Book Review: Bernie Mayer, “The Conflict Paradox – Seven Dilemmas at the Core of Disputes”

The more conflict escalates, the more human beings tend to characterize the issues as black or white, right or wrong, good or bad. The sad truth is that with more intensity, our thinking becomes less complex and we are less able to see all of the possibilities and to engage effectively. We are attracted to polarities, probably for their simplicity, bit life is not binary – it is complex and full of grey.

In his new book, “The Conflict Paradox – Seven Dilemmas at the Core of Disputes” (2015, Jossey-Bass), Bernie Mayer explores the mystery of this complexity in the context of conflict engagement. It is an enjoyable and fascinating read for everyone involved in negotiation, mediation or any form of conflict engagement.

Bernie acknowledges that:

“..conflict takes place in the chaotic world of human society, fraught with intense emotions, complex interactional systems, long histories, and troubling power dynamics. So while the answers may seem simple, the path to them is very complex.”

He says that we need new ways to think about conflict in order to find new ways to engage in conflict in this “messy world”.

He identifies seven “paradoxes” that often frame how we approach conflict and deals with each in turn:

  • Competition and cooperation
  • Optimism and realism
  • Avoidance and engagement
  • Principle and compromise
  • Emotions and logic
  • Neutrality and advocacy
  • Community and autonomy

They each appear to be polar opposites and that is often the way I see them treated. It is either X or Y – you can’t do both. Bernie suggests that we should not see them as mutually exclusive. Rather, he argues “that they are not contradictions at all, but codependent realities.”

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack-Up

Simplistic negotiation theory suggests you choose one or the other. In fact, one cannot exist without the other; they are actually closely intertwined. Bernie says people in conflict need help to take a more sophisticated and nuanced approach which embraces multiple realities and approaches.

Take the first pair for example: competition and cooperation. Bernie devotes a fair chunk of the second chapter to the “negotiator’s dilemma” which explores the relationship between competition (“value claiming”) and cooperation (“value creating”) as well as the “prisoner’s dilemma”, which draws on both evolutionary biology and game theory. He traces the history and uses of the game and concludes that:

“No one strategy always works. Cooperation without competition is more often ineffective than effective, as is competition without cooperation. But sometimes purely competitive strategies prevail and sometimes purely cooperative ones do. In the sweep of human history (and of evolution), however, this is the exception. Strategies that offer cooperation but are provocable are most likely to prevail most of the time”

Since “almost all exchanges in human interactions contain both cooperative and competitive elements” we don’t need to treat them as polar opposites. They can exist together.

He provides really helpful examples and practical analysis of approaches that we can use to recognize the complex interaction between competitive and cooperative statements and how to respond to them effectively. The trick, I guess, is being able to recognize situations in which conflict is causing our own thinking to be compromised and to step back to consider a nuanced approach. Easier said than done in my experience! Still, the concept is profound and helpful. He tackles each of the paradoxes with equal care and creative analysis.

I appreciate Bernie’s very thoughtful, comprehensive and encouraging comments coming out of his extensive expertise and experience.

This book is definitely worth a read. Enjoy!

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