We all come into a conflict with our own stories, whether we are the parties, a mediator, or another professional. The parties each have their own story about themselves, each other and the conflict. And as they begin, the conflict professional starts to form a hypothesis about the situation. Parties also may come in with a story about the professional, created from internet research or word of mouth.
Even the space where we work through conflict can affect the stories we tell ourselves and each other. With much of our work moving online, backgrounds during virtual meetings can give us another glimpse into the lives involved—it’s a mess in the background, their location is richly decorated, there are people milling about, etc.—these observations also help shape our stories.
So there are at least three complex stories going on in the room simultaneously —more if other parties or professionals are in the room. These stories often include strong expectations about what will happen in the process or in the outcome of the conflict. Paying attention to our stories can deepen the understanding needed to work through the parties’ conflict.
We often believe our stories to be “The Truth”, or at least substantially accurate. And because of confirmation bias, we strengthen our belief by grasping onto facts or statements that are in alignment and ignoring ones that are inconsistent. It may also be that family or friends have helped to shape our narrative and cemented our belief in it. We then predict what will happen based on our faith in our story. We know what will happen.
The conflict professional can help shine a light on the assumptions and beliefs underlying stories and make the implicit explicit. As we seek to understand what is important to someone and why, we are also helping them to examine their story and decide whether to “edit” it. And we can also examine the story we have been creating and pay attention to how it is affecting our work with the parties. What is the story I am telling myself about what will happen and should I hold it in a different way?
Helpful intuition may arise out of your story about the people but in an undefinable way. For example.if you feel in your gut the power dynamic is off in the room, it probably is even if you can’t describe how. You may be able to simply state, “something seems off,” or you may just stay open and observant. However, trusting intuition can also be tricky, as our hypothesis about what will be happen or what is going on could be off because of prior experiences, our own desire to help, transference, countertransference, or distractions. For the professional, recognizing our own implicit and explicit biases is also pivotal and one element of ourselves that we must continually strive to be more cognizant of.
When we pay attention to stories, we must do so in a way that is in alignment with the Understanding-Based Model, which prioritizes the agency and autonomy of the parties in conflict to solve their problem. In our webinar, I Knew What Would Happen, we will discuss more about the role of stories and provide insights on working with intuition and how to check and work through biases rooted in every story in the room.
By Antoinette Delruelle, attorney and mediator with the New York Legal Assistance Group.
Before becoming a mediator, I represented victims of domestic violence (DV) and intimate partner violence (IPV) in family cases and divorces for nearly two decades for the New York Legal Assistance Group, a free legal services organization in New York City. From this experience, the prevalence of IPV became clear—it transgresses race, ethnicity, religion, age and socio-economic background. According to the CDC, a quarter of women and ten percent of men experience DV or IPV in their lifetimes. As a divorce attorney, I find violence even more prevalent. It is imperative for mediators to understand IPV, how to screen for it, and how to determine whether mediation is the right course of action for a couple.
A pattern of coercive control is the hallmark of IPV. This control is exerted through various means including physical, psychological, emotional, financial and sexual. Mediation is based on five fundamental pillars—autonomy, good faith/fair dealing, judgment, information, and safety—and when coercion and control are the modus operandi for one of the parties in a conflict, these pillars will be wobbly or completely non-existent. As consequence, not only will mediation fail, but it can bring more harm to the survivor of IPV and their children.
Separation is the most dangerous time for survivors and we cannot mediate if a party is unsafe. For the person causing harm, the goal of the mediation is to maintain contact with the survivor for as long as possible in order to continue to coerce and control. Since the mediator has no power, the person causing harm could take advantage of the mediation process and endlessly change their mind and never agree on anything, drawing out the process to keep the survivor in their control. A court might take a long time, but in the end, a judge will make a decision.
Furthermore, parties need to be able to say what is important to them in mediation in order to reach a fair agreement that will last. When there is IPV, it can be unsafe for the survivor to disagree and explain why. Mediation also requires mutual exchange of information (including financial) which can be particularly challenging when the person causing harm is the gatekeeper to the couple’s finances. Another common source of tension in the mediation process revolves around parenting. If one parent is fearful of leaving a child in the custody of another parent, mediation would not be appropriate since the mediator has no authority to impose any conditions or certain behavior on any party.
