Bernard Mayer, Staying with Conflict: A Strategic Approach to Ongoing Disputes (Jossey-Bass 2009)
In his newest book, Staying with Conflict, Bernie Mayer urges “conflict professionals” to think of ourselves as specialists who are retained as allies in assisting disputants to develop a constructive approach to engaging in enduring conflict, which he contends is both healthy and omnipresent. The book is beautifully written: in some parts poetic and in others analytic. As any good social science text, it reads in ways that are paradoxically common sense and revolutionary. But I offer a word of caution to colleagues who are engaged exclusively in mediating the litigated case: the book, if taken to heart, may call into question your/our own self-limiting roles.
I am a very suggestible reader and after a hundred pages of Staying with ConflictI found myself embracing – rather than resolving – the disputes I was hired to mediate. For the first time in a long time, I was unable to reach a settlement in three litigated cases and the surprise was that all of the parties (including me) were satisfied with the “outcome” as an interim framework for working together (thankfully, two of them have since settled). Based upon the approach Mayer advocates, I found myself consciously helping the parties to reframe the conflict and allow themselves to enter into a process that helps them to live with the conflict until it can be resolved.
Mayer begins with the premise that conflict professionals do themselves and disputants a disservice by limiting their services to those conflicts that can (or will inevitably) be resolved. Much like President Obama’s call to volunteerism, and former President Clinton’s call for “communitarianism,” Mayer urges us to take a proactive role in community, society and even global conflict. His premise goes well beyond (or is well within) diplomacy in conflicts such as those in the Middle East, and extends to conflict within families, between business partners and even between community activists and government.
While Mayer’s book is eloquent, it is equally pragmatic. For example, he recommends specific ways in which to negotiate intermediate issues towards the greater “acceptance of enduring conflict.” He advocates embracing conflict and uncertainty instead of avoiding it. He carefully analyzes the reasons why certain disputants choose to avoid conflict, and argues persuasively that in most instances that avoidance can and should be overcome. He observes and gives deference to the power generated by conflict itself, and suggests that we should learn to go beyond balancing power between the disputants to harness the power presented by staying in the conflict itself.
Mayer underscores the essential paradox of approaching conflict with optimism while being mindful of the reality that some conflicts may never be resolved. Building on the narrative mediation model advanced by Gerald Monk and John Winslade, Mayer offers concrete ways to focus on a narrative that “fosters a constructive and durable process of engagement.” He offers examples throughout the book of specific conflicts and how they can be harnessed for the “duration.” For example, simple rules of communication (via telephone, email or through an intermediary) and appropriate intervals for communication (daily between partners, or monthly between co-parents) are set out in detail.
Mayer is ever mindful that “the goal in enduring conflicts is not agreements per se, but agreements that move the overall conflict process in a constructive direction” (p. 182). Nonetheless, conflict specialists, he argues, should take a role in “making implicit agreements explicit,” among other things (p. 199).
The book concludes with a message on both individual and institutional marketing in order to create demand for this service. Mayer recommends we include a blurb on “assistance with on-going conflict” in our marketing materials. For example, one can easily see this service as useful in divorce or child custody matters; but consider the corporate client seeking “corporate conflict oversight” or the governmental entity searching for “internal dispute supervision.” The concept has broad and exciting implications for training and use in workplaces, hospitals and schools, for just a start.
There is no question but that Mayer’s new work makes an important and highly readable contribution to the literature on conflict resolution. If nothing else, you must read the Epilogue of this book, dealing with the inevitability of some enduring conflict, and the essential nature of such conflict for personal or societal growth. While the book may not prove to be a favorite among those who are satisfied resolving conflicts for lawyers and their clients, all teachers of conflict resolution should own this book and those interested in taking part in conflict that may not be subject to resolution should absolutely read it, but beware its subliminal effects on your mediation practice!
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