Watch our webinar on this subject by clicking here.
It is a unique challenge for mediators and conflict resolution professionals to deal with the dynamic in the room when a “bully” is engaged in a conflict. “Bullies” can dominate the process, intimidate, not only the other parties, but also the professionals involved in the dispute, and derail the pathway to resolution. However, it is often possible to transform disruptive dynamics into an asset by understanding the underlying motivations of the bully’s behavior and the undercurrents of the relationship between them and others involved in the conflict can help the professionalIn our experience, we have found that conflict resolution professionals, ourselves included, can reinforce a “bully-victim” paradigm if we don’t understand what is underneath the dynamic. We get drawn into wanting to protect the person who is more passive or intimidated to make sure they are not taken advantage of or coerced. However, in doing so, we become part of the system and can further entrench the dysfunctional dynamics.
One critical component is determining whether the behavior is part of a longstanding pattern of a person who is controlling or abusive, or if this is a response to conflict, or perhaps a reaction specific to the current situation. In reality, this is much more complex than saying “we need to deal now with the bully”. The situation is often systemic, with one individual labeled as the bully, while the other is the victim. However, this paradigm can shift when we look at each person’s part in the system. If even one person is able to change their behavior, often the others also change.
In his book, the Power of TED, David Emerald explores the Dreaded Drama Triangle developed by Dr. Stephen Karpman, which puts the parties in conflict in roles of the victim, persecutor, or rescuer. Here, the professional tends to take on the rescuer archetype, with the parties in conflict serving either the persecutor or the victim. It is also important to note that the professional can quickly go from rescuer to prosecutor. Ultimately, in this dynamic, the professional can be disempowering to all parties.
A fundamental component in our Understanding-based model is that those in conflict are the ones who hold the solutions, and as the professional, our role is to help enable them find these solutions. This is partly why we find Emerald’s Empowerment Triangle an interesting concept in our work. In his update to the Dreaded Drama Triangle, he looks at the roles as creator—the positive alternative to victim, challenger—what we might label a bully, and coach. With the Empowerment Triangle, the professional takes on the role of the coach, helping the parties find their voice so they can become a creator or challenger instead of a victim or persector.
These are only a few steps in the ongoing dance in the relationship between the “bully” and the “victim”. In our webinar, The “Bully”, we dive deeper into these dynamics and examine how self-reflection, looping, and other tools can help the professional understand the larger picture and turn the “bully” into a benefactor.
As we work to understand others, our practices for interpersonal engagement evolve. We learn what feels respectful to others and try to meet that. In A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns, a short comic book about non-binary gender identity, Archie Bongiovanni and Tristan Jimerson beautifully and accessibly explain why basic respect includes using each person’s correct gender pronouns, including the singular “they” when that is the pronoun someone uses. (As in, “Melanie is looking for their pen – they volunteered to take notes.”) It also coaches the reader through different strategies for correcting others who misgender someone. Although it’s a quick read, the book answers many questions that may come up for those who are new to thinking about gender from a non-binary perspective. But primarily, it’s a great tool for shoring up our skills in approaching each other inclusively and with respect, and helping others to do the same.
Randy Cheek, Catherine Conner, Laurie Phuong Ertley, and Gary Friedman
When people are in conflict, emotions are inevitable. Yet, there is often a pull to “just get down to business”, with parties and professionals hoping to minimize emotional reactions. However, experience and research show that both emotions and cognitive processing are integral components of decision-making so learning to embrace emotions is a key skill for conflict professionals.
How do people access their emotions? Each person falls along a range in terms of capacity to access their emotional state. For some, this access comes easily, while others may have developed coping mechanisms that give a sense of lacking feelings. Bringing attention to more subtle indications of emotions in the body such as changes in breathing or the micro facial expressions33, helps to recognize an emotional response. There is also a difference between a patterned, habitual emotional response tand a more genuine, spontaneous response. A conflict professional can benefit from ongoing study of their own emotions so that they can more readily understand the emotions of others in the room.
In addition to the difference in accessing emotions, people differ in their expression of emotion. This may be a personal preference based on temperament, a culturally formed response , and/or it may be impacted by outside and systemic factors such as societal expectations or restrictions regarding the expression of emotion based on a person’s gender, race, or other group.
