Should We Take the “Resolution” Out of Conflict Resolution?

I had the privilege of attending Bernard Mayer’s two day workshop on Vancouver Island last month. Bernie is one of the pioneers and visionaries in the conflict resolution field and his two most recent books (Beyond Neutrality and Staying with Conflict) have transformed my understanding of the field and the roles of people who work within it.

The workshop focused on what Bernie calls “enduring conflict”, conflicts that have a significant enduring element. They are typically:

  • deeply rooted
  • identify based
  • value driven
  • embedded in structure
  • systemic and complex

Bernie points out that enduring conflicts will not be “resolved” through short-term, resolution-oriented conflict interventions. They may never be resolved at all. Examples include global issues like climate change or nuclear disarmament but conflicts at a more local and personal level can also be enduring. Think, for example, of divorced parents who have profound differences about how their children should be raised, disciplined or educated. It may be possible to “resolve” individual disputes as they arise but the underlying values-based conflict will not disappear.

Bernie states at page 2 of Staying with Conflict:

As conflict professionals we exhibit a strong tendency to ignore the ongoing (or enduring, long-term, or endemic) aspect of these conflicts and to focus only on those aspects that can be resolved. In doing this we fail to address people’s most important conflicts and miss out on a major opportunity to increase the role and relevance of the work that we do. … if we limit our focus to the immediate conflict we may provide some value but we overlook the underlying challenge that confronts the individuals, organizations, and communities involved.

If people are involved in enduring conflict, “resolution” is unlikely and unrealistic. People may need long-term engagement strategies instead.

Which brings me to the way we describe ourselves. Are we just “dispute resolution professionals” or do we see a broader role we could play? As Bernie asked during the workshop, do we ask our customary question (what can we do to resolve or de-escalate this conflict?) or do we ask a deeper question (how can we help people prepare to engage with this issue over time in constructive ways?). The latter approach presents new and exciting opportunities for the field, a wider definition of purpose and new ways to use our skills and experience.

Staying with Conflict explores these topics in considerable detail and offers helpful strategies. Considering how to take these ideas into our work is, however, a daunting mission requiring honesty, insight and courage.

Bernie identifies the need to embrace the many paradoxes of enduring conflict:

  • no comprehensive solution will solve the problem but the problem must be addressed
  • struggle is necessary and cooperation is essential
  • decisions must be made in conditions of profound uncertainty
  • there is a need to live with ambiguity but to also find the energy that derives from clarity

It means changing the narrative that we use to describe our work from “prevention, management and resolution” to “anticipation, support and engagement”.

Bernie is careful to acknowledge that not all conflicts are “enduring”. There are discrete disputes that can be completely resolved through skilful intervention, particularly where there are no continuing relationships between the parties and no significant issues of principle or values. This definition may, on the face of it, describe most litigation matters. However, he challenges us to look at all conflicts we encounter with fresh eyes and at least ask the question about whether there is an enduring element and whether there is a role for us to play to assist the parties. Sometimes, I think we lawyers (even those of us who also call ourselves mediators) translate deeper interests and issues too quickly into financial terms for the purposes of legal action and that those other critical pieces then get lost in the shuffle.

Are we ready to enlarge the scope of our work from “dispute resolution” to “conflict engagement”? Can we take on different roles that walk with people through ongoing conflict?

Bernie raises important questions for the field. This is a critical book for lawyers, mediators, judges, arbitrators and others who see themselves as part of the conflict resolution field. I encourage you to read the book and consider how these issues affect your practice.

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