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Bodies at Work: Moving Toward Alchemy

The single most neglected truism in mediation, whether virtual or in person, is that it does not happen without bodies. We do not mediate with beings in other realms (unless we attach a very different meaning to mediation than is contemplated in this collection of articles on the future of our craft). Thus involving those with current corporeal substance, we mobilize to engage and reach toward understanding while literally standing our ground. When progress happens, we perceive movement toward mutually acceptable solutions; when we have difficulty progressing, we say we are blocked. As these metaphors illustrate, fundamental understandings and conduct of mediation processes are not in the etheric realms, but very much situated in time and place, and necessarily associated with physicality.

Yet, physical work on understanding, engaging and shifting conflict is not a part of most mediator education and even less a part of mediation practice. A search of training and education programs reveals remarkably uniform frames of reference. These frames privilege intellectual analysis and cognitively-oriented ways of structuring and shaping communication. The body is virtually absent from the canons that anchor mediation other than short sections on body language and non-verbal communication. Why is the body as a source of knowing so obviously absent?

The reasons for the conspicuous oversight in relation to the body are historical and philosophical, extending far back in history. Religions and philosophies from both west and east share views of the body (particularly the female body) as impure; physical passions and bodily functions are seen as impediments to holiness or transcendence and thus in need of being subdued. Descartes’ dualism and before that, Aristotelian and Platonic theorizing featured the brain-body split. Imagery from many periods of human history valorizes violence and warrior identities. One must go a long way back to Megalithic archeological finds to see figures that apparently celebrate the fertility and vitality of the body, especially the female. Not coincidentally, these early periods where the body was celebrated are also thought to have been characterized by more egalitarian, harmonious social relations.

Scapegoating and alienating the body has led to myriad social and environmental ills, and its omission from conflict processes only continues this unproductive direction. In the past century, movements from ecology to feminism have sought to redeem the body as source of wisdom, vitality and human life itself. Yet, coincident with these movements, the advent of mediation as a professional field has been marked by a focus on ‘science’ more than ‘art’; on the lightness and adeptness of the intellect more than the apparent heaviness of the body. It is time that conflict studies and mediation caught up.

In 2010, I co-convened a gathering of mediators from countries across the globe in the beautiful Alps of Saas-Fee, Switzerland called Dancing at the Crossroads. We came to explore implications of the truism that all human conflict is embodied just as all successful mediation encompasses movement. Over a week, we moved and reflected on mediation processes, practices and tools, and how they might change if animated by embodied wisdom and neuroscientific insights about conflict engagement. Each morning was spent largely away from verbal exchange, in movement led by a dancer designed to stretch our understandings of physical dimensions of conflict and mediation. Every afternoon, we reflected on the morning’s learnings and how they informed, or could inform, conflict engagement.

The week changed my mediation practice and my life by opening a fertile field of inquiry that still animates my work. The 2013 book The Choreography of Resolution arose from the Saas-Fee week, as have many workshops, courses and conflict engagement processes. Below, I summarize some of this work and conclude with an exploration of what it could mean for mediation training and intervention in the future.

All roads lead to the body
Physical bodies are sites of trauma, anchors of pain and dividers between one group and another. They are also vessels of possibility, vehicles of change and places of healing. When we bring a difficult conflict into our awareness, our tissues feel heavy with its emotional valence and our normally versatile minds can fall into well-traveled neural pathways of negativity. Yet bodies are also the places where we experience the relief of letting go, the relaxation of resolution and the glimmer of possible futures into which we may walk.

In the aftermath of violent or intractable conflicts, physical and emotional safety must be secured and the imagination re-ignited. For this, the body is key. Physical safety can be arranged through peace agreements and careful boundary observance and enforcement. Beyond physical safety, the need to reknit communities and restore a sense of individual and collective coherence can only fall to tools expansive enough to hold contradiction and complexity. Dance, movement and other physically-based, arts-inspired forms are vital resources for designing safe, imaginative containers in which positive shifts can happen. This has been known and practiced around the world in traditional cultures since time immemorial as rituals of dance, song and feasting mark transitions through conflict.

Intercultural conflicts also point unfailingly to the body as a common denominator. When language and translation barely stretch across divides; when people share a common language and look beyond words for cues; and when people realize the limitations of words in communicating symbolic aspects of conflict including identity, belonging and meaning—the body is implicated. Nonverbal communication is well known to be powerful in ways spoken or written language is not. Because people in conflict need to find ways to access imagination and intuition, and to move beyond cultural and cognitive frames that keep them confined, physical attunement and engagement is essential.

