An approach to mediation

While preparing the conflict resolution design, the mediator has to master his knowledge of legal issues, psychology, human geography, communication styles and methodology of mediation. To help him build up a concept of operations, here is a litte overview of the most important topics for a dispute settlement design:

Conflict and violence are not the same thing
Conflict can be defined as a state of disharmony between persons, ideas, or interests, and is used to denote both a process and a state of being. Violence is commonly defined as the aggressive use of force exerted for the purpose of violating, damaging, or coercing, as well as an abusive or unjust exercise of power. Whereas conflict is not inherently negative or damaging, and can in fact produce positive outcomes, violence always results in injury and destruction.

Adversarial versus cooperative approaches to conflict
Adversarial approaches to dispute settlement occur when parties in conflict perceive themselves as opponents competing for mutually incompatible outcomes in which one side wins and the other loses. Typically, issues in dispute become polarized, feelings and perceptions become hostile, options are narrowed, communication between parties is restricted or non-existent, and disputants strive for all-or-nothing solutions. By contrast, the cooperative or problem-solving approach involves both sides collaborating – merging resources to seek solutions that address everyone’s interests and are mutually beneficial. This approach to dealing with conflict is characterized by the use of joint problem-solving techniques, respectful communication and the pursuit of win-win solutions.

Advocating for common ground
“Understand the differences, act on the commonalities.” Today’s problems – whether ethnic, environmental, or economic – are too complex and interconnected to be resolved on an adversarial basis. It is our assumption that everyone’s interests are best served by reframing the issues in a non-adversarial way, and advocating for a process that can maximize the gain of all those with a stake in the outcome. While ethnic, cultural and religious disparities may seem insurmountable in difficult conflict situations, common ground between parties can be found where interests overlap, and mutually beneficial solutions can come to the fore.

Impartiality versus neutrality You can be impartial, if not completely neutral. Being partial means defending one side or the other. Being impartial is working with people on both sides – our hearts might go out to those we feel have been wronged, naturally – however, our work is to bring people to the table to talk, to get them into dialogue about what they can do to improve the situation. We are not advocates for either side, but for finding common ground: it is not about justice for one but justice for all.

Reframing, or creating a new context, is a technique of shifting the perception of a situation or problem to give it a different and/or more constructive interpretation. In mediation and negotiation, this method is used to recast a conflict in neutral terms to break deadlocks or stalemates and make further progress in attaining a joint resolution. In popular management literature, it is often referred to as causing a paradigm shift.

Conflict management versus conflict resolution
For those unfamiliar with the terminology of this field, there can be great confusion about these two concepts. Conflict management generally involves taking action to keep a conflict from escalating further – it implies the ability to control the intensity of a conflict and its effects through negotiation, intervention, institutional mechanisms and other traditional diplomatic methods. It usually does not address the deep-rooted issues that may be at the cause of the conflict or attempt to bring about a solution. Conflict resolution, by contrast, seeks to resolve the incompatibilities of interests and behaviours that constitute the conflict by recognizing and addressing the underlying issues, finding a mutually acceptable process and establishing relatively harmonious relationships and outcomes.

Choosing between hope and despair
It is human nature to experience feelings of despair, hopelessness and depression in destructive or intractable situations. We make the assertion that despair is a choice that hinders action. The people we work with on a daily basis are courageously choosing the alternative – hope – and are working through the personal anguish that arises in conflict situations to accomplish something constructive. The world is becoming more and more diverse, and its potential – both negative and positive – has never been greater. We believe it is critical to choose to work together creatively to turn that diversity into progress.

Breakdowns to breakthroughs
Often a breakdown in the functioning of a community, organization or government is considered a disastrous event with dire consequences. By shifting our perception, such occurrences can also be viewed as opportunities to step back and analyze problems, relationships and miscommunications. When the underlying causes of breakdowns are illuminated and addressed in this way it can lead to a breakthrough in cooperation and productivity. Learning from past difficulties is the surest way to avoid future mistakes and prevent conflicts from reoccurring.

Positions versus interests
Positions are points of view that are generally more specific and narrower in scope than interests, which typically underlie (and can include many) positions. Interests tend to be fundamental needs, while a position is often a statement of opinion about how to achieve that need. A position is much more easily altered than an interest. There are always places where parties’ interests overlap in a conflict, whereas positions may appear mutually exclusive. The more intense the dispute, the farther apart positions tend to be from each other.

Attack problems, respect people
Transforming conflict can be as simple as reframing a situation – creating a new context in which people attack problems, rather than each other. The perception of a situation can be shifted so that both sides are working together on a common problem, rather than seeing each other as the problem. To address the problem in a cooperative problem-solving manner, it is important to discover mutual interests, generate options and develop agreements as steps for maintaining harmonious relations while dealing with problems directly.

Active listening
When two parties in conflict are speaking with each other, one or both sides are often more concerned with formulating a response and winning the argument than listening attentively. Active listening is a structured form of communication that focuses the attention on the speaker in order to improve mutual understanding and facilitate problem solving. The listener must attend fully to the speaker, and then reflect back what he or she has heard; enabling both parties to find out if the message was fully understood. This process serves to reduce misunderstandings, encourage positive exchanges, and deepen mental and emotional understanding of each side’s concerns to create a relationship conducive to mutual problem-solving.

Active speaking
Active speaking is a communication process whereby a speaker appeals to another individual’s higher self – the deepest level of humanity within each individual where dignity, integrity and compassion resonate the strongest. Often the key to achieving this is for the speaker to come from a place of respect, compassion and understanding. Active speaking is a courageous, creative act that usually requires the speaker to rise above their fears and concerns and speak from their own highest sense of self.

Perceptions versus reality
From the conflict resolution perspective, the absolute reality of a conflict situation is often less important than what each party’s perception of that situation is. For example, while there may be no actual stated threat of violence between groups, the simple perception of a threat may be enough to bring one or both disputants to action. It is necessary to consider perceptions objectively and without value judgments, in an attempt to determine how such perceptions can create misunderstandings, limit options and hinder communication.

Transforming stereotypes
Typically in protracted conflicts, extremely negative stereotypes of opposing parties form based on their group identities. This can lead to dangerous assumptions that can devolve to the point where adversaries become dehumanized, opening the door to violence and genocide. One of our main goals in working with identity-based conflicts is to shift such negative perceptions, re-humanizing combatants in each other’s eyes and paving the way for cooperative problem-solving. Methods for transforming stereotypes include facilitating inter-group contact, conducting workshops and activities that help to build social cohesion, and providing information via mass media that reduces the fear and misunderstanding.

Expanding identity
Often in violent, intractable conflicts, group identity is the central dividing factor around which a dispute revolves. Such a partition of identity creates an “us versus them” mentality, which inhibits communication and diminishes peaceful resolution options. In order to remove these barriers, an overarching level of identification that includes both parties must be developed, thereby creating a new category, which places disputants in a better position to work toward a common future. A successful example of expanding identity is South Africa’s transformation from the divisive apartheid system of Blacks versus Whites into the inclusive Rainbow Nation.

Reference: Yarn, D., 1999, Dictionary of Conflict Resolution. Jossey-Bass Inc., San Francisco.

Author: nakawashi9

International mediator, professor, corporate trainer!

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