Going Under the Conflict

Einstein is credited with saying that “you cannot resolve a conflict at its own level.” The point for us in Einstein’s words is that when it comes to dealing with conflict, we need not only breadth of understanding but depth as well. That means recognizing that conflict has an inner life and being open to that dimension. Repeatedly, we find that the basis for resolving conflict comes from examining with the parties, as best as we are all willing and able what underlies their dispute.

With this fourth principle, our focus returns to understanding but at a deeper level. A deeper level of understanding can make all the difference and therefore merits a special place in our core principles. The inquiry into what lies beneath takes place in each aspect of the conflict.

First, we work with the parties to understand what underlies the substance of the conflict. As we noted earlier, we help both sides identify what is truly important to each in the dispute—not only what they want but why they want it. In more traditional approaches, understanding is directed more to the surface of the problem—most frequently, how much money one side wants and how much the other is willing to give—as the professionals apply pressure on the parties to move to a compromise solution.

As we seek to deepen the parties’ understanding of what lies under the surface of their conflict in terms of the substance of their conflict, the goal is for the parties to ultimately be able to take each other’s views into account along with their own as the foundation for a solution that is individually suited to all parties. When the pressure is lifted and understanding is expanded and deepened, many mediations result in creative ideas that neither party had considered before the mediation began and that are ultimately more satisfying to each of the participants.

That is so because while conflict can be multi-layered and complex, certain restrictive patterns of behavior and ways in which people experience conflict play out frequently, but their source is usually hidden from view. Just as the roots of a tree hidden below the earth are the powerful life force to what we see above, what lies under the conflict is what gives it shape and force. Conflict is rarely just about money, or who did what to whom. It also has a subjective dimension—the emotions, beliefs, and assumptions of the individuals caught within the conflict. This subjective dimension includes feelings, such as anger and fear, the need to assign blame, and the desire for self-justification. It is also grounded in certain assumptions about the nature of conflict that support the conflict and keep it going, such as the reliance on right and wrong. These are conflict’s terms, and we join together with the parties in challenging those terms.

Beliefs about how conflict should be resolved need to be addressed if people are to move beyond the places where they have become stuck. Typically, these include the belief that the other person, or the other’s position, must change, the need to protect oneself against risk, or the belief that an authority must make the final decision.

What often leaves both sides stuck in the conflict is that the subjective assumptions, attitudes, and feelings on one side are usually matched by similar ones on the other. Anger engenders anger, blame is answered by blame; efforts at self-protection on one side compel a similar reaction by the other in what often becomes ricocheting and escalating reactivity. The subjective dimension underlying conflict is not only at work for the parties, but is also very much present for the mediator and other professionals involved. Appreciating what is going on within us as conflict professionals—our judgments about one or both parties, identification with one or the other, anger or fear, or compassion and empathy—can hold the key to our work with the parties. Our view is that an inescapable and critical relationship between the objective and subjective dimensions of conflict needs to be understood to effectively deal with most conflicts. Many approaches to conflict focus on one to the exclusion of the other, leaving out this essential inter-relationship. We believe the challenge is to understand both and their relationship. Put simply, to resolve conflict, it helps to understand it.

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Working Together

We believe that the best way for mediators to support parties in resolving their dispute is for the parties to work together and make decisions together. We appreciate that for many professionals, this is one of the most striking and questionable aspects of our approach. Most mediators regularly meet separately with the different parties (“caucusing”). Our goal is to work together with the parties directly and simultaneously. We will address at length in this book why we work in this way and how we do so. Here we highlight a few of the bases on which this core principle rests. We work in this way because it creates better solutions for the parties. We do it also because we believe it best honors the parties while also contributing to what we view as a critical need in society for developing better ways for people to go through conflict.

We do not believe that our approach to mediation with its emphasis on the parties working together, or any particular approach to mediation, is the answer to all conflicts. We do think that for those people who are motivated and capable of working together, there are many benefits.

