Conflict resolution is coming of age, and as it matures, must come to terms with a violent, adversarial world, grapple with its unsolved problems and difficulties, discover new issues, and redesign or reinvent its values, ideas and practices, and make them match its new-found strengths and weaknesses. And in the process, it must realize, as Edith Wharton observed, that “True originality consists not in a new manner but in a new vision.”
But how do we invent a new vision for a process that is as old as humanity? I believe we do so by re-examining our relationship to the worlds around and within us, by thinking deeply about the nature of our work and what makes it useful and effective. One way of doing this is to think more clearly about what it means for us to succeed and fail in mediation.
Success and Failure in Mediation
It is not uncommon for mediators to become so preoccupied with success and failure that they lose sight of their vision and reasons for mediating, which paradoxically are the very things that help them succeed. So let us begin by considering what success and failure consist of in conflict resolution.
Winston Churchill, in the midst of war, famously defined success as “proceeding from failure to failure with undiminished enthusiasm.” A similar definition can be applied to mediation, a process that routinely begins at impasse, which is a kind of failure, and remains there until, often for no clear or definable reason, an opening appears, and resolution occurs.
As mediators, we tend to define success as settling disputes. But doing so means constructing our definition of success externally around choices that are made by, and belong to, the parties rather than the mediator. Our desire for success can then encourage us to coerce others into promoting our success over theirs, forcing simple solutions onto complex problems, and not taking time to listen to what their conflicts are trying to tell us. In the process, as Virginia Woolf correctly perceived, we begin to lose touch with what connects us to them, and ultimately with our humanity: “If people are highly successful in their professions they lose their senses. Sight goes. They have no time to look at pictures. Sound goes. They have no time to listen to music. Speech goes. They have no time for conversation. They lose their sense of proportion—the relations between one thing and another. Humanity goes.”
Attitudes toward success and failure in mediation should therefore be less concerned with what we do as mediators and more about how much we can learn from every conflict by discovering its meaning to each participant; how deeply we can feel what they experience and bring it to the surface; how much skill we can bring to difficult and dangerous conversations; how much of ourselves we are able to manifest during the mediation; how openhearted, empathetic and honest we can be in the presence of anger, defensiveness, dishonesty and fear—in other words, who we are in the mediation.
The old models of success and failure are deeply deceptive, not only because failure as a “tough” negotiator might imply success as a collaborative one and vice versa, but because the outcome and effect of any success is generally to repeat whatever it was we did before, whereas our failure more frequently results in serious rethinking, greater willingness to experiment and approach problems creatively, and a shift from hubris to humility, all of which lead to learning and growth. So we may well ask ourselves, in reality, which is the success, and which the failure?
If our goal is to increase our own learning and skills and become more aware of what doesn’t work in mediation without feeling badly about who we are, neither success nor failure will be particularly helpful in guiding us. What matters most is our willingness to try new things, experiment, and take risks without being afraid of failure. In this sense, failure means trying too hard to succeed, whereas success means being willing to accept the possibility of failure.
An alternative is therefore to shift our notions of success and failure from focusing on individual moments of elation and disappointment that every mediator experiences, to the creation of a collective vision of conflict resolution that allows us to imagine what we do in every mediation as part of a comprehensive global movement that is transforming and reshaping the world in which we live.
The Elements of a New Vision
Tangibly, this means approaching conflict in brand new ways and coming to grips with topics that are difficult to analyze or rethink from a conflict resolution point of view. The chapters that follow are efforts to discover the elements of this new vision as it emerges, sometimes in the petty or sordid details of conflicts I have mediated over the last thirty years, and sometimes in the discovery, through other disciplines and lines of thought, of new techniques and ways of understanding conflict.
They examine, for example, our understanding of how language operates in conflict, how people tell stories about their disputes, how mediation interfaces with psychology, and how the brain responds to conflict. They attempt to wrestle with religion and spirituality, to articulate an approach to mindfulness in meditation, and to consider how we can initiate heartfelt communications in family and couple conflicts.
A new vision for mediation will also require us to understand the larger social and environmental conflicts that impact us daily, and learn how to engage in dialogue over climate change and other contentious political conflicts without destroying our relationships. It will require us to consider how to design, organize, and conduct dialogues on difficult, dangerous, and controversial issues; and how to mediate chronic organizational disputes. It will invite us to examine the ways other cultures, such as China, have handled conflict resolution, and the interface between mediation and politics or values.
At a deeper level still, a new vision for mediation means exploring how opposites combine in dialectical patterns, how movements for social change both create and resolve social conflicts, and how the relationship between mediation, law, and justice impacts our work, even in seemingly insignificant conflicts.