These dynamics occur on a spectrum, with some cases being more extreme and dangerous than others. When screening cases, I try to find out how strong the five pillars of mediation are, using the SAFer Mediation Discussion Guide developed by the Battered Women’s Justice Project. Rather than unilaterally making the decision about whether to mediate, I give the person information about what is needed to successfully mediate (ex: can you disagree and speak your mind? Is the other party able to follow through on agreement and share important financial information? Etc.) so the party may come to the conclusion on their own that mediation would not work and why. I explore autonomy, good faith/fair dealing, and judgment before asking questions about violence. If I hear that the foundational pillars for mediation are not present, I don’t have to ask the painful questions about violence which we know re-traumatize survivors.
The danger of mediating the wrong case goes beyond a question of safety (though that would be sufficient to prevent mediation), as the mediation itself could change the facts and make it harder for the survivors and their children when they go to court. As mediators, we need to make screening as ubiquitous as the medical history our doctors take when they see us. This will allow us to make better decisions about whether or not to mediate. It can also help us structure the mediation to strengthen wobbly pillars where it is appropriate (ex: the parties’ attorneys should be in the room or the mediation should take place after discovery was done in court). Finally, the screening gives the survivors the information they need to make informed decisions about the next steps in their case.
If you want to learn more about DV and IPV and why screening is important, join Katherine Miller and myself on August 25 for our webinar on this topic. Details and registration are available by clicking here or on the image below.
 DV involves parties who are living together. IPV involves intimate partners who do not live together.
When parties are in conflict, often one of the biggest hurdles for the mediator is to help parties understand the other’s perspective. This includes understanding the matters of importance to each person in their conflict. Looping—listening to understand—is one of the most transformative tools in our conflict resolution box and this technique is something that we’ve incorporated into our everyday lives—professionally and personally. Not only do we loop the parties as mediators, we also teach the parties in conflict to loop each other during the mediation process.
The loop of understanding entails four steps. One person, we’ll call them Aiden, loops the other, whom we’ll call Nour. Aiden asks Nour questions about how they perceive the situation and what is important to them. Nour then responds, while Aiden’s goal is to understand what Nour is saying. Aiden then offers their understanding by sharing what they have learned from Nour in their own words rather than parroting what has been said. During this process, Aiden observes Nour’s reaction. Aiden then checks in with Nour to find out if Aiden’s loop was accurate. If not, Aiden then asks Nour to clarify their understanding, which provides Nour an opportunity to share what they believe Aiden has properly understood and elaborate on anything else pertinent to this exchange that has been missed. In turn, Aiden polishes their understanding, and this process continues until both parties are satisfied there is understanding.
Looping is a practice that opens us up to empathy and is relevant in many scenarios when working with others in situations beyond conflict. It provides an opportunity to more deeply understand what is important to other people and why, and allows space to explore the emotions involved. Therapists, journalists, doctors, nonprofit leaders, and others have incorporated this impactful practice into how they work with others.
By Catherine Conner, Natalia Lopez-Whitaker, Lacey Wilson
While the lenses of race, equity, and culture have opened widely this last year, we do not live in a post-racist society and as conflict resolution professionals, we all exist in spaces that intersect with white supremacy on multiple levels. We must bring sustained anti-racism work into our conflict work.
Anti-racism tries to think outside of current systems and policies to build something different. However, the challenges lie in the reality that current systems and policies were built to benefit one set of people. A sustained commitment to anti-racism work requires a strategy through awareness, education, and behavior change.
The three of us came together in 2016, as part of a group of six conflict resolution professionals in the Bay area dedicated to having difficult conversations about race to be more conscious of biases and privilege. Over the years, our group evolved into our Real Talk team and we helped—and continue to help—each other identify blind spots from our own biases. Through clarity and self-reflection, this process became a vehicle for understanding and empathy. Throughout these last several years, we have seen that the more transformative moments happen when spending time in conversation with people and building relationships.
Conversation offers an opportunity to go deeper. It is a dialogue that requires people to show up in the space and engage, rather than plowing forward. This includes stopping and reflecting and taking the time to process when things do not feel right. We do want to note that for sustained dialogue, a critical element to continuing this work is the ability to do your own healing work—especially for BIPOC folks.