It is clear that the mediator working together with all the parties is quite different from someone from the outside making decisions for them, whether that someone is a judge, lawyer, or mediator. But we don’t believe that a laissez-faire approach that might countenance one party yielding their decision-making authority to go along with the other makes sense either. As will be clear in the cases we explore in detail in this book, we work hard to make sure that when the parties work together and make decisions together, they are each able to act responsibly and are sufficiently informed to exercise independent judgment. While we seek to honor the parties’ relationship by working with them together, we do not wish them to yield their autonomy.

Indeed, underlying our entire approach to mediation is a view about individual autonomy and relationships. In the mediation world, we find ourselves in a position between those who see the goal of mediation as only supporting the parties as separate beings who need to stand their own ground and those who believe mediation is really only about the relationship between the parties. We believe that a positive tension exists in recognizing the importance of both the individuality of the parties and their relationship. Both are essential and we need not be forced to choose between the two.

Ultimately, we are both separate and interconnected. Autonomy finds its fullest expression in the context of connection and connection finds more power and richness to the extent it embraces autonomy. The stories in this book illuminate how this approach can make a difference in people’s lives.

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Party Responsibility – Let the Parties Own Their Conflict

“Let the parties own their conflict” means it is important to remember and honor that it is the parties’ conflict. They hold the key to reaching a resolution that best serves them both. And they have the power and responsibility, if they are willing, to work together toward that resolution. For us, that does not mean simply that the parties must ultimately agree to any final settlement of their dispute. Party responsibility means the parties understand what is substantively at stake for both and craft a resolution best for all. It also means the parties actively participate in shaping the mediation process by making ongoing choices, along with the mediator, as to the course it will take.

Thus, the parties exercise responsibility not only in determining the substantive result—the what of the problem, but they also participate actively in deciding the how—the way the mediation proceeds. For us, the what and the how are inextricably related; and the parties’ active involvement in shaping the how is more likely to lead to their creating a better result on the what. This does not mean that the mediator plays a passive role, yielding to the parties in determining the course of the mediation. Rather, as you will see throughout this book, we view the mediator’s role as both active and interactive with the parties. This stands in contrast to the assumption within the traditional approach to conflict that it is the professional who needs to assume active responsibility for the resolution of the controversy. Within this traditional framework, clients (or parties) are seen to properly yield a great deal of control and responsibility to the authority whether in the person of their lawyers, a judge, or even a mediator. In our approach, the parties are responsible and active, as will be evident in the cases that unfold in this book. The mediator, too, is responsible. The mediator’s responsibility is directed to supporting the parties in their ability to make choices together based on their growing understanding. Understanding ensures that those choices will be informed.

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The Power of Understanding

In the traditional approach to resolving conflict, the coin of the realm is the power of coercion. When parties disagree, the exertion of control through the use of threat, persuasion, manipulation, or the imposition of an external authority is considered inevitable, necessary, and proper. That is true not only in the traditional adversarial model of resolving disputes but also in many of the seemingly differing models of alternative dispute resolution that have evolved. While we do not pretend to be able to totally eliminate coercion in our approach, we try to bring the power of understanding to bear wherever possible as the gateway to resolution.

Understanding proves central along several dimensions of helping parties to deal with their conflict. One, of course, is the  substance of the conflict. We support each party in gaining as full  an understanding as possible of what is important to him or her  in the dispute, as well as what is important to the other party.  Understanding is also critical in creating a working relationship  between the parties and the mediator that makes sense to all.  And understanding can prove crucial in helping the parties to rec ognize the nature of the conflict in which they are enmeshed and  how they might free themselves from its grasp.

We want everything to be understood that may be important  to the parties in resolving their differences, from how we will  work together, to the true nature of the conflict in which the par ties are enmeshed, where it came from, how it grew, and how  they might free themselves from it. We believe the parties should  understand the legal implications of their case, but that the law  should not usurp or direct our mediation. We put as much weight  on the personal-, practical-, or business-related aspects of any  conflict as on the legal aspect. In finding a resolution, we want  all parties to recognize what is important to them in the dispute  and to understand what is important to the others. We strive for  a resolution to satisfy each.

