Optimism and the Conflict Professional by Catherine Conner

As everyone was preparing to leave after having reached an agreement at a recent mediation, one of the attorneys said to me that she always liked to be pleasantly surprised when she didn’t think an agreement was possible. Since then, I have been pondering her statement, our culture’s attitude about conflict, and professionals’ impact on people in conflict.

Conflict is often considered quite unpleasant, unproductive, and to be avoided if at all possible. When people come to conflict professionals about a dispute, they typically have already tried to work it out themselves and have given up.  Sometimes they blame the other person for their impasse and sometimes they take some of the responsibility themselves, but their feeling is often that the conflict is intractable and there is nothing more they can do.  They think they don’t have the skills to work through conflict together.  They may feel powerless and hopeless.  They often feel quite pessimistic about finding a solution.

Their lawyers may feel similarly pessimistic.  Studies have shown lawyers are generally more pessimistic than the average person.  The lawyer’s job is traditionally focused on preparing for a court to make a decision because the parties cannot.  Thus, even though lawyers work towards and can reach agreements, they are often thinking about what happens if there isn’t an agreement.  When they initially hear about the conflict from their client, the pessimism of both the clients and lawyers may reinforce each other.

I am naturally a pretty optimistic person, with a sense that things will work out well and looking for the silver lining even in difficult circumstances.  Not hopelessly Pollyannaish, but definitely on the half full side of a problem.  When I serve as a mediator, my optimism can help to balance the pessimism or hopelessness that the lawyers and parties feel.  With even just one person in the room who believes that conflict itself isn’t so bad, that we can work through it and that a solution can be found, the parties can try on the idea that they will figure it out.  When they feel discouraged, knowing someone else believes they can do it may be what part of what helps them to find additional motivation to continue.   I have seen parties get a “second wind” after asking me if it’s worth continuing and hearing my response that I think an agreement is possible.

Many of us have experienced how critical it is to have someone believe that we can do something that seems a stretch or impossible for us – a parent, a mentor, a teacher, or a coach.  As professionals working with people in conflict, our optimistic belief that the parties are capable of working through conflict and reaching an agreement together may be what helps them to stretch and make the extra effort to do that.