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A Protean Negotiator: An Interview with Peter Adler

Peter Adler, Ph.D., President of The Keystone Center in Keystone, Colorado is also an author who has written extensively in the field of mediation and conflict resolution. His most recent article, Protean Negotiation: Rejecting Orthodoxy and Shifting Shapes, is discussed and excerpted at the July 31, 2006 Engaging Conflicts blog post here.

I interviewed Peter on his perspective on conflict and the present and future of mediation. Here are some of the highlights of our question and answer session. Enjoy!


The Nature of Conflict

Gini: Good morning, Peter. Thank you for taking the time today to share some of your thoughts with me and the readers of the Engaging Conflicts blog and newsletter. Why do you think conflict is so engaging, something that can catch us up so overwhelmingly?

Peter: I’m working on a small book called Eye of the Storm Politics, where I talk a little bit about that, and about mediation without calling it that, and in perhaps clearer language for those who do mediation without knowing it as such. I see conflict like the weather. It’s always around us; we grow up with patterns of understanding about the weather, and intuition about the weather that works in one place but not always in other places; and it doesn’t always work where we are. Conflict is also intimately tied to the tension between change and the status quo – so there are very universal themes in conflict, that come in very many forms.

G: Conflict is endemic, so endemic that we take it for granted and don’t see it well.

P: Conflict is ubiquitous in nature, and in human nature. It isn’t good or bad, it just is. Like the weather. The weather is what it is; we learn to accommodate it.

Whither the “Field”?

G: Are there economic survival issues in the field, and have you any particular thoughts about the differences and respective roles, if any, between mediators and attorney mediators in the field?

P: First, the best and fastest development was by the lawyers – the Uniform Mediation Act, which has left a lot mediators who are not lawyers scratching their heads and wondering what they should do. There is an impulse in the legal system to use attorney-mediators. There is a schism despite rhetoric to the contrary. Second, I actually am not sure this is a “field.” If we are, it is only in the most general sense. The fact that we have a small body of theory and research doesn’t necessarily make us a field, or a professional group in the sense like the other professions. Mediators working in very specialized arenas have little to say to those working in the other arenas. For example, mediators working in the family area, would rather talk with a judge, a therapist, but not with the people I talk to, such as water lawyers, and it is getting more and more specialized. So if it’s a field, what’s the field? Having said that, it has taken root in a lot of locations, and people are getting paid, or not (it’s a passion for them); so it seems to be finding it’s place, even while being rather inchoate. Most people wind up specializing and understanding an arena of work, the language of it, the temperament of it, and, indeed, those who succeed have found a niche, or created it.

Collaboration and Robert Benjamin

G: Your own work is prolific and impressive on its own, Peter. But please tell me more about the collaborative work you do with Robert Benjamin. I enjoyed your and his “performance” of the Protean Negotiator workshop at the annual ACR conference last year! You are a very enjoyable team to watch.

P: We’ve had a lot of fun with this over the years. It never comes out quite the same, twice. It actually started years ago, really because the two of us had a lot of mutual interests and themes that no one else was talking about. We got tired of what everybody else was talking about, struck up our own conversations, and, then, all we did was bring those conversations out in the open and let other people into them. We want to have a good conversation with people about things that don’t usually get talked about.

The Protean Self and New Global Terrorism

G: Going back to the concept of protean negotiation, protean mediation, clearly Robert J. Lifton’s The Protean Self: Human Resilience In An Age of Fragmentation, is important. I’m fascinated by how Erich Fromm’s Anatomy of Human Destructiveness applies, with his discussion of both life forces and death forces in the world. I read them all at the same time as Lifton’s later work, Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorism, about how fragmentation of self can end up in death wishes or movements towards destruction.

P: He’s very old now – I heard him give a talk a couple of years ago – what I always found so interesting was that his notions and theories were grounded in his own casework. His thinking had come from the down up, it wasn’t just some grand theory. He had a really interesting array of clients. He would see these common threads and try to link some of them together.

A Personal Career Path

G: What attracted you to the field of conflict management in the first place?

P: I studied some serious conflict theory in my masters and Ph.D. sociology programs: Marx, Dahrendorf, Parsons, Simmel. Then, I got trained in an ancient Hawaiian form of dispute resolution called Hooponopono before I ever heard of mediation.

G: If you knew earlier what you know now, would you still have pursued the same career path?

P: I started out to be a biologist, and I still love science. Doing it over, I might be a science journalist. G: What is the best advice that you have been given? And what advice would you give a budding conflict specialist?

P: Get in their shoes and never, ever embarrass anyone. Conflict Resolution Heroes

G: Do you have a “conflict resolution hero,” and if so, who and why?

P: There are many: Dag Hammarsjkold, Mary Parker Follet, Teddy Roosevelt (brokered a deal to end a vicious war between Japan and Russia) Father McArity who just retired as Archbishop in DC and was a “uniter,” deKlerk (Mandela gets all the attention but deKlerk actually was the unsung hero), to name some.

The Biggest Questions

G: What do you think are the big questions to be answered next in the conflict management field?

P: We are not a field. We are set of similar practices adopted and adapted into other fields. The biggest issue for me is how to infiltrate and influence our political culture in the same way we have our legal culture.

G: What is the major ethical issue facing the conflict management field?

P: The duty to advocate for underdogs vs. duty to remain trustworthy, independent, and impartial.

Thrills and Spills

G: What has been your biggest thrill in being a conflict specialist?

P: Watching artful deals come together and actually solve tough problems.

G: What was your biggest mistake?

P: Too many to count.

G: Any regrets?

P: None.


Gini Nelson

Gini Nelson is a sole practitioner in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her practice emphasizes private dispute resolution, including distance dispute resolution, and domestic, bankruptcy and bankruptcy avoidance law. MORE >

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