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The Understanding-Based Approach to Mediation

One of the keys to the power of the Understanding-based model of mediation is that it is a real alternative. Parties have a variety of choices to resolve their dispute, in particular, proceeding through the adversary system either by having their lawyers negotiate for them or, ultimately, having a judge decide the matter. The Understanding-based approach poses a very different possibility and opportunity, one that we believe deeply respects and honors parties and leads to better solutions.

Understanding-based mediation offers people in conflict a way to work together to make decisions that resolve their dispute. This non-traditional approach to conflict is based on a simple premise: The people ultimately in the best position to determine the wisest solution to a dispute are those who created and are living the problem. They may well need support, and we seek to provide them support in helping them find a productive and constructive way to work together, to understand their conflict and the possibilities for resolving it, and to reach resolution.

This book is about deepening and expanding that understanding, and working together to create enduring solutions to conflict. To pursue this path, we work from a base of four interrelated core principles.

  • First, we rely heavily on the power of understanding rather than the power of coercion or persuasion to drive the process.
  • Second, the primary responsibility for whether and how the dispute is resolved needs to be with the parties.
  • Third, the parties are best served by working together and making decisions together.
  • Fourth, conflicts are best resolved by uncovering what lies under the level at which the parties experience the problem.

These core ideas are radically different from the traditional way in which most people think about dealing with conflict. They call and build upon the motivations of both mediator and parties to work in an alternative way, and we have found that for many that motivation is there once they see the possibility. These ideas in action challenge conflict

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The Conflict Trap

Allowing conflict to victimize us and others leaves us trapped in its grasp and diminished by it. Challenging Conflict itself has provided us with tools for understanding it and for opening doors for ourselves, our clients, colleagues, and students that likely would not have occurred were it not for the power of that stance. What we have come to understand is that, if unexamined, conflict has a way of readily enveloping us and taking over our lives. When conflict takes over, it creates its own reality. It dictates the terms on which we experience a conflict as well as those on which we try to deal with it. And it often does so in insidious, unseen ways that make us and others hardly recognizable to ourselves, never mind to each other.

Within conflict’s grasp, it seems the only way out is to win through pressure, persuasion, or manipulation. Or dig in your heels and wait the other side out until they come around. And if you become enmeshed in a prolonged stalemate, you can at least feel the satisfaction of righteous victimization. If that doesn’t work, well surely, a third party decider will vindicate you, because indeed there is one right and one wrong, and you are the one who is right.

These are the terms that conflict presents. We don’t accept those terms, not because they don’t capture so much of the reality that we experience, but because they lead to a dead-end or lack of resolution and because they are woefully incomplete. If we accept them as the reality, we are trapped in conflict. We challenge those terms. It doesn’t have to be that way.

You might conclude from this that we mean to eliminate conflict because of the harm that it does. Not at all. That is neither possible nor advised. We believe that the problem is not conflict itself, but the willingness of people to accept conflict’s terms and succumb to its downward spiral. Conflict offers an opportunity  for people to enhance their lives and deepen their understanding of themselves, each other, and the reality that they experience. As you will see, that is an essential part of our definition of mediation for the parties to gain understanding of their conflict and use it to enhance their lives. Not that we recommend choosing conflict. It simply means when conflict enters our lives that we face it and try to find a way to move through it with understanding.

We seek to do that  by making the participants to a dispute aware of how they, both parties and professionals, can become ensnared in what we refer to as a conflict trap. With that awareness, we can use the conflict to bring out the best in ourselves, rather than spiral down to our worst. Seen in this way, conflict can become an invitation to accept the reality of our automatic response to it and move beyond the confines of that response, to rise to the challenge of finding within us the understanding and compassion that liberates us from conflict’s hold.

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