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The Conflict Resolution Practitioner of the Future

I am writing this post from our boat in the Gulf Islands of British Columbia – a welcome break from the usual flurry of activity and a time for deeper reflection than is usually available.

The feeling that we are living in a bubble of safety and tranquility was amplified when we picked up a major newspaper at our last port of call. It contained a full frontal onslaught of horrendous news from around the globe: the Gaza Strip, the Ukraine, Iraq, ongoing conflict in Syria, Somalia, the Ebola crisis in West Africa and the environmental disaster in BC’s interior, to mention just a few.

This feels overwhelming and one cannot help feel some level of despair for the world we will leave to our children.

At the same time, I have been reading a new book by distinguished lawyer, mediator and educator Kenneth Cloke, “The Dance of Opposites: Explorations in Mediation, Dialogue and Conflict Resolution Systems Design“. I had the very good fortune of attending a course led by Ken Cloke and Joan Goldsmith at Pepperdine University’s Strauss Institute in June and was very inspired by the depth of their insights and optimism for the future of the field of conflict resolution. This new book is well worth reading and it opens new opportunities for those of us who want to help people resolve conflict, including the complex challenges in today’s world. It draws helpful linkages between conflict resolution and various disciplines (law, politics, environment, psychology, religion, philosophy etc.) and describes how the training and experience of conflict resolvers (mediators in particular) can be used for a wide variety of purposes beyond how we usually define mediation.

Ken Cloke says the situation is dire but not hopeless. We can help address the many crises faced by our world. In fact, we must help.

In the introduction to his book, Ken paints a picture of a new vision for conflict resolution in the international realm. He asks: “Why is warfare still with us?” and adopts Hannah Arndt’s theory that there are at least four possible explanations:

  • a secret death wish of the human species
  • an irrepressible instinct of aggression
  • the serious economic and social dangers inherent in disarmament
  • lack of an effective substitute for warfare on the international political scene

Ken strongly advocates for the fourth reason and believes that collaborative negotiation, mediation and conflict resolution systems design can be that substitute. He builds a strong case for a pivotal role for conflict resolution professionals of the present and future. His words echo the thinking of those advocating for different models of social change (including the social lab):

“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 or denunciations, but not require the use of mediation, collaborative negotiation, dialogue and conflict resolution systems design in order to successfully collaborate in overcoming them.”

In the chapter entitled “Let’s Talk Politics”, Ken quotes Martin Luther King Jr.:

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

Ken argues that “it is arguable that in the absence of improved conflict resolution skills it will prove difficult, if not impossible, for us to survive as a species.”

This is a strong challenge to our field to step up and Ken believes that, if we do, there is hope. What does “stepping up” mean? It probably means different things to each of us depending on our skills, experience, location, connections, influence and opportunities. It is clear that it requires action rather than just words. What are the ways in which you can step up??

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