Collaboration Practice

Bernard Mayer: Staying with Conflict

Empty Highway

Some Rights Reserved by Nicholas_T

In his latest book, Bernard Mayer has challenged our thinking about mediation by singling out a dimension of conflict that receives too little attention. Simply put: conflict endures, and Mayer argues that the response to it should go far beyond the immediate resolution of disputes. Staying with Conflict is a finely written argument for rethinking mediation and collaboration strategies by putting the reality of long-term conflict at the center of practice. The alternative is immediate settlement of the issues that can be resolved but avoidance of the harder problems that never go away.

As Mayer puts it:

The most significant conflicts people face are the enduring ones — those struggles that are long lasting and for which a resolution is either irrelevant or is just one in a series of partial goals in service of a long-term endeavor.

Mayer calls on the mediation community to stop thinking of its role as limited to the resolution of specific disputes. Instead mediators should address the overall context of conflict and work with clients to understand that differing interests do not disappear because one phase of disputing ends in agreement.

He calls this approach constructive engagement.

And just what does constructive engagement imply? … It means learning to engage with both the conflict and the other disputants with respect for each person’s humanity, if not his or her behavior or beliefs. It means articulating the nature of the conflict in a way that opens the door to communication and understanding rather than slamming it shut. … Constructive engagement requires using one’s power and responding to others’ use of power wisely — upping the level of conflict when necessary but doing so in a way that promotes desired behavior rather than becoming destructive. It means negotiating and problem solving within the context of the long-term challenge … .

He urges mediators to use this concept as a basis for working with clients. Shifting perspective from the tensions of the present problem to the larger context of enduring conflict can help them adjust expectations about resolution. It’s one thing to settle a dispute with someone you’ll never have any future contact with (and many disputes do fall into this category) but quite another if you need to maintain some form of ongoing relationship despite the immediate clash.

Then it becomes a question of managing conflict inherent in a necessary relationship that has other dimensions as well. He urges mediators to take on a new role by providing ongoing assistance to those involved in long-lasting conflict. That means helping them master the skills and strategies he mentions in the excerpt above: respect for differing values and goals, sustaining long-term communication and using power to achieve positive results than bridge-burning.

Although Staying with Conflict broadly addresses all forms of mediation, this provocative essay has particular relevance to the field of public policy and government decision-making. In few other areas of practice does the long-term nature of conflict present itself so clearly and inescapably. Collaborative leaders and practitioners alike well understand this fact, yet they rarely have the ability to step back from immediate disputes.

There are compelling reasons for this. The pressure of time, economics, politics and litigation usually force attention exclusively on the hothouse of the here-and-now. Almost invariably expectation is resolution now. That is the measure of success for public and private managers alike, and they often face serious consequences if they appear unable to settle complicated and volatile situations.

This is the problem that Mayer understates, to some extent. Collaborative practitioners, like their clients, also come under pressure to focus on the immediately resolvable issues and leave the rest alone. If they take on issues that can’t be resolved in the short-term, they fear damage to their own reputations as well as clients’ loss of confidence in consensus building itself. It’s hard for anyone to break out of that pattern.

At least in the public policy field, overcoming all these pressures probably demands nothing less than a cultural and societal shift in thinking about conflict, but that is far beyond the scope and purpose of this book. Mayer is definitely on the right track.

Although clients and mediators have to adapt to the current system to survive, that doesn’t mean they always want to. Mayer’s eloquent writing presents a necessary model for an alternative mindset. That is the crucial starting point – to get people thinking about the possibilities of a new approach. After all that is what mediators typically do.

There are likely to be relatively few who will attempt the basic shift in attitude and practice that Staying with Conflict urges, but change has to begin somewhere. And now there is a good model to work with.