozen conflict managers. Somewhere in the discussion, this expression was used:–

Pick your battles.

It’s a cliché and it’s powerful in its message to walk away, avoid, withdraw.

‘Pick’ suggests exclusion, a narrowing down from many to one or a few. –˜Battles’ imports the image that we are facing many fights of which we will engage in the one or few we deem worthy of us. The aggression in ‘picking’ and ‘battles’ goes a little way towards making us feel in control of the course of life or relationships.

Other common clichés we say to explain the reason we accept something instead of resisting it, when the energy isn’t there for the effort.

This isn’t a hill to die on or
Live to fight another day.

  • Dying on any hill, literal or imaginary, detracts from the quality of the life I want to live.
  • Certainly, I want to live another day, preferably to engage with the world in a positive, productive and purposeful way.
  • We use hostile sayings mindlessly, meaning we don’t pay attention to the power of the words.
  • If we’re serious about creating a culture of conflict competence, here’s a good place to start – by being intentional about the metaphors and language we use.
    • Choose your conversation
    • My preference is to walk in peace
    • Live to engage in talk again

Next time you manage a situation to deal competently with conflict, give yourself credit for the decisions you made. Out of all the responses possible, let’s rewrite the expressions to use conflict competent words.

Hollywood can teach about conflict management

November 11, 2010

It isn’t often I go to a Hollywood movie and then want to buy the DVD to use in my conflict management classes. When Martha, my colleague and friend, suggested we sneak in a matinee of “You Again” I agreed only because it was a rainy day and I didn’t have any pressing deadlines.

Now, I want to see it again and show it to everyone I like. I’ve bought the DVD.

You Again has a terrific cast and the script has truly funny lines. It’s marketed as a chick flick, which is unfortunate. Everyone of any gender or age could enjoy this movie and take away something for his/her own life.

The main character, Marni, was bullied in high school. She went on to achieve success in business. It did indeed get better for her. Her brother became engaged to the cheerleader who bullied her, so Marni sets out to sabotage the wedding. Marni’s intention is to save her brother from marrying a woman that Marni believes is a bad person. It gets hilarious as all the generations become involved, which doesn’t at all detract from the serious messages about bullying that lurk under the skin of Marni, her mother and grandmother. It seems that all three experienced bullying from their own perspectives.

The subtext also includes the transformative power of insight into our own behaviour and the adaptive changes we are all capable of undergoing. Marni is hostile to a memory of what someone did to her, and that person no longer exists. The enemy has evolved into someone Marni could actually like. And, the bully has her own story to tell about what it was like for her in high school.

All the characters turn out to be sympathetic and likable once we get to know them. The story is a conflict management equivalent to a work of art. You’ll find something in You Again that reflects your taste and point of view.

Conflict management and the movies

January 1, 2010

Some professional mediators were talking and the question came up about when to “use” conflict management techniques. Those in the conversation wanted to know when it was okay to behave ‘normally’ and when they were to behave with conflict competence. There was a lively discussion about this.

After the various arguments for and against the opinions were aired, we were left with a couple of choices. Either conflict management was a technique that one used strategically, or it was a way of being in the world much as your personality gives you a way of being in the world. Having heard the arguments in support of the positions, what might be left to propose?

A compromise seems somewhat unsatisfactory: e.g. sometimes be conflict competent and sometimes not! There isn’t an obvious reason to willingly be conflict incompetent. Is there an integrative alternative? Perhaps it is cinema that offers an insight. Every good story has a conflict at its core. A movie without a conflict is one where not much happens that an audience wants to watch. The conflict can be subtle internal angst or cars blowing up in a plotless serial display of special effects. Hollywood knows that conflict drives the story, and we are, after all, the sum of our stories. A totally peaceful life is not all that interesting.

Perhaps we can do the drama, and the venting, and exhibit our righteous indignation over the unfairness or injury. Then, we can process the information before taking a moral and ethical high road. In other words, maybe we can be both conflict competent and incompetent. We can have the full range of –˜normal’ human emotions and reactions. Then, before we react the way those human emotions and reactions are driving us to do, our conflict resolution side can slide like a veil back in front of our faces.

Is there another option, or a completely different set of questions that would reveal  "the answer?"