TIPs: Theory, Application, and Practice

5 tips to think about conflict thoughts

October 10, 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 4, 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

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.

Interpersonal conflict isn’t a spectator sport.

March 3, 2013

Four Tales, One City.

photo credit

photo credit

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.

Professionalization of Conflict Resolvers

August 8, 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. and 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.


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 12, 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?

The power of apology in conflict

September 9, 2011

This week I witnessed the importance of sincerely offering or graciously accepting an apology. Granted, during times of high emotions, it isn’t always easy to do either. In these two cases, how an apology was offered (or not) and accepted (or not) had the power to change the outcome of the two relationships.

The first example was between a man and a woman who had recently started dating. He did something quite tacky that upset her. She explained how his actions had affected her. He had a choice to make about how to respond. He might have argued that she was wrong to view his behavior the way she did. Or, he might have justified how he acted in order to explain it away. Or, he might have ridiculed her for being upset and made it her problem for taking offense. Had he taken any of these options, their relationship might have ended that night.

Instead, he decided to listen to her perspective, respect her emotions, understand her point of view, apologize for upsetting her, take responsibility for what he had done and ask if she needed something from him to make amends. It was an artful apology, sincere and strategically offered. It diffused her emotional reaction to what had happened. Their relationship deepened and grew stronger instead of being damaged.

The second example involved a mother and teenage daughter who were hiking. The mother inadvertently took a wrong turn and they wound up across a gully from where the rest of the family waited for them. The daughter, trying to return to the correct trail, plunged into the gully despite the mother advising her not to go through the bush, The daughter was wearing shorts and sandals, so–  she was hurt when she bushwhacked through a patch of stinging nettles.

The mom apologized for getting them lost and tried to give aid to her crying and distraught daughter. The girl refused to hear her. She was in full blame mode. The daughter told the reunited family she would never hike with mom again. Mom was crushed that her apology was rejected but remained steadfast in taking responsibility and never mentioned the caution against entering the gully. Eventually, the daughter was able to chill enough to accept the apology and all was well between them.

Having seen how they improve relationships, it seems to me that offering and accepting apologies are skills we should practice more, whether the parties’ affiliations are strong or weak. The couple in the first example now have a wonderful relationship that might have ended before it had a chance. The mother and daughter might have endured a fracture in their communication as the daughter went through her teen years, when communication is most challenging. An apology, and its acceptance, healed both harms.

In these two cases, the players had strong attachments to each other that encouraged them to try to make things better. Even the weaker ties of workplace and social club attachments can benefit from people taking responsibility with the power of apologies. Both the person choosing to make and the person choosing to accept an apology– wind up feeling empowered when they make the decision to take responsibility and fix the conflict.

Immediate success can nurture future conflict

July 7, 2011

A small story in the media 12 July 2011, is a cautionary tale about trust in conflict zones and the law of unintended consequences.

The rumour is that the CIA used a nurse and doctor to withdraw some blood while vaccinating suspects. They used the needle to get a DNA sample. Sometime afterwards, the CIA performed a military operation in the compound because it had confirmed the suspect was indeed there. The CIA has not confirmed whether or not the story is true.

So, what’s the problem with tricking people using a fake medical scenario to obtain medical information or data?

First, trust breaking. The West and the Arab world are in high stakes conflict situations in a few places. Medical personnel in high conflict zones put their lives at risk, relying on trust about their impartiality to deliver emergency services to all combatants in need of treatment. Will they now be trusted as impartial? Eventually, peace will have to be negotiated. Those negotiations will require some level of trust among the parties. Deceit and trust building are usually mutually exclusive.

Second, the law of unintended consequences. The Internet is– rife with conspiracy theories that inoculations are a Western plot against Muslims.– Already some Muslim communities are refusing vaccinations that they believe are a plot to sterilize them or introduce genetic mutations or illness. Polio could make a resurgence as a global plague because those communities don’t trust the West. This ploy to find a targeted man using a medical team to vaccinate and, without consent take blood for DNA testing, feeds that conspiracy story.

While the CIA operation of DNA analysis was high tech, the device for obtaining it was simple. However, peacemaking can suffer when linear thinking is applied to complex nonlinear conflict situations.– For one objective – finding a person – there may be a setback in a global health objective of using modern vaccines for eradicating diseases.

Relationships matter as much as technology

October 10, 2010

There is a pattern in two major events that occurred this month:– 33 miners were rescued— in a breathtakingly heroic effort in Chile and, at the other end of the hemisphere,– Calgary elected a new mayor. What they have as a common theme is the credit the media gave to the technology that led to the success of both endeavors.

In Chile, amazing machines brought 33 men and a few rescuers to the surface. In Calgary, an almost unknown professor with about 1% popular support when he entered the race used electronic devices to raise his popularity high enough to sweep the competition. At least, those were the stories that made the news.

The better and mostly untold story is about the relationships of collaboration and consensus decision making that created the conditions for success in both cases.

The 33 men in the mine shafts, after initial trial and error about how to get along in extraordinarily harsh circumstances, self organized their lives underground and averted interpersonal disaster. When the technology found them, they had figured out how to survive as a group. The new mayor of Calgary understood the technology was only a tool for policy and platform content. He had something to say that was worth hearing and social media and networking was how to get out his good messages.

Bottom line: the technology is good to have, but it isn’t the whole story. Without the tools of interpersonal relationships and consensus decision making, which supported and made the technology fit the situations, both stories might have ended differently.

We still need to have our own resilience, conflict management, and interpersonal relationships skills. We might never run for office or be trapped by forces beyond our control. Yet, each day we have challenges that technology can’t fix and our skills can.

Clear roles and goals reduce conflict and stress

August 8, 2010

Last month I wrote about confusion in roles and responsibilities contributing to conflict. Having said that, someone asked for more information about how to fix the situation.

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 replace the manager. They were both very stressed and mistrustful.

One of the relevant conflict management skills is asking good opened-ended questions. Here’s some steps to take, which is not an exhaustive list but will help frame the approach:

1. Determine the particular reason for having a goal.
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.
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.
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. R and D may have a tense 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 about work 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
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 my intentions change?