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The field of conflict resolution (or dispute resolution, or conflict intervention, or whatever we should call it) is a complex organism. It can seem very much like one of those figure-ground graphics that trainers often use to illustrate selective perception – look at it one way and you see a chalice, look at the same graphic another way and you see two people, nose to nose.
Bernie Mayer has an uncommon ability to draw an argument in a few strokes that makes figures in our field pop out in sharp relief. He did it with Beyond Neutrality, generating a thoughtful and wide-spread discussion about the essential posture of the intervener. He’s done it again with Staying with Conflict, this time bringing into sharp focus the question of whether the goal of “resolution,” a part of the name that we most often use to label our field, is in fact an impediment to effective assistance to parties in conflict.
Here’s the essence, in Mayer’s words:
How we identify ourselves is not just a matter of semantics. The purpose of our efforts is characterized by how we name our field, and that purpose creates a narrative that both guides our work and limits it.
Perhaps the key argument here is that by focusing on resolution, consciously or unconsciously, we miss the opportunity to fully address most conflict as it is found, and in some cases we may do harm by bringing a desire to resolve into conflict where resolution is not appropriate. Mayer argues:
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.
I particularly like the participant-centered approach that Mayer has always taken, and it is evident in this book. The chapters offer specific strategic advice for working the narrative, using power, managing agreements, etc., all from the perspective of achieving the level and type of intervention that both suits the conflict and is comfortable for the participants.
Mayer approaches communication as a non-episodic enterprise embedded in a non-episodic conflict continuum. To introduce his discussion of communication in enduring conflict he says:
The set of communication skills that we focus on in short-term interventions, such as listening, framing, reframing, raising conflict productively, and attending to nonverbal cues, are important in all human relations, including staying with enduring conflict. But additional communication skills are needed for long-term conflict.
He then proceeds to supply a thoughtful discussion of what those additional skills might be, and how to use them. Staying with Conflict marries sound theoretical observations with concrete strategic approaches to enduring conflict. From a practitioner’s point of view, I think there can be no higher praise.
I think Bernie missed an opportunity to address the potential impact of information and communication technology on enduring conflict. As a field, I think we need to pay more attention to the opportunities and barriers offered by technology – the impact is there and growing whether we like it or not. But that’s a minor criticism, and perhaps off-point and driven by my own selective perception.
Decades ago I attended a party at the Irish Embassy in Washington, D.C., honoring the Irish poet, Desmond Egan. He was receiving some award from the Modern Language Association for a book of poetry, and the MLA representative that night gave what I consider to be the ultimate in concise and useful book reviews. I’ll quote his review here in full as the essence of my response to Staying with Conflict: “This is a very good book. I recommend it. “
Director, ADR Services
The National Mediation Board
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