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.

 

When a Conflict Can’t Be Resolved – Part 1 of 2

Mediators have long asked themselves, and one another, why more people don’t engage in mediation.  The process has so many advantages and few drawbacks, that it is difficult to understand why relatively few people are at least willing to try it.

Consider that mediation:

  • is generally a lot quicker than going to court;
  • much less expensive;
  • less adversarial, as parties are helped to listen to and understand one another, and then to work together; as opposed to the polarizing experience of litigation;
  • allows the people having the dispute to make their own decisions, rather than a judge deciding questions for them;
  • is voluntary, meaning that either party can end the process at any time; and,
  • allows for greater creativity in developing responses and solutions to conflict; because the spouses (or other parties) are experts in regard to what they want and need (as opposed to a judge who is a stranger, and one loaded down with a large docket of cases that doesn’t leave him or her time to fully consider many options).

What’s not to like?  What’s the risk?  Why oh why don’t we (mediators) have an overflow of clients? So many clients that we need to refer and turn them away in droves?  Bernard Mayer – mediator, facilitator, trainer, researcher – offers an answer to the question that I had never thoughtfully considered before reading his book, Staying with Conflict:  A Strategic Approach to Ongoing Conflict.

I have long believed that most people don’t try mediation when they are engaged in a conflict largely because:

  1. they don’t have information about what mediation is/how it works, and so “don’t realize what they are missing” (including that the results are binding, if the parties want them to be);
  2. going to court is familiar – think about the hundreds of movies, TV shows and novels involving a courtroom drama; and now see if you can name three dealing with mediation.  While people know that going to court (and perhaps to ‘divorce court’ most of all) can be a bitter and difficult experience, doing so still means dealing with ‘the devil you know’; and,
  3. family and friends are quick to suggest what may be conventional wisdom – hire the meanest, nastiest lawyer you can; feeling vulnerable, and perhaps angry, saddened, tired or confused, people follow that advice, usually not knowing what they are in for, and that there are other methods that may well work for them.

In his book, Mayer discusses another reason:

Perhaps some people don’t believe mediators when we talk about helping to ‘resolve conflicts’ (or to ‘resolve’ disputes).   Alternative dispute resolution may not be credible to people engaged in what Mayer calls ‘enduring conflict’ or ‘long-term conflict’.

Example:  If a mediator told you that s/he could help the parties resolve a crisis in the Middle East (take your pick of which one), you would probably be skeptical, to say the least.  Many of the conflicts are deeply rooted and have been going on for decades or longer.  That anyone is going to resolve (end/finish) such a conflict doesn’t seem realistic.

But what if the mediator said to you that, “I think I can work with the parties to help them manage the conflict.  I don’t have any illusions that I or any mediator can help all of the parties I work with to settle all of the issues for all time.  What I can do is assist them in discussing some of the most pressing and immediate problems; I may be able to help them reach some agreement(s) to improve the situation (such as for a cease fire or prisoner exchange during a war).  As a mediator, I can work with them on choosing ways to keep communication going, and help them to take advantage of opportunities to work together as the conflict continues.”

If the mediator is referring to a crisis in the Middle East, what s/he is proposing – helping the parties to manage the conflict – is still a very tall order.  But it has happened, as hard as that may be to believe with the chaos engulfing the region at present.

Enduring conflict does not only exist on the international level, or have to involve matters of life and death.  Such conflicts may exist between business partners,  teachers and parents working with a special needs child, communities and local governments, environmental groups and industry, two parents over child-care issues or religious upbringing; and of course, in many other situations.

Next time:  What ‘enduring conflict’ may mean for divorcing parents; and for the mediators working with them.

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