It is important, particularly in the contracting process, to normalize accessing and expressing emotion. Having an explicit conversation early on that emotions will arise sets the expectation that there will be emotions in the room and that they are important.
It is possible that emotions will bubble over, particularly when there are feelings of anger, sadness, or betrayal. In emotional and tension filled situations such as a conflict, a person’s limbic system can be on hyperdrive. Studies have shown that a person’s powerful emotions can create a physical reaction in the other through our mirror neurons. When parties get caught up in their reactions to a strong negative emotion, the entire process can escalate. Since conflict resolution professionals may not be as caught up in the emotional state, maintaining a certain level of groundedness or calmness—or just feeling centered—can bring equilibrium in the moment. . Moreover,sometimes acknowledging the overwhelm and allowing a moment of respite is helpful: “What would be helpful for you right now when you are feeling so overwhelmed?”
Looping emotions, rather than trying to change them, is often the best move. The looping may be expressed directly by naming an emotion but sometimes it’s more effective for looping an emotion to be nonverbal through the tone of voice, body posture, energy, and other physical manifestations of the emotion. If someone feels understood, including their emotional state, they can let go of the strong grip an emotion holds over them. In order to loop well, the conflict professional should pay attention to their own inner experience in the moment and use that to understand and connect to the person they are looping. In our trainings, we often ask participants in a role play to switch chairs with a party they are working with in order to viscerally feel what it is like to be them. While you wouldn’t ask someone you are working with to change chairs, you could imagine doing that to increase your understanding of them.
When conflict professionals have clarity about how their own emotions and experiences are impacting the process, it strengthens the connection of understanding for all involved. Opening the door to emotions of the parties provides the opportunity to develop a resolution with a deeper foundation built upon the motivations and needs of the parties which may otherwise stay hidden if emotions are suppressed. Valuing emotions and rationality as vital aspects of decision-making allows the “wise mind” to emerge.
Dignity: Its Essential Role in Resolving Conflict by Donna Hicks
Book Review by Debra Vey Voda-Hamilton
will be a welcome addition to the Center for Understanding in Conflict
Author Donna Hicks explores what dignity is, how we assimilate dignity both personally and with our clients, while bringing dignity practices into our meetings. This book memorializes her experiences facilitating discussions between IRA prisoners and British law enforcement and their families in the documentary, Facing the Truth. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Leslie Bilinda and Ms. Hicks were facilitators in this groundbreaking discussion.
created three models for understanding and applying dignity to the practice of conflict
resolution. She lists 10 Essential Elements of Dignity, 10 Temptations
to Violate Dignity and finally How to Heal Relationships with Dignity.
10 Essential Elements of Dignity are briefly as follows:
others have integrity
helps us express our authentic self without the fear of negative judgements by
or about others.
sure you feel and others feel that they really belong.
are in a place where they feel physically and psychologically safe; no fear of
bodily harm or humiliation.
others your full attention, “by listening, hearing validating and responding to
their concerns, feelings and experiences.” Recognition- validate others
for their talents, hard work, thoughtfulness and help. Generously praise, show
appreciation and gratitude for contributions and ideas.
people justly, in an even handed way according to agree upon laws and rules.
of the doubt
people as trustworthy. Start with the premise that others have good motives and
are acting with integrity.
that what others think matters. Give them the chance to explain and express
their point of view while actively listen with no judgement.
people to act on their own behalf so they feel in control of their lives and
experiences, fostering a sense of hope and possibility.
responsibility for your actions. If you have violated the dignity of another
person, apologize and make a commitment to change your hurtful behaviors.
10 Temptations to Violate Dignity:
let the bad behavior of others determine your own. Restraint is the better part of dignity, just
don’t take the bait.
lie, cover up or deceive yourself. Tell the truth about what you’ve done,
you have violated the dignity of another, acknowledge it, admit you make a
mistake and apologize.
we depend on others for validation of our worth, we are seeking false dignity. Authentic
dignity resides within us.
we remain in a relationship in which our dignity is routinely violated, our
desire for connection has outweighed our need to maintain our own dignity.
your dignity is violated take action. A violation is a signal that something in
a relationship needs to change, stand up for yourself and don’t avoid
assume you are the innocent victim in a troubled relationship. Open yourself up
to the idea that you might be contributing the problem.
often don’t know what we don’t know. We all have blind spots. We need to
overcome our self-protective instincts and accept constructive criticism.