Each of these topics forms a chapter in this book. None is final and each is an invitation to all of us to discuss, investigate, and write about conflicts in these areas, and in others that have not been considered, in hopes that by doing so we will contribute, even in small ways, to Camus’ project of keeping civilization from destroying itself and creating a fresh vision for our work that redefines our notions of success and failure.
More importantly, I believe we will discover by doing so that our youthful field is bursting with creative insights and immense promise. Beyond merely helping us avoid destructive adversarial contests, mediation, collaborative negotiation, dialogue, and conflict resolution systems design enable us to develop entirely different approaches to “the dance of opposites,” ones that are able to build a more just, heartfelt, peace-able, and collaborative world.
Toward a Conflict Revolution
In his essay on Machiavelli, Isaiah Berlin reveals how the ability to recognize two simultaneous truths leads automatically to the values that lie at the heart of dispute resolution, including tolerance, pluralism, and an appreciation of diversity:
So long as only one ideal is the true goal, it will always seem to men that no means can be too difficult, no price too high, to do whatever is required to realize the ultimate goal. Such certainty is one of the great justifications of fanaticism, compulsion, persecution … If there is only one solution to the puzzle, then the only problems are first how to find it, then how to realize it, and finally how to convert others to the solution by persuasion or by force. But if this is not so …, then the path is open to empiricism, pluralism, tolerance, compromise. Tolerance is historically the product of the realization of the irreconcilability of equally dogmatic faiths, and the practical improbability of complete victory of one over the other. Those who wished to survive realized that they had to tolerate error. They gradually came to see the merits of diversity, and so became skeptical about definitive solutions in human affairs.
As a result, we can see how conflict resolution can not only help individuals, families, couples, and organizations resolve their disputes and possibly rescue and rebuild their relationships, a new vision for mediation should also recognize that it can undermine intolerance and strengthen democracy. Mediation is therefore a critically important skill for us to learn, if we are to successfully overcome the global inclination to use force and violence whenever we disagree. As Hannah Arendt correctly points out in her essay on violence, “The chief reason warfare is still with us is neither a secret death wish of the human species, nor an irrepressible instinct of aggression, nor, finally and more plausibly, the serious economic and social dangers inherent in disarmament, but the simple fact that no substitute for this final arbiter in international affairs has yet appeared on the political scene.”
In other words, rather than reinforce pessimistic and fatalistic notions about the inevitability of warfare and human violence, it is now possible for us to suggest, and invite others around the world to consider that a genuine, workable substitute for brutal and murderous acts has indeed appeared on the political scene, in the form of conflict resolution.
We are increasingly facing problems that are international in scope and can no longer be solved by individuals, or even by consortiums of nation states, but instead require global cooperation, informal problem solving, and dialogue. We cannot solve these problems using military force or litigation, by violence or coercion, or by accusations and denunciations, but now require the use of mediation, collaborative negotiation, dialogue, and conflict resolution systems design in order to successfully collaborate in overcoming them.
What we need, in short, is a “conflict revolution,” a comprehensive, fundamental transformation in the way we argue, disagree, and resolve our differences as a species. We need a vision that is large, all-inclusive, human, and at the same time revolutionary enough to allow us to analyze all our institutions and relationships, families and couples, governments and workplaces, in order to identify the sources of chronic conflict within them and use heart-based conflict resolution systems design principles to reinvent them.
About this Book
The chapters that follow are intended to encourage these deeper explorations in a variety of important fields. Each chapter was originally written as a “stand alone” article or essay, and many were circulated among mediators, especially at Mediate.com, and have been significantly revised or rewritten. They are experimental and designed to suggest ways mediators can learn from other disciplines, be they mathematics and physics, neurophysiology and psychology, spirit and wisdom traditions, politics and philosophy, law and justice, or organizational design and movements for social change.
I have included a few newly revised and updated passages from previous books I have written when I was unable to improve on an earlier description, but altered and retrofitted them to the framework and purpose of this book.
My hope is that these chapters will make it possible for any reader who is interested in mediation to learn innovative ways of resolving disputes, new and powerful techniques that can be adapted and applied in completely unexpected arenas of conflict, together with fresh insights into the ways we fight and novel ideas about how we might resolve our differences worldwide, without the costly consequences we witness every day.
Most importantly, I hope every reader will realize that it is possible for each of us working individually and collectively to re-imagine and re-envision what we do in conflict resolution, and to use these new understandings to learn and grow, become better human beings, celebrate and unite around our differences, revolutionize the way we respond to conflicts on all levels, and transform our differences into opportunities for individual and social improvement. It is up to us to make it happen. As George Herbert wrote, “The shortest answer is doing.”
Santa Monica, California