We can come in with the motivation and drive to be anti-racist and change everything and so we want to move right away to action; however, this sense of urgency is actually a way of avoidance and a characteristic of white supremacist culture. Anti-racism work is conflict work and part of that engagement includes working through your own avoidance.
A place we recommend starting is to bring anti-racism down in scale and think about who you’re in the room with in that moment. People tend to think about bigger pictures—”let’s do this good thing for this group of people outside of my environment.” Instead, start by thinking about your immediate circle of influence, and drilling it down to just who is in front of you at that moment.
Anti-racism work also requires recognizing the structural aspects around you that you can influence or change, such as what is happening in your workplace. For white people, your work begins in unpacking how you have contributed unconsciously to racism and the perpetuation of white supremacy. Part of this is accepting and examining what you have done in the past that caused harm and using this understanding as the foundation to help you figure out how you will work differently in the future and what you will repair, which goes hand-in-hand with healing.
As conflict resolution professionals, we need to continually develop our self-awareness and meet people where they are at. This includes not making assumptions about a person’s skills, knowledge, or courage about having a conversation about race and racism. What we have shared here is only a tip of the iceberg. If you would like to learn more about how to integrate anti-racism into your work, you can purchase a recording of our webinar, Being an Anti-Racist Conflict Professional. We take the next step in closely examining our own lives, practices and work habits. We also explore how to maintain an sustained awareness of race, equity, and culture every day and what we need to change in our professional environments to be anti-racist in our everyday work lives as conflict professionals.
By Catherine Conner, Gary Friedman, and Katherine Miller
Lawyers learn to see conflict as a battle between two sets of adversaries – “opposing clients” and “opposing lawyers.” Often, they are driven, even if subconsciously, to both guard and aggress for clients—like a warrior with a shield and a sword. When we work with lawyers in our model, we strive to create a team of people thinking about and dealing with conflict in a different way.
Contracting with lawyers about their roles is a pivotal step in creating the paradigm shift. We want to preserve the protective function of the lawyers while at the same time highlight the ways they can support the parties to co-create the best solution for themselves. We emphasize the important role of lawyers in gathering and explaining factual information, helping the parties to be clear about what is important to them, and using their past experience in brainstorming creative options and putting together deals. We are changing the process from one based on coercion to one where we all work together to put the parties in a position to make decisions together. And throughout the entire process, the lawyer ensures that their client’s interests are voiced and protected.
We have conversations about the law that will be constructive for the process. Adversarial lawyers often have different views of the law and the likely outcome for their clients, which the parties need to know, but the way they present their views can cause friction. Furthermore, what may be deemed fair by the law may not ultimately be fair for the clients, hindering the development of a resolution that addresses what is important to each party. Our goal in how we present the law is to educate the parties about the possibilities if they do not reach an agreement while not limiting them to just find a result based in law. We also do not want to have the conversation about the law bleed into the conversation about what is important to them.
By participating in deepening their client’s understanding of what is important to the parties underlying the conflict, lawyers can help expand their clients’ perspectives. Since lawyers may know of different pieces of the conflict than the mediator, the other lawyer, and the other party, the lawyers can play a prominent bridging role in developing an understanding what is important to each party. The parties can then decide which principles, values, and things of importance to incorporate into the solution framework.
Through participating in supporting the parties to negotiate, lawyers can help clients better understand their alternatives. Often in mediation, we’re negotiating in the shadow of the law, which pushes for creating a solution purely based on the law of the jurisdiction. However, framing the process as one where the parties are creating something new can help expand negotiations beyond just the law, and incorporate what is really important to the parties. The lawyers’ experience in similar situations is a valuable resource for creative and practical solutions.
Our goal as mediators is to empower parties to know that they can decide the law of their case—they’re bigger together than just the jurisdictional law. Ultimately, we want the lawyers to be on our team so they can help their clients expand their perspective—particularly when things become difficult. On June 25-26, we are hosting an advanced training, Attorneys in the Room, that will provide an in-depth demonstration of how to work with lawyers and clients together in the same room.