Feedback gives us an important opportunity to grow.
and shaming others to deflect your own guilt
the urge to defend yourself by making others look bad.
in false intimacy and demeaning gossip
of the tendency to connect by gossip about others in a demeaning way. Being
critical and judgmental about others when they are not present is harmful and
undignified. If you want to create intimacy with another speak the truth about
yourself, about what is happening in your inner world and invite the other
person to do the same.
How to Heal Relationships with Dignity
interrupting or challenging.
to seek understanding. We more commonly listen to our adversaries to one up
them and attack.
and recognize what the other has been through.
I say in my lectures, this does not mean you agree with their point of view. It simply reflects your belief that their
point of view is worthy of acknowledgement and recognition. Hicks believes, “Sharing
our experiences with expression may help the person we’ve injured in the heat
of a conflict feel less defensive or justified.”
and acknowledge each other’s integrity,
creating a mutual bond.
participants must honor each other’s dignityand agree that sitting
down together is worthy of your time and attention. Hick’s believes this is
the step that makes all the difference.
She notes, “It is much more common to withdraw from those whom we have
been in conflict with and refuse to talk to them.”
The process explained in this book reflects conditions that appear to contribute to positive outcomes when facing the truth is enabled and on point with the Center for Understandings teachings. I hope you’ll enjoy it.
I can’t put down “Being Black” by Angel Kyodo Williams. Angel, a Black Zen Buddhist priest shares her personal journey, Zen teachings, and practical guidelines to living with fearlessness and grace. As a Black queer woman who spent 27 years in conservative Christian environments that caused a lot more harm for me than good, I have wanted nothing to do with religion and spirituality. “Being Black” changed that for me. It has always begun to shape my perspective in my work as a conflict practitioner. Angel shares how to build a “warrior-spirit” from a place of self-acceptance and a call to BE in the fullness of who you are. I highly recommend it.
Antoinette has been a mediator since 2009 and an attorney since 1994. Before starting the Mediation Project in 2013, she was a senior attorney in NYLAG’s Matrimonial & Family Law Unit of which she also served as director from 2001 to 2004. She has taught mediation to legal services attorneys and court staff professionals and has participated as a teaching assistant at mediation trainings of the Center for Understanding in Conflict. She has been a mediator for the New York City Family Court Mediation Program since 2013, on the rosters of the Kings and New York County Supreme Court Pilot Mediation Programs their inception. She was the president of the Family and Divorce Mediation Council of Greater New York from 2014 to 2016 and is currently on the board of the Center for Understanding in Conflict. She is a member of the state-wide ADR Advisory Committee formed by Chief Judge DiFiore in April 2018 to give her recommendations on how to increase the use of ADR in the NYS court system.
Can you please share a little bit about your background? How did your experiences lead you to joining the CUC board?
I started answering this question a week ago and wrote that I find conflict fascinating. I represented victims of domestic violence for 18 years at the NY Legal Assistance Group, a free legal services organization for which I am still working and I am firmly convinced that they need the protection of the courts. For other couples, mediation is a much more satisfying and positive process which I practice with families who live free of violence. I truly became a mediator only after taking the intensive mediation training of the CUC, which changed my life. I am thrilled to be joining the board of such a terrific organization. A week later, after one more horrifying murder caused by racism ⁱ , I am now even more eager to work on listening deeply and on reflecting on what’s happening inside myself.
Can you share an experience using the Understanding-based model?
I use the Understanding based model every day so, the question is a bit like asking me to share how I breathe…
[Recently], I mediated with a couple who described feeling “stuck” in their disagreements because both of them always want to win. My co-mediator (I co-mediate all of my cases with volunteer mediators) and I looped both parties regarding how they co-parent their children. We asked them many “why” questions. At the end of the session, the husband, who was initially a little reluctant about mediation, said that we had “unstuck” them and managed to change their dynamic. The wife agreed.
