Our work in the Understanding-Based approach to mediation and collaborative practice gives direct attention to how people get trapped in their conflicts, recognizing the outer and inner dimensions of that trap, and how we can work effectively to support them in finding a way through and out of their conflicts.  We start that inquiry in this newsletter, and will continue it in the future.

Being against the other, Judgment and the Conflict Trap

Court cases in the U.S. (and likely in many other countries) are labeled Plaintiff Versus Defendant, which means, of course, one side “Against” the other, e.g. Jones vs. Jones, Sander, Inc. v. Mainline, Inc.State v. Foster, etc.  Many lawyers typically label their legal files (or correspondence) in the same manner.  When mediation cases started, mediators and lawyers had to decide how to label their files (or correspondence) since “Against” was not the spirit of mediation.  While there is no official nomenclature, most mediators use “Jones with Jones,” or “Sander, Inc. with Mainline, Inc.”

This simple difference has enormous implications.  While parties to a dispute differ, often strongly, they need not be seen or see each other as “against” one another.  Rather, they can see and be seen by each other as trying to work “with” one another.  The spirit and reality of that possibility can be vitally important in how people think and feel about and experience conflict. But the scope of that challenge in reaching for that difference can be hard to realize or even understand. Yet the promise is there. Since conflict is so rampant, and too often so destructive, the possibility of touching that promise in a meaningful way holds enormous potential for the development of mediation and collaborative practice and for so much more.

The challenge is great. Conflict is and will continue to be widespread.  It is the all too normal way relations (business, personal, social) develop, evolve, are sometimes clarified, and too often run askew.  But the destructive ways conflict is so often experienced and dealt with are not inevitable. And the differences in how we deal with conflict can contribute not only to whether mediation, collaborative practice and other alternative processes for conflict resolution are constructive and wise, but also to how we live with one another in the world.

–          Right and Wrong

In conflict, the general social perception (from inside the conflict or from outside) is one between right and wrong.  Each side experiences itself as right and the other wrong, and each readily believes and feels that it needs to prove itself right and the other wrong.  That is not only the model in court, but also on television, in the press, sports, schools, politics, in and between families, etc.  It has fueled ethnic, religious, international conflicts for centuries at enormous human cost.  Indeed, the right/wrong framework has stayed firmly with us since the day that Cain killed Able. Once caught in conflict’s

In short, “right and wrong” holds enormous power over individual psyches and our social psyches.  Advertisers know this, which is why so many TV programs are grounded in the struggle between right and wrong. “Who done it?” And “will they get what they deserve?”  “Right and wrong” touches us deeply.

The turn toward mediation, collaborative practice and other “alternatives” is a movement, as we see it, away from a rigid right/wrong perspective on differences to one that allows that each side has right, or, stated differently, that we need not see things strictly in terms of right and wrong.  But that other possibility is enormously hard to achieve, or often even to understand.

While it would likely be a mistake to see all differences as simply relative in a value neutral world where there is no right and no wrong, many, many conflicts involve and are sustained by strongly differing perspectives where the experience of the disputants is very much that they are right and the other wrong.  Or, at the very least, that their actions are justified given how they were wronged by the actions of the other. And much of the work of mediators is to help the parties see that there can be different perspectives on the same problem from different vantage points without there having to be one right and one wrong.  That for us is at the “heart” of mediation and can be liberating for parties in conflict and for the professionals who serve them.

We do not need to see those with whom we differ as wrong and ourselves as right.  The differences between us can be very real and very important and still be difference that we seek to address together, if we choose to.  They need not carry the extra enormous baggage of our having to see ourselves as right and the other as wrong and to prove ourselves as right and the other wrong.

–          Recognizing Differing Perspectives

Another way of saying this is that when parties are in conflict, they are readily convinced of the truth and rightness of their view and, correspondingly, the falseness and malevolence of the other’s.  Those of us on the one side experience ourselves as simply trying to protect our self, our family, our business or other assets.  The “other” in the conflict is correspondingly motivated, we can only assume, by the desire and intention to harm us.  Of course, from inside the world-view of the “the other,” the picture is likely reversed, but we do not see that or we discount its validity if we do.

A short way to capture the dimensions of this dynamic is that we tend to judge ourselves by our intentions while we judge others by the impact of their actions upon us.  Our own intentions seem justifiable, even well-meaning.  But if the impact of the other’s actions proves hurtful to us, their intentions must be malevolent.  When both parties are imputing the best to their own motives and the worst to the other’s, conflict can seem inevitable.