Of course, conflict arises not only over ideas and ideologies, but over how we share and occupy territory, how physical needs are managed in the face of competing values, and over identities: how the “who” of us is acknowledged, respected and accommodated in physical and relational ways. How can physical tools assist with this?  

The body is the journey
Artists, particularly dancers, have a lot to share with those working on conflict engagement, and can help in answering these questions. While in Saas-Fee, we learned how physical habits of attention, when understood and shared, can help normalize differences and ‘otherness’. This awareness helps shift the focus away from tensions, challenging distorted perceptions and limiting assumptions.

Physical commonalities and shared experiences give us a way to exchange ideas and discover resonances that go far below the skin. Learning via the body yields new vocabularies and awareness of nuances and unnoticed intersections within and between us. Conflict is a series of knots, a complex interweaving in our tissues that tend, when supported, toward health. Bodies, supported respectfully, can find a healthy balance of autonomy and connection. Body-based work activates worlds within, developing new neural pathways and physical awareness useful in shifting conflicts and avoiding impasse. Somatic work gives us new ways to engage paradox and enact transformative possibilities. As we move, feelings shift and new possibilities emerge, fostering innovative and exciting exchanges.

Our research shows that physical training for mediators helps by:

  • broadening understandings of how intentions and emotions become muscular impulses implicated in the ways we behave in conflict. For example, strong emotions may translate into emphatic body language that escalates conflict, yet be outside the awareness of the person feeling and expressing them. Increased awareness of habitual patterns of physical expression yields greater choices.
  • enhancing capacities to improvise and imagine nuanced, creative ways through conflict. Many people in conflict experience myopia—a limited ability to see creative options. Movement training can help generate creative possibilities by, for example, providing a physical experience of finding ways around another who is blocking forward movement. 
  • fostering increased flexibility and fluidity.
  • developing cultural fluency. Recognizing how various people respond physically to conflict—shielding, embracing, deflecting, etc.—can normalize and contextualize unexpected stances and contribute to more nuanced understandings of others.
  • refining ways of using physical vocabularies to communicate symbolic aspects of identity and meaning. In movement-based interactions with others, for example, we realize something intangible about the essence of ourselves and others. These realizations go beyond labels or stereotypes as they arise in an experience of authentic encounter.
  • increasing physical mobility and suppleness helpful in navigating tense situations.
  • teaching how ‘negative space’ (that area not seen or not on our radar) between people can generate new, spacious possibilities.
  • contributing to increased openness and empathy by offering experiences of neuromuscular shifts through entrainment and mirroring.
  • offering ways to re-pattern cognitive habits and awaken intuitive capacities. For example, neuroscientists tell us that as we change movement patterns, our thought patterns change as well.

Thus, physical training holds worlds of possibilities to enliven both mediator training and mediation processes themselves.

Bodies: Canvasses of the Future
In the future, mediation as a flourishing field will highlight physicality as central to training, intervention and supervision. Prospective mediators will be trained in proprioceptive capacity—awareness of their physical habits and positions and their effects on self and other. Parties in complex matters will also receive somatic training, just as they learn about the theory of positions and interests or effective verbal communication in building their capacities to work together. A whole repertoire of ways to foster and deepen physical intelligence in conflict will be developed, and these will make mediation more effective, relevant and valued. Sound, rhythm and other ways of engaging and shifting physically will be explored. We will come to see physical training as vital and freeing just as learning a clear structure for mediating is essential to good practice and the ability to improvise or respond to unexpected events.

As this work evolves, we will be better able to navigate conflict. Yet the work will always be a counterpoint between what is known and what can be discovered. The body is not only the site of tangible engagement and shift; it is and will remain a canvas of mystery. We do not always know why we feel the ways we do. Sensations associated with fear, anger, anxiety or resentment come to us unbidden. Incorporating the body into mediation is not a practice of submerging or subduing our physical impulses, but understanding and dancing with them. In the future, we will value the dance and join those who realize that re-integrating the denigrated and dismissed body will literally enliven our work.


Michelle LeBaron

Michelle LeBaron is a tenured professor at the UBC law faculty and is Director of the UBC Program on Dispute Resolution. She joined the Faculty of Law in 2003 after twelve years teaching at the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution and the Women's Studies program at George Mason University in… MORE >

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