Statement from the Center for Understanding in Conflict
We stand in solidarity with Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities and individuals. At the Center for Understanding in Conflict, we recognize that our AAPI members, colleagues, friends, and families have long faced injustice, xenophobia, and violence, and our society is past due in reckoning with the deep-rooted racism that is fomenting acts of hate and violence.
The names and stories of the victims of the shootings in Atlanta, which included six women of Asian descent, made headline news first shared by Korean media outlets, while the U.S. media mostly focused on the shooter and opted to quote law enforcement. This continues a tradition of the erasure of Asian Americans in mainstream society. Further, media coverage included law enforcement statements reinforcing stereotypes that in turn were splashed across media outlets seen by millions. Even as the deadly consequences of hate captured the attention of the nation, the violence persists—for example in an attack on an elderly Asian woman in New York City last week.
Racism, xenophobia, and violence against AAPI communities is deeply woven into the fabric of American history—a history largely left out of American education, fueling the cycle of racism and violence. The mainstream has forgotten the lynching of 17 Chinese men by a white mob in 1871 Los Angeles, has glossed over in WWII history the stories of the over 110,000 Japanese Americans—including children—dispaced from their homes to internment camps, and has ignored countless stories showing the danger and violence of bigotry and white supremacy.
The current hate facing Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders is part of this legacy. To interrupt these dynamics, we must learn about and understand how these centuries of racism intersect with other dynamics, such as sexism, to fuel the current violence. At the Center for Understanding in Conflict, we recognize that we still have a long way to go and we are committed to work on correcting our biases, dismantling our complacency, and taking the actions required to be a more just, equitable, and inclusive organization. For our dear members, friends and family in the AAPI communities, we are here for you and we support you.
Oh, God, I pray that someday every race
May stand on equal plane
And prejudice will find no dwelling place
In a peace that all may gain.
– Mary Matsuzawa
Matsuzawa was a young woman when she was forced into a Japanese internment camp during World War II.
1. Reach out to friends and family members of Asian descent
You might say something like, “Are you OK?” or “Would you like to talk” or “This must be tough and I’m sorry you are going through this” or ‘”I don’t know exactly what you are going through, but I am always here to help” or “You really matter to me” or “How can I help, if at all.”
What leaders can do – The simplest thing managers and organizational leaders can do for their Asian American employees is to use their privilege to acknowledge the recent news of anti-Asian violence, and give space for impacted individuals to process, grieve and heal. (Read: How to support Asian American Colleagues by Jennifer Liu, CNBC)
Hold a ceremony to honor and remember victims of anti-Asian hate crimes
Support Asian-owned local businesses (e.g., SF Chinatown is struggling)
2. Raise awareness, speak up, and condemn anti-Asian racism
Read and share these articles on the rise of recent anti-Asian violence
Compassion in Oakland provides the Oakland Chinatown Community with a resource for promoting safety and community to the forgotten, underserved, and vulnerable.
Hate is a virus – started as a grassroots movement to combat racism and xenophobia against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) fueled by COVID-19, Hate is a virus has evolved into a sustainable organization that addresses xenophobia and hate in the AAPI and BIPOC communities.
Act To Change – a national nonprofit organization working to address bullying, including in the AAPI community. They published “The Racism is a Virus Toolkit” to support the community in combating racism.
Asian Americans Advancing Justice – a national nonprofit organization that focuses on housing rights, immigration, civil rights, labor rights, and others for Asian Americans
National Council of Asian Pacific Americans – a nonprofit organization that serves to represent the interests of the greater Asian American (AA) and Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander (NHPI) communities through a coalition of 37 national Asian Pacific American organizations around the country.
After hearing Tyrone on UC Berkeley’s Fiat Vox podcast, CUC Board member Melanie Rowen followed up to learn more about how he does his powerful and transformative work. This conversation has been edited and condensed.
Melanie Rowen [MR]: The Center for Understanding in Conflict, in addition to helping people learn the concrete skills of mediating, is focused on the internal work we need to do to be able to show up effectively in conflict conversations. In your student conduct work, or in your work at Berkeley talking about race, how do you go inside yourself to manage the situation when someone says something that is difficult [for you]?