Once set in motion, this ricocheting and mutually reinforcing dynamic is hard to stop, and easily escalates. Caught in conflict’s grasp – what we call “the conflict trap” — there seems no escape.  Without a way out of the tight grip of this dynamic, the parties’ negative judgments of one another readily block any attempt at meaningfully dealing with one another, let alone working together toward a resolution of the conflict.

As we see it, one central way to help the parties out of the conflict’s trap is for the disputants to understand that people see things from different vantage points – they have different perspectives.  Differing perspectives can stand next to one another without the one having to cancel out the other.  Differing truths, each of which is felt as absolute and necessarily negating the other, cannot.  Much of what can and often does meaningfully go on in mediation and collaborative practice is educating the parties about seeing conflict as a question of differing perspectives rather than singular truths.  Once the parties to a conflict can begin to appreciate that, they may be willing to see their own view as their own view and recognize that the other from his or her perspective may have another.  In order to help the parties to begin to understand that they each have a different view of the truth and that their view does not have to cancel out that of the other, mediators and Collaborative professionals need be willing to accept, tolerate and encourage each person to express his or her truth and hear that of the other without having to argue or judge.

An old Yiddish tale captures the spirit of that challenge.

A young, and fairly new, Rabbi in an Easter European shtettel at the end of the nineteenth century was faced with a dilemma.  He was called upon to resolve a dispute between two families that had been going on for years.  He knew how important dealing meaningfully with that dispute could for those families and also for the whole community which was heatedly locked in the embrace of this conflict.   He found himself overcome with the challenge as it continued from week to week, month to month, year to year. And it was threatening to tear these families and the community apart. So he did the only thing he could do that might help.  He suggested that the families travel the considerable distance from the small shtettel to the larger town to where the Grand Rebbe, who had been his teacher, resided.  The families agreed, and with their horses and wagons, their extended families and friends, the two camps traveled the two days at their Rabbi’s advice to see the Grand Rebbe.

Upon arriving, the younger Rabbi approached his mentor, overcome with emotion, and after they embraced and greeted each other, he said to his teacher “Grand Rebbe, I have a challenge like none other I have faced in my years since I left this home of your wise teachings where I learned so much. Only you can help.” The Grand Rebbe spoke gently to his student.  “I am so happy that you have come. Please tell me and I will listen.”

The young Rabbi burst out the tale. “There is a dispute in my shtettel that has divided the community deeply and threatens to become only greater, with potentially tragic consequences for these families and for the entire community. And, thanks to the Almighty, the families have agreed to present the dispute to you for your judgment.”  And so the young Rabbi told his teacher the nature of the conflict, and the Grand Rabbi empathized with his former and present student and agreed to meet with the disputing families.

The next morning, the two camps assembled in the large meeting room where the Grand Rebbe invited them to the present their differences.  The spokespersons for the first family did so with vehemence, outrage and accusation, with supporting murmurs from that side of the hall.  After they had finished, the Grand Rebbe sat in silence for two or three minutes and then rose and said it a subdued tone, “I think you are right.”  That side burst forth with cries of delight, while those on the other side of the room looked despondent and bewildered. The young Rabbi looked on incredulously.

“And now I would like to hear from you,” said the Grand Rebbe, turning to the other family with their many supporters.  And that side put forth a very different view of the entire situation, with even greater vehemence and sense of outrage for what they had suffered at the hands of the others over so many years.

And when they were finished, the Grand Rebbe again pondered in silence, then said, “I think you are right.”  And this side of the room erupted in cheers while the others looked on in shock, disbelief and anger.  The young Rabbi, trying to take in what had happened, was overwhelmed with feelings of astonishment and bewilderment at what he thought he had just witnessed, and quietly and respectfully asked his beloved teacher for a moment in private.

“Grand Rebbe,” he said, “respectfully I must say that I simply cannot understand.  You are the greatest teacher, the one who has filled my life with knowledge and hope, and I came to you out of desperation. And today, the one family presented its side of the dispute, accusing the other to be the source of the entire conflict, and you said they were right.  And then the other family presented a totally opposite view and pointed to the others as wrongly and maliciously  causing all the trouble between them, and you said that they are right.  I am bewildered and simply cannot understand.  They both cannot be right.”

The Grand Rebbe was silent for what seemed to his student like an eternity, and then said, “I think you are right too.”

The Buddhist poet Rumi expressed the same in a simple and wonderful way  —

“There is a place beyond right and wrong.  I will meet you there.”

We will continue this inquiry in our next newsletter.  We welcome your joining us with your thoughts on our blog.