When a Conflict Can’t Be Resolved – Part 2 of 2

In Part 1 of this post, I discussed issues raised by Bernard Mayer in his book, Staying with Conflict:  A Strategic Approach to Ongoing Conflict.  As mediators, we talk about ‘Conflict Resolution’ and ‘Dispute Resolution’.  Our field is often called ‘Alternative Dispute Resolution’.  With so much of our focus on ‘resolution’, are we as mediators missing many of our (potential) clients’ concerns?  When we say to them that we help to resolve conflict, do some tune us out, because they know very well that not every problem can be fixed?

His answer is ‘yes’.  Many parties come to us with certain disputes that we may be able to help them resolve.  But frequently, they all also involved in ‘enduring’ or ‘long-term conflicts’ that aren’t resolvable, regardless of our skills and experience as mediators. These unresolvable disputes may, however, be manageable.

I’ll leave it to you to read Part 1 of this post as I continue now with the following question:

What does enduring or long-term conflict mean and look like for a divorcing couple; let’s say one with young children?   These parents know that they will have to deal with each other for many years to come.  Many such parents can reasonably expect frequent disagreements, tension, arguments, perhaps accompanied by pressure to give in and abusive language.

And so, if a mediator explains to such a couple that “I will work with you both so that you can reach agreement on all of the matters that you need to, so that you’ll be able to move on with your lives”, maybe that comes across to the parties as hollow.  Naïve.  Unrealistic.  Perhaps mediation sounds too good to be true, and so is seen as a waste of time and money.

In a blog post I wrote, Words Matter:  Out with ‘Custody’; In with ‘Parenting’, I discussed the importance of language when dealing with conflict.  While mediators know (or should know) this, we may be unclear in telling others about what we do, and what the potential parties can reasonably expect.  We can do better with our explanations.

Let’s see if this explanation rings truer and is more in line with the expectations of many people in conflict.  Let’s say it is for a couple ending their marriage.

  • If you’re getting divorced, I can help you to discuss the issues between you, and to reach agreements on all the matters you’ll need to, in order to be divorced under New York State law.  This doesn’t mean that all of your issues will be permanently resolved, and that you won’t have disagreements in the future, about your children, for instance.  Your kids will keep growing and changing, and you, the parents will change too.  You won’t always be on the same page.  But, part of my job is to help you consider what any agreements may mean for the future, to help you decide if they make sense for you.  And,  I’ll work with you to determine how to communicate in the future and handle questions that arise, to give you the best chance of dealing with them effectively and respectfully.

Recognizing that parties may be involved with an enduring conflict, and attending to such conflict, does not require ignoring the more immediate issues.  As Mayer writes:

  • A focus on enduring conflict does not mean that we are not interested in helping people resolve conflicts or achieve agreements on nagging issues.  We have an important contribution to make in this arena, and we ought not to sacrifice this important part of our work to our focus on enduring conflict.  But we also need to understand the role of agreements in enduring conflict.  They memorialize progress that has been achieved and create new and, we hope, more constructive platforms from with to continue the conflict t engagement process.  As we work with disputants on resolving issues in the course of an enduring conflict, we need to keep in mind–and help disputants to understand–that resolving issues does not end an enduring dispute.   (Staying with Conflict:  A Strategic Approach to Ongoing Conflict, pp. 269, 270.)

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All blog posts are for information purposes, and should not be considered as legal advice.

 

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