What is one key piece of advice you’d like to share with other conflict resolution professionals?
I would say to try not to demonize or idealize any particular form of conflict resolution. I mediate without caucus but I have seen times where caucus was necessary. I have used the collaborative law model. I prefer mediating than litigating and most of the time, mediation is preferable but sometimes litigation is where justice is done. Finding the appropriate method is the tricky part. I am still working on it!
What are some important issues for today’s conflict resolution professionals to be connected with?
The issue of race relations, which the CUC has been working on with “Real Talk” is at the forefront of my mind. What can we do to change the “systems” such as the family courts that people with low income are forced to use to resolve their conflicts because they are the only ones that were free? And when courts are closed, how do we deal with the fact that mediation is no longer a voluntary process because people don’t have a choice?
What is something you enjoy doing with your free time?
I love making picture albums. I have always been the “archivist” in my family. I even have pictures taken in 1945 of American tanks liberating Liege (in Belgium), the city where I grew up!
Often, the parties in conflict are not the sole stakeholders in the dispute. External forces—ranging from family and friends, consulting attorneys, accountants, therapists, among others—can insert themselves into the conflict resolution process, invited or not. These external forces can have a supportive and positive presence in the process;however, they can also be toxic and sabotaging inroads to resolution. For conflict resolution professionals, versatility in dealing with these external forces can be a crucial factor in the process. Clarifying the roles of these participants during the contracting process encourages opportunities for constructive engagement of parties who may lack the necessary holistic context of the conflict.
Concerned that disagreements over their joint finances are threatening their marriage, newlyweds Fatima and Martina sought a mediator to support resolution of the conflict before their disagreement leads to divorce. While the couple have already structured the process with their mediator, external forces have started to enter into their dispute, and are causing turmoil in the early stages of the conflict resolution process.
Fatima’s older sister, Nour, has been staying with the couple since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. During her extended visit, Nour witnessed a particularly emotional dispute between Fatima and Martina. She is concerned about how Martina’s dominant personality results in constant criticism of Fatima’s spending despite her higher earnings. Like Fatima, Nour is also a high-income earner. Just prior to her visit, Nour had finalized a particularly painful divorce from a husband who was similar to Martina. She had never been particularly fond of Martina, and after witnessing the couple’s turmoil, is certain that Martina is taking advantage of Fatima. Since the last mediation session, Nour has been trying to convince Fatima to leave Martina and has been a combative presence in the household.
Exasperated with the constant attacks from her sister-in-law, Martina has confided in her father, Tomas, about her marital problems. Tomas is aware of his daughter’s parsimonious habits. He had worked hard to instill frugality in Martina in the wake of his wife and her mother’s terminal cancer that ultimately not only took her life, but also robbed them of financial security. While they had once been a strong middle-class family, Tomas now lives with significant medical debt that he will never be able to repay. While he loves Fatima deeply, Tomas thinks that his daughter-in-law has a penchant for frivolity. He has significant concern over the couple’s stability should they also face an unforeseen and life-altering financial burden, although he has tried to keep this opinion to himself. Tomas has been patiently trying to help Fatima understand that maintaining her lifestyle could lead to ruin, even if their finances are stable presently. While Fatima has appreciated his advice in the past, with Nour now in the picture, she has retreated and become less receptive to his guidance.
When Fatima and Martina arrive for their second mediation appointment, the mediator is surprised to find both Nour and Tomas in tow. Within moments of their arrival, Tomas begins to implore Fatima to reconsider her spending habits, which leads to Nour aggressively telling him that he has no place commenting on her sister’s affairs, which in turn results in Martina yelling at Nour. In the midst of the chaos, the mediator realizes that these external forces must be addressed, or Fatima and Martina will never find reconciliation.