Tyrone Wise [TW]:
In a weird way I get excited about it, because it allows me to challenge myself and to really get into listening to what that person is saying, and hearing what they’re telling me. Because they’re telling me a lot more than they realize they’re telling me. A lot of it is just misinformation, a lot of it is stereotype, a lot of it is bias, a lot of it is just frustration, anger, lived experiences that are misguided or misplaced.
As they’re telling me their stories, I’m processing what they’re telling me, and I’m hearing anger. And I say, “I hear what you’re saying and it sounds like…” And I’ll give it back to them, what I’m understanding that they’re saying to me, in their terms. And it’s interesting watching their body language shift, because they’re like, you heard me and you’re not reacting to that. I am able to hear emotion and move that.
I never want to discount a person’s feelings. But I also want to use that as an opportunity to educate them. “Okay, this is what you say, where did that come from? What would you have done differently, or how did that make you feel?” And that unpacks that emotion, to where I can get to that root, to what really is the cause of that person’s feeling. And now let’s pick at that, and show you how that was misplaced anger, or misunderstanding, or a stereotype, or bias that is incorrect.
Once you’re able to remove that barrier or that wall that person comes in with—and Daryl Davis in his film Accidental Courtesy does a great explanation of that—you’re able to have that personal conversation, and see that person as a person. And once that is able to happen, the conversation shifts, because now I can be vulnerable and we can actually share some intimate conversations. And in doing that you create a relationship that is more caring, more giving and not so guarded and aggressive. And I think that’s the skill I have that has made the biggest difference.
MR: What about situations where you’re working with people in conflict? How do you approach having a multi-party conversation?
TW: One way that I do it is I try to find a common ground. I try to find what each person is saying. And humans are so cyclical, so it’s just trying to find where the common ground is in that conversation, and then holding on to that and letting that be the thread that keeps us on track.
Sometimes I’ll provide reading materials or videos. Or just more follow-up. It all depends on the relationship and how I feel the conversation is going. But I think the biggest piece is just listening, finding that common thread that allows us to keep that conversation on track to what we want to address.
MR: Are you often coming into conversation where a specific thing has occurred, or there’s a specific thing that needs to be addressed? Or are you coming in and assessing with people, what is it that we’re talking about? And how often do you bring your own agenda to that, and how often is that driven by the other folks there?
TW: Both—sometimes I come in with the idea of where I want to go, and sometimes I come in and just say, tell me what’s going on, allowing both people to speak and not be interrupted by the other. I allow them to talk, say their piece, to me, not to that other person but to me. But so that other person can hear. And then when they tell their story, they’ll give their piece, again uninterrupted by the other, and it allows everybody to hear the same story. From there I’m able to unpack.
One of the statements that I’ll often use—my wife gets mad when I say this—but I say, your perception is not always the reality. Because we can see something and automatically tell ourselves, this is what it is, not realizing that there’s more to that story that we don’t have.
I often used that in student conduct, because you would read a [student’s] case and say to yourself, oh yeah, done, guilty. And then they’ll come in and they’ll tell you their story, and it’s like, wow, I didn’t see that coming. I took time to listen to that person—I didn’t just come in and hammer them and say, I looked at your case, this is what [your punishment] is going to be, have a nice day. I took time to say, you know, how was your day, what’s what’s the toughest class that you’re having right now, how’s home, where do you live? Once I’m able to understand who that person is, [their] wall is not as high, in many cases it’s not there at all, because they were able to really talk about themselves to a person who was really willing to listen. And things were so different from what I [first] saw it as.
MR: That really resonates with me. In the context of mediation, often the person who’s a mediator has an external reality that they need to deliver to the parties, some information they may not love hearing. And you have to lay the ground for people to be ready to hear, this is the reality we’re all facing. In mediation it’s often, here’s what a court will do with this information if we were to take it there. In student conduct, you’re saying, this is going to be the consequence for the behavior that you already engaged in, but trying to put that in context [so they can grow].
You do some facilitation work at Berkeley, including conversations about race. In our political culture, there’s a premium on making your point, not creating space for people who say things that you think are problematic. How do you help people to get on board with understanding each other?
