by Luke Lara, Ed.D.
Ever wonder why conflicts exist? I do not shy away from conflict, yet I’m not a fighter and my instinct is to freeze in intense situations (e.g., disagreements). However, I am willing to dive deeper to understand what is at the heart of the issue. At the crux of all conflicts is a difference of perception around resources, needs, or values, based on any number of factors such as beliefs, values, cultural traditions, religion, education, ideology, and lived experiences. Conflict is natural and when we are stuck in conflict, we may need a bit of help. Mediation or “facilitated dialogue” is a tool to support successful relations with others.
As a trained counselor, I developed strong great listening skills and the ability to help people problem solve. Counseling is often done with individual clients. Mine happen to be college students. Their conflicts were personal (e.g., negative self-talk, meeting basic needs, navigating college) or issues with others (e.g., a teacher, family member, employer). In contrast, mediation involves two or more parties. While mediation and counseling may share similar aspects, the goal of mediation is to reach agreement on future behaviors that address underlying needs and interests.
I recently completed a mediation training hosted by the National Conflict Resolution Center. They provided a week-long, interactive institute with highly skilled facilitators. I learned a great deal about mediation and how it can be an incredibly rewarding tool for bringing conflicting parties into agreement. Mediation, while a legal tool, has roots in collectivist societies (e.g., African Societies, Indigenous groups) as a means of justice and community healing. Mediation, at least in California, has the added benefit of being a confidential process.
I’ll use the metaphor of an iceberg to illustrate what a conflict represents and how mediation can improve strained relationships. Imagine an iceberg representing a party’s perception of a conflict: a frozen piece of ice protruding from the cold ocean’s surface. Most of the ice formation lies below the surface. It may seem as though there are two icebergs set to inevitably collide (e.g., in the case of two parties). The protrusions represent the solid positions (e.g., statements) each party stands firmly upon (e.g., “We need to focus on Equity,” “I have a right to Academic Freedom”). Each statement seems mutually exclusive and completely in opposition. Yet, what lies underneath the surface are the underlying needs and interests that motivate these positions. By diving below the surface, we may find that the two seemingly distinct protruding tips are formed of a common foundation of needs and interests (i.e., the same iceberg).
The real work of mediation is to understand the underlying needs and interests. The mediation process is not about changing people’s minds. It is about helping conflicting parties understand each other’s perspectives, identify the intersecting interests, and empower the parties to be future-oriented to find a resolution. Author William Raspberry wrote, “The opportunity for cooperation is there, even in our most vexatious disputes, if we’ll only bother to look for it.” In other words, if we look under the surface to understand the other party’s needs and interests, we may find an opportunity to cooperate. This is not to say that the interests are in common, but that through cooperation, a mutually beneficial resolution can be achieved.
A skilled mediator is a neutral party and facilitates dialogue while listening carefully, uses tools including, acknowledging feelings, identifying interests, summarizing/paraphrasing, translating, identifying expectations, caucusing (e.g., private meetings), and asking questions. Mediators must set a tone of hope through neutral language that reframes and builds connections. Through facilitated dialogue, mediators become the conduit through which communication is jumpstarted and nurtured, helping the parties stay resolution focused.
Mediators facilitate the process, and the parties are responsible for the content. A well-facilitated dialogue can empower the parties to creatively address their issues and come to an agreement on future behaviors through SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound) goals. Not all mediated issues result in a resolution. However, the communication skills learned in the process can still help those involved grow as a person, employee, and/or a leader. The parties can always agree to enter mediation again later.
Don’t let conflict stop you from preserving important relationships (personal or professional). Let mediation help you before issues escalate. It helps if all parties are willing to engage in the mediation process. Next time you have a conflict with a colleague, a neighbor, a friend, or a family member, consider a neutral mediator to facilitate a dialogue. Many employers, city offices, and community groups offer free or sliding-fee-based mediation services.
- National Conflict Resolution Center
- “Getting to yes: Negotiating agreement without giving in” by Roger Fisher and William Ury