3-11 Conflict Resolution & Mediation

The peace process

It's quite obvious…

Recently (Oct. 97) I heard the British Prime Minister (Tony Blair) give a media release on the Irish Peace Process - the gist of it being that they could reach an agreement by the scheduled deadline if good-will exists… on both sides (well done Tony; now where have I heard that phrase before?).

If we are in conflict, then typically we might have already lost good will. People get into entrenched positions, adhering to their ideology/point of view, and can be strongly invested in a particular outcome. If people are willing to compromise and work together, they may be able to move through conflict into an agreed resolution on their situation (the 'mature' perspective - at least at the level of volunteer work).

Conflict is not bad! It just means you and I have differing ideas or wants. (This is the normal situation - never are any two peoples ideas going to be always perfectly aligned; throw in a bunch more people/ideas and it gets interesting). 'Conflict' is a normal part of the debating process; it helps us to clarify our position and our thinking, and come up with rational/logical justifications as we weigh our ideas against each other. Of course personalities and egos come in to play. Some people, by force of character, or eloquence, can be very good negotiators; some people find the whole process frustrating and even scary.

Some people run away from conflict, perhaps having suffered trauma in their family (or elsewhere) as a result of conflict (people do get hurt - emotionally, even physically etc. as the result of conflict). Thus some people will have poor experiences around conflict and poor models for 'conflict resolution'. They may be unable to compromise - may get stuck in the attitude 'My way or the highway'.

Our job is to find a path through these difficulties. Perhaps recognizing and naming the conflict is the first step, and then identifying the differences, what it is that separates us. Let's remember Tony Blair - even to get this far requires 'good-will'.

  1. We are in conflict - we want different things - Can we get agreement on this?
  2. Can we define what it is the two sides want? Again, can we agree here?
  3. How far apart are we? Agreement here?
  4. Is there an obvious compromise? Perhaps suggested by a third party?
  5. Are we both willing to move - towards each other? The resolution!

We may not even get this far. Some people are not willing to reveal themselves, and what it is they want. People do hide their expectations - and when they don't get it, may run away in petulance, and you never know what it was about. They may even 'blame' you, somehow it was your fault - you failed to read their mind properly (!). They may even create conflict about an unrelated issue, just to unload their resentment (sub-consciously? - or even with full awareness…). This is human nature, and happens all the time. 'Projecting' unowned issues and dumping emotional energy (anger, hostility) does happen, and can be severe in their effect. This is when it feels crazy, because people aren't revealing themselves, being honest - their own unresolved issues may set-up this kind of dysfunctionality. It may look like, they 'flipped-out', or went weird or lost rationality. This can happen to any of us, as we get into deeper and deeper stuff. Hence the guideline in legal conflicts - what would be the reasonable action or course to take?

Let's see what it takes to get through those 5 steps above. We have to be willing/able to do conflict, to be in that scary place. We have to be able to understand our own wants, and willing to reveal them. We feel vulnerable here because we can be hurt when we reveal ourselves - by being discounted, or ignored, even ridiculed or shamed. This happens all the time too. (This happened in our families, and on upwards) This is why we are not always perfectly open with each other. Beware the hidden agenda! Especially your own.

'Maturity' and the ability to do conflict well thus depends on the structural process we set up (1 - 5 above) and recognition or selling of the basis for allowing resolution to actually happen - i.e.

  1. We are trying to work together, aren't we? - surely that means compromise on both sides….?
  2. Are we willing to say what we want? - If we do say what we want (on the face of it), and can seemingly agree on a compromise, yet somehow the issue isn't resolved, either
    1. someone is holding onto resentment, or
    2. they haven't really revealed what they want! (weird stuff, but it happens…)
  3. Fundamentally, it is 'good-will' that allows this process to happen - this cannot be mandated, but each person must find it within themselves to work with their neighbour/colleague sincerely. Human nature says this will not always happen, and there may not be anything you can do about it - because you can't change who they are, you can only change yourself, your own thinking. (What was my family experience of conflict?).
  4. 'Good-will' is based on a persons own growth and self-awareness, which comes in its own good time. This allows them to speak their 'Truth', i.e. be honest in revealing what is actually going on for them - but it also requires others to not take advantage of their vulnerability.
  5. Thus we take ownership for our own motivations, wants, feelings, fears - and engage in debate/conflict sincerely. If people aren't mature or aware enough to take ownership, we may not be able to resolve our conflicts. This is often called 'Denial'.

Quite a complicated mix of stuff… When you get it working, great! But conflict will be your constant companion when you start to work with others on a volunteer basis. I didn't even mention personality clashes - this is just the extreme in our differentiation from each other, and will require even greater effort in self-clarification, and harder work to really hear what the other person is saying. At the end of the day, two people just may not be able to get along together - just don't let it pull down your whole organization.

And then there was mediation…

At a basic level this means using or setting up a conflict structure that involves a third person. This is helpful because arguments/debates/conflicts are often polarised; two camps or individuals (countries?) facing off against each other, each insisting they are right… not wanting to look weak… or give up ground… what/who/how many have to die before we are willing to sit down and negotiate?

How do you choose a mediator? The mediator could be a respected third person, mutually selected. It could be a person who is specifically trained as a mediator, it could be a lawyer. Are both sides, at least at the outset, willing to abide by a mediated decision? Will the mediator be required to make a decision that binds both parties in the event of non-agreement?

The third person acts like a release valve. I'm talking to them rather than having to stare down my opponent. It's their job to hear me (and the other side). All of what I'm saying. Suddenly I feel I'm being heard, and my 'heat' gets turned down, my frustration level and antagonism is diminished. Now I'm more able to hear the other side. I'm especially more able to hear the other side when it comes from a neutral third party. I know he/she is not trying to dupe me, but has my interests equally at heart. Phew!

The mediator can also help clarify issues, and point out flaws in thinking or rationality, can help to find a balanced perspective on both sides, which makes resolution much more likely. They bring us back to 'good-will' and clarity and balance which is always a good basis for us to work together.

If you want to set up a mediation structure, you may want to decide between a mandatory or voluntary basis, each has its issues. What about a mediators report in the event of a breakdown of negotiations? Who is acting in good faith, and who isn't? Your membership might like to know why your organization is going 'bye-bye'. The 'Truth' is out there…

Note that

This whole arena of conflict resolution and mediation is a vast and complex one, people can spend their whole lives exploring it - whole books are written on just one aspect of it. In the space of a few pages I can only scratch the surface and offer a simplistic approach or overview. So if you get heavily involved in conflict, or your agreements aren't working - it probably means it's time to dig deeper and do more research.