It is helpful for us as people working to support others in dealing with conflict, to understand our own experience with conflict from the outside as well as the inside. In other words, our experience of conflict as an observer of others as well as how it feels to be in conflict ourselves. In both contexts, conflict can be readily seen and experienced as an enormous, and too often, destructive force with subtle and persistent attraction and incredible power. That force can keep individuals, organizations, communities and societies caught in its relentless grasp for weeks, months, years, decades, lifetimes, generations and centuries as the bible and history bear witness. We call that: “The Conflict Trap.”
It can be helpful to recognize the power and persistence that the Conflict Trap can have over any and all of us. When conflict takes over, it creates its own reality. It dictates the terms on which we experience others and ourselves caught up in conflict’s grasp — right and wrong, winning and losing, success and failure. And it often does so in insidious, unseen ways that can make others the personification of evil and can make us either completely unrecognizable to ourselves or, if we are willing to admit it, perhaps a bit too recognizable.
Conflict readily dictates reality according to its own terms to those in its grasp. These edicts might include the need to think, feel, and speak based on right and wrong, winning and losing. Emotions, such as anger, rage, and righteous indignation are evoked and readily escalate. Others may be felt but are, if recognized, kept hidden. Hurt and fear are sometimes denied and unseen. Compassion, connection, understanding, and caring often disappear, as if they don’t exist.
It seems that the only way out is to win — through threat, pressure, persuasion, or manipulation. Or dig in your heels and wait the other side out until they come around – knowing, even if you become enmeshed in a prolonged stalemate, you can at least feel the satisfaction of righteous indignation. And if the other does not wisely succumb, 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.
Mediators are often thought of as third party deciders responsible for recognizing who is right and who wrong and acting accordingly. There is a danger that mediators too, can often find themselves thinking of themselves as responsible for this task as they seek to devise ways to help the parties end the conflict. From that experience and perspective, almost any technique that helps the parties reach closure can make sense including caucusing or substituting one’s own solutions for those of the parties.
The Understanding-Based approach suggests that supporting people caught in Conflict’s grasp requires not only helping the parties work out some kind of solution on the surface. It means recognizing the power of Conflict’s hold over the disputants, and also all too readily over us as well, and seeking to free them (and us) from that hold. We seek to do so by working with parties in conflict, not only in physical form in the same room (our non-caucus approach) but also in spirit as we seek to find ways to deepen understanding within and between the parties and reach for solutions that honor all of us.
We have found six principles that have guided us in that work. We set them out briefly here:
- First, we seek to rely 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 their working together and making decisions together with the support of the mediator.
- Fourth, we seek to proceed by agreement about how we work at each step of the mediation as well as the substance of what might be decided at any point.
- Fifth, we work to allow tension and to honor and work creatively with it and through it rather than denying or avoiding it
- Sixth, we recognize that conflicts are best resolved by going under the conflict — working to uncover what lies under the level at which the parties experience the problem and fuels their conflict.
In future Newsletters, we will from time to time be developing each of these principles and their importance and power in supporting parties to resolve their conflict through understanding.