‘Getting to the heart of conflict’ is the name of a book written by Professor Bernie Mayer, Lecturer in Negotiation and Dispute Resolution at Creighton University. I recently attended a workshop presented by Bernie. He offered a mixture of self reflection and group sharing opportunities along with offering the insights he has gathered, tested, and reflected upon over 30+ years of working in these fields.

To get to the heart of conflict implies that disputants present with many layers of apparent complexity – as humans, as humans in dispute, and often as humans presenting with internal dilemmas that can in themselves present as paradoxes.

The Position Stance

Parties in mediation often start discussions by presenting their ‘positions’ or entrenched stance on the matters in dispute. It is well known that to move towards resolution, it can be helpful to facilitate discussions that uncover and explore each party’s interests which underpin their position stance. Interests can be thought of as the internal hidden framework of a building compared with the evident external features of the building (the position stance).

However Bernie encourages mediators to go beyond uncovering and discussing interests to support parties to come face to face with what they really want, and what we are really offering as mediators. Often a less mindful mediator will analyse the parties and their conflict and manage the mediation through their own layers of complexity and their frameworks–-how they view things, what they believe they have to offer, their preferred style and processes and their sense of what they bring to the table.

Essentially every aspect of conflict has the potential to have more depth and complexity than what the limiting views of each party in dispute and the mediator imposes on the conflict.

For example:

  • Not spending enough time to explore interests may mean that not all substantive, psychological and procedural interests are identified and discussed;
  • The dimensions of conflict (behavioural, emotional and cognitive) are not considered;
  • The use of overt and covert assertions of power are not recognised; and
  • The tensions caused by paradoxes within the conflict can remain.

The Seven Paradoxes

Bernie believes there are seven paradoxes to conflict that create a framework we might use in order to make sense of conflict. Each paradox poses a dilemma for how one approaches conflict, thinks about conflict and tries to find solutions to move forward.

The paradoxes are viewed as presenting difficult choices between two alternatives–-that present as polarities such that one must make a choice between one polarity and the other to be able to move forward. Yet for many individuals in dispute neither of the polarity alternatives within each paradox forms an entirely acceptable solution for them.

Bernie has identified these paradoxes as

  • Competition and Cooperation
  • Optimism and Realism
  • Avoidance and Engagement
  • Principle and Compromise
  • Emotion and Logic
  • Neutrality and Advocacy
  • Community and Autonomy

He poses that as we grow in our ability to manage conflict, we realise that we do not have to choose one of the two alternatives to each paradox. But instead we can learn to identify how one polarity actually requires the existence of it’s opposite–-that we don’t have to choose one over the other but instead learn to become comfortable with understanding and working with their co-dependent reality.

The Pursuit of Power

Bernie noted that unless a person is prepared to deeply explore why they exert their power in an aggressive or escalated fashion, their attempts to pursue power to achieve the outcomes they believe they must have (even at an unconscious level) will still play out.

In work situations where such behaviour may not be identified and addressed as a breach of policy, others may do well to learn to respond with an exertion of power delivered in a constructive manner and not accommodate or appear to accept the ramifications of a co-worker’s demands.

Those who allow themselves to ‘feel pushed around’ or negatively affected by someone else’s assertion of power will very easily become provoked and then display behaviours which may see them in breach of a workplace behaviour policy.

De-escalation of Conflict

Constructively addressing conflict requires each party to:

  • First engage with their own conflict within the conflict situation;
  • Experience some transformation in how they make sense of the conflict in order to fundamentally change the way they approach conflict and think about a solution; and
  • Be prepared to resolve the situation by finding collaborative means to communicate and problem solve.

Sometimes aspects of a dispute may be enduring and so finding ways to resolve or eradicate those factors may be futile. However highlighting those enduring factors and finding ways to minimise the negative impact of those factors can be extremely helpful in assisting parties to be prepared to move forward.

So while a mediator seeks to support processes with the aim of achieving resolution, de-escalation of conflict and finding agreed strategies to inhibit future escalation may be the best available outcome with the greatest potential for sustainability.

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