Pain, embarrassment, and violations of dignity are often challenging components of conflict for all involved, including the mediator. Parties in conflict may not have the ego strength to feel like they can talk to their family members, such as Fatima, whose passive nature is perpetually overrun by her sister and her partner. While Nour is advocating for her sister, she is not the key to resolution. The same is true for Tomas, who also does not hold the key to resolution either even with his good intentions. Only Fatima and Martina know what will work best for themselves and each must arrive at a place of understanding with her partner.
Nour and Tomas represent the informal social systems helping the parties in conflict. This support system is not necessarily always family, it can include friends who have been through similar conflict or friends who have replaced the support system of family. There is also a professional support system, such as consulting lawyers, accountants or financial planners, and other consultants brought into the process by the parties and conflict professional. Professionals can also intentionally or unintentionally interfere with the parties’ process. An accountant engaged in the mediation process may want to share charts and graphs, thinking this is helpful, but in reality, it could exacerbate the problem or distract from a deeper issue at hand.
Fatima and Martina’s situation demonstrates how these overlapping circles of people who are trying to have a conversation with the parties about their needs could further destabilize precarious—even volatile—environments. However, many people, like Nour and Tomas, are coming from a place of concern, wanting the best outcome for those that they love and they can be a source of support. They are also serving the needs of Fatima and Martina. Family and friends can sometimes be a countervailing force. They can give a person in conflict the courage to speak up and say that a proposed solution does not include something essential. They may also be a source of creative ideas when the parties themselves are too overwhelmed to conceive.
The mediator can help manage these back-seat drivers to keep them in a constructive and supportive role and manage the intrusions. This role is particularly important when one or more of the parties in conflict are feeling stuck and they may not have the wherewithal to manage the external commentary themselves.
Parties in conflict do not exist in a vacuum, and for the mediator, having a greater context of the outside forces serving—or not serving—the parties in conflict is a pivotal step in moving forward. Mediators should look at a party’s support network, their structure, the interwoven circles around them, and how they are helpful and unhelpful. Who is there? How are parties using their external support network and what role do those people play in the conflict? Is the “external team” helpful or not? How can the helpful elements be strengthened and transformed into effective support? How and when are the external forces brought in to create forward motion instead of creating doubt or suspicion? Asking these questions and contracting about the role and place of external forces can increase the likelihood of a positive impact throughout the mediation process.
It is also worth noting that doubt is not necessarily a bad thing. Fatima has been a pushover her whole life and although Nour may be dominating, she is doing so on behalf of her sister. When Martina proposes a potential solution to Fatima, Fatima may not have the confidence to say no. By exploring and understanding how the external force is useful, the mediator can help the parties determine the best way to engage them in the process by exploring and understanding how the external force is useful. Engaging Nour as an advocate for her sister in an agreed upon process may provide a window for Fatima to speak up against proposals that she does not feel will suit her. When these situations arise in mediation, creating the protection in a supportive, rather than destructive way, can yield positive results.
The external forces for Fatima and Martina appeared early enough in the process that they could be incorporated into the initial contracting process but without proactive exploration, mediators may not find out about personal external forces until later in the process. Asking early on about external forces to identify and explore the context allows the mediator to bring catalyzing players to the forefront at a stage when they can be engaged to more effectively support the conflict resolution process. There is often a long history leading up to the presenting dispute and without this early exploration of the impact of external forces, what may start as an individual conflict can grow into a group conflict, as shown when Nour, Tomas, and Martina began arguing with one another during the second mediation meeting.
Professional external forces also need to be addressed. Sometimes, the other professionals involved in the mediation process are known and actively engaged. The scope and manner of their participation should be part of the contracting process and the mediator can assist in clarifying how they will be most useful to the parties. Sometimes, however, the professionals are influencing from outside the room and the parties often do not understand that they—the parties—have the power to tell the professional what they need. It is not uncommon to see cases go off track when the party does not have the tools to talk through an issue with their professional team. The mediator can coach parties to ask for what they need from their consulting professionals.
Ultimately, mediators are well served when they have a wider context of who is involved and the dynamics of that involvement, in and outside the mediation room. The key takeaway is that conflict resolution professionals can support their clients in establishing spaces to help their allies support them more effectively, instead of dominating the process. The earlier that these forces are identified, the better the chances that they will not upend the conflict resolution process but rather be a positive force.