In the Chinese zodiac, each animal has been blessed with specific strengths and skills. What does each animal have to teach about how to manage conflict? This week the Rat. Rats are quick-witted and curious.
The first casualty in war may be the truth, but in conflict, one of the first casualties is curiosity. This may occur long before raised voices or awkward silences. At some point we cease being curious about why the other person says or does something. We begin to feel that we “know” the motivations and intentions driving other people's behaviour. Suddenly, the meaning and intention behind another person’s word, tone, or look is revealed to us. We cease to be curious about what the other person’s intentions or beliefs may be, as we feel that we already know.
I remember being in a commercial mediation where the business partners had started working together in a positive and productive manner. A few years in, one of the partners moved away from Hong Kong and communication which had been in-person became limited to emails. As a result of time-zones and distance, communication became increasingly difficult.
Over time, each partner began to interpret emails in a negative manner and miscommunication became the norm. By the time I met the partners, each person told me that the behaviour of the 'other' was deeply suspicious and was prompted by bad intentions. Rather than be curious about what interests might underlie behaviour, each party “knew” exactly what was going on in the other person’s mind.
During the mediation, each partner was able to describe from their perspective what had prompted some of the more controversial emails. It became increasingly clear to each partner that they had made incorrect assumptions about the motivations and intentions of the other person. As they were able to communicate directly with each other during the mediation, they began to become more curious. They started to ask questions rather than make assumptions. They became curious.
The business relationship was over; however, they were able to work together to end their relationship amicably and discreetly. By re-igniting their curiosity each party was able to put to one side their pre-conceived judgments and be curious. Their curiosity allowed the parties to ask questions, learn new information and work collaboratively to resolve their issues.
Peace is not the absence of conflict but the presence of creative alternatives for responding to conflict -- alternatives to passive or aggressive responses, alternatives to violence.
Dorothy Thompson (1893-1961) American journalist and broadcaster
The zinger leaves our lips and zooms towards the recipient. As the words leave our mouth there may be an instantaneous moment of regret, or it may be that later that day you take a moment to wince at what you said. For most people this is a recognisable experience, the feeling that you have said something in the heat of the moment which was ill-advised or hurtful or destructive. When we are frustrated and angry is reacting without thought inevitable?
Conflict coaching aims to provide skills for people in how to respond in conflict situations rather than react. Riskin and Wohl have identified Six Obstacles that we encounter when we are in conflict.
If these are the obstacles what do Riskin and Wohl recommend? They advocate for the use of mindfulness training to provide space and time for reflective responses. In essence they suggest making use of mindfulness techniques to take a step back from the situation, assess what is happening and your response and then refocus attention.
By assessing our bodily sensations (e.g. increased heart rate, faster and shallower breathing), our emotional response (e.g. anger, frustration, disappointment) and our thoughts (e.g. what are you noticing? Where is your attention?) we can determine, what is happening for us in conflict situations. Just the act of slowing down from delivering a reaction to give time to assess and consider how we are feeling can make a significant difference to how we respond. Next time you encounter conflict, take a moment to assess and consider how you may frame a response rather than reacting.
Whether, people are in family mediation or employment mediation or commercial mediation, they have probably seen trust erode. All the reassuring words in the world cannot rebuild trust. Maybe you don't need to. Maybe the relationship is over and you are able to walk away from that particular burning bridge.
However, if you have an ongoing relationship (co-parenting / employment / commercial arrangements, etc.) then you will need to address the loss or deterioration of trust. If we accept that words are not enough to rebuild that bridge - how do you even start?
Rebuilding trust is a process and it may take months or years. The first steps to rebuilding trust can be taken in the mediation itself. A key way for people to address the loss of trust in mediation is through transparency. Disclosure of information relevant to the mediation can create the conditions in which trust can start to be rebuilt. This can start to challenge the narrative that the untrustworthy other side is hiding something. Transparency is a beginning but it can be a powerful first step.
President Trump has expressed a wish to act as a 'mediator, arbitrator or facilitator' in negotiations to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict. Leaving aside for one moment whether this is a good idea, what does it mean to act as a mediator, arbitrator or facilitator? Despite their usage by President Trump as synonymous, these terms relate to separate and distinct processes.
Facilitation - requires a facilitator to 'make easy'. This could be a discussion or a negotiation but the role is limited to facilitating communication in accordance with the rules which have been agreed by the participants. The result of a good facilitation could be a memo, a good talk or decisions on an issue.
Mediation - requires a mediator to provide a structured process to facilitate negotiation. Although there are different forms of mediation (narrative / therapeutic / settlement / etc.) the difference between facilitation and mediation is that in mediation there will be an issue, dispute or problem that needs to be resolved. As a voluntary process committed to party self-determination, a mediator will work with the parties to provide them with a structure and process to enable them to find solutions within themselves. The result of a mediation will be a mediated settlement agreement and more importantly resolution in respect of the outcome. Mediators aim to achieve 'durable solutions', solutions that will endure and which parties can abide by. No party will achieve 100% of what they want, but enough of their priority needs will be met and the process will be conducted with attention and respect to their concerns.
Arbitration - requires an arbitrator to make decisions on fact and law and to render an arbitral award. The arbitrator is not there to facilitate negotiations between the parties but to act as a decision maker. This process is not about party self-determination but about finding certainty and finality. An arbitration will result in an arbitral award which is a binding decision. Arbitral awards are viewed as very enforceable as they are generally supported by Courts and the NY Convention 1958.
What process President Trump intends to use I am unable to say. However, some time understanding the differences would be a good first step.
Tim used to say ‘walk it out’ in each class. He would challenge everyone in the room to consider an idea, a value or a belief and then ask us ‘how did we walk it out’ in our lives?
For Tim this meant that principles and values needed to be demonstrated and not just spoken of. He was one of the few people that I have met for whom every interaction was guided by his principles and beliefs. In his work, he embraced openness and consideration. Tim did not shy from the difficult or the hard to bear, instead he moved towards and forward.
From Tim, I learned that:
Professor Timothy Pownall was the kindest and gentlest of men. He was my professor at the Straus Institute and I am forever grateful for the chance I had to meet him, be taught by him and to consider him my friend. To my fellow Waves, all we can do now is ‘walk it out’.
(First posted on previous website)