TW: That’s tough because you’re dealing with emotions. When you’re dealing with emotions that are sometimes very charged, it’s giving space and allowing them to be heard, and letting them know that you heard them. And giving them that same expectation of that being given back to you.
When they’re speaking, I try to be straight faced, because I don’t want to, you know, “there we go with this, one of these again.” And then I give it back to them, “okay, so this is what I’m hearing,” and they say, “yeah, okay.” And I’ll say, “okay, now how is that different from the other side, who says this, or can show these things?”
I compare those things to them, in a way that gives them back their information and shows them where some of that can be a disconnect, and allows them to process that. Not giving them the expectation to give me an answer. Just, “I can understand how you feel that way, but how do you look at that from [the perspective of] a person who has these other experiences?”
So now they have to digest that struggle of information. [I give] them time to process that, not overwhelming them, but maybe addressing one or two of those things and then a follow-up. I love giving movies, especially movies that are based on true stories or documentaries. Or I’ll send a podcast or an article that talks about this very same topic, and that’ll allow that person to really digest that and come back.
That was one of the tools that we used in the anti-racism challenge at the Haas School of Business. We adapted [a 21 day anti-racism challenge that Haas did over the summer], and we stretched it over a four-month period. We did one a week, and we talked about it in a small group where it was more intimate. It started out rough because everybody was kind of still guarded, but at the end, we couldn’t get people to stop sharing because the communication was so intimate. People could not wait for Friday, to have these conversations on these prompts and videos and podcasts and readings that really challenge what we thought we knew of America.
[That kind of information] was an eye-opener for me as I was going through my master’s program [in education]. I thought I knew a lot of these things, as African-American, being in the military and serving the country in America. And then I started reading about the history of education, and redlining, and housing, and all these different facets that directly affected the education system. It gave me a hunger to know more on how can we dismantle this. My passion and hunger to continue to educate myself on what that looks like gave me the tools and understanding to be able to have and maintain the conversations that I’m able to.
MR: What place does tension take in how you facilitate a conversation? Some people have a strong impulse to control tension, and we also know that when you allow tension, it can be a space for growth. How do you address tension when it comes up?
TW: The first thing to do is identify it and let it be recognized that it’s in the room. Tension also builds aggression and defense, and when you already have your defense up, everything that is said to you can seem like an attack. So it’s really trying to get people to understand that. To say “I see you’re upset right now, I understand the frustration that you have, but in that frustration we sometimes are not able to have the conversations that we need to because we’re so emotionally charged.” When you’re so in the weeds, you don’t have time to step back and see that there’s a bigger field. The first thing is to really have that recognized and owned, and then unpack that the best we can, while still moving forward with the conversation.
My wife says it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. It’s being able to understand the emotion that that person is feeling in that space. Body language is a telltale sign. [I] identify those things so that the person can recognize them, because many times we don’t understand how we look on the outside. [So I ask,] “You look upset…How can I help you? Because I want to make sure that we’re in the best head space to be able to have this conversation.”
MR: So you have a lot of tools that you bring to help transform the difficult feelings that people are having, to get into a productive space but not to shut them down.
TW: Right. You want to transform. Everybody wants to feel heard and feel seen. So if you discredit those feelings, then you already have discredited that person, because you’ve told them that their emotion doesn’t matter. It’s about seeing that person, hearing that person, and letting them internalize what is happening and find it within themselves.
MR: Is it fair to say that you believe that everybody has the potential to build the skills to understand other people, and to promote understanding? What’s your vision for how we get there, with everybody having those skills?
TW: I go back to listening to hear. In many conversations we’re not listening to hear, we’re listening to speak. And when you listen to speak you discredit what that other person is saying, because you’re not taking time to hear them. They’re telling you that they want this, and you can’t understand why they’re never happy. Well, it’s because this person says, I just need you to do this thing. And you’re missing it because you keep focusing on what you think it is.
If we listen to hear and not listen to speak, we can understand so much more about who we are as people. Every person wants to be heard, every person wants to be seen. That’s the reason we’re having this whole issue we’re having right now in America – one side doesn’t want to hear the other, and they’d rather call names to each other, not really sit down and say, if your view doesn’t align with mine let’s understand why. And I think that is the piece that makes the biggest difference, is just listening.