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Book Review: The Grownup ABCs of Conflict Resolution

If I ever had to choose a woman to accompany me in a dark, scary alley with only one apparent way out I would choose Victoria Pynchon.  Since the alley is dark and scary, naturally I would expect to encounter a couple of thugs. On a bad day for thugs, Victoria would get right to the point, with a conversation that goes something like this, “Hey ass****s, move out the way. We’re late for dinner and we don’t have time to fight. So just move aside. Now.”

Mostly these days though, Victoria is not in warrior mode. Since we are both mediators, we would be taking in the whole scene and looking at all the possible options to quickly exit the alley. With no alternatives in sight, Victoria would talk to the thugs, going beyond the obvious question, “What do you want?” and quickly find a way to connect with the leader. “Where are you headed?” she might ask.  Or “I’ve got $300 in cash I might be willing to give to you if you’d walk my friend and me to the restaurant at the end of the alley.” With relative ease, the thugs would be transformed into bodyguards.

Transformation is the major theme in Pynchon’s newish book, the title, A is for Asshole The Grownups’ ABCs of Conflict Resolution. The title perfectly describes her multifaceted personality and background. It reflects a woman who can throw down the gauntlet to get what her clients want as she did as a litigator in Los Angeles courtrooms, transform relationships in community mediations, facilitate the negotiation of complex business disputes or empower women by teaching negotiation through her She Negotiates training and consulting business.

So obviously “Asshole” jumps out at you as a bit unsavory, even offensive in a title, especially one about conflict resolution. It might raises eyebrows. But it can’t be too threatening because there is a big green, goofy looking monster on the cover. So once we get past the title and the cover, what does the book reveal?

To get the ass**** part out of the way, Pynchon masterfully tells a story about conflict, explaining that an ass**** is not a person but a behavior. The behavior requires two or more people to bring it to life. Recognizing that an ass**** is a thing made between people is the first step to resolving a crisis. Pynchon masterfully takes a common, everyday occurrence, from non-event to crisis, back to the realization that it’s as easy to turn events into ass****s as it is to transform them back into healthy human relationships.

You are left wondering, if it is so easy to go from non-event to crisis to “Oh, it was really nothing,” whether Pynchon has the means to take conflicts to resolution at home, at work and between neighbors. And, what about really serious conflicts? The ones that threaten our jobs, our families, our future and our security? Are there any solutions for those? Pynchon’s work has been influenced by some of the masters in conflict resolution including Ken Cloke and Daniel Van Ness. These two individuals practice and teach others how to take seemingly intractable conflict and poisoned relationships to peace and harmony. Pynchon has taken lessons from these and others and combined them with her personal experiences as a litigator and mediator and works them into stories that are easy to relate to. The book describes conflicts that arise from parking lot squirmishes to terrorism. In The Grownups’ ABCs of Conflict Resolution Victoria reveals her gift for storytelling and her passion for transforming disputes into growth and understanding. The result is an engaging narrative that looks at everyday conflict in a new light, encouraging all of us to take responsibility for being better members of the community and looking for new ways to resolve disputes and overcoming our fear of employing sometimes risky strategies to improve our relationships.

Certain chapters or letters will resonate with you. One of my favorites is E is for Enemy in which Pynchon urges readers, “The next time you see someone who has become your enemy, take time out to share food and drink. Ask that person how his journey is progressing, how his family is faring, what challenges he’s facing and how he’s meeting those challenges. If we lead with our differences and value our own opinions over those of our fellows, we will generally find much about which to argue. Our differences divide us, and our opinions are assailable. If we lead with the story of our families and ourselves within them, the challenges we have faced and overcome, our dreams for the future and the legacy we wish to leave for our children, there is little to assail and nothing about which to argue.”

Q is for Questioner because conflict “…resolution belongs to the curious, the open minded and the brave.”  Victoria describes a scene from a mediation she conducted that illustrates the power of asking the right questions and of being transparent as a mediator. “When you acknowledge vulnerability and imperfection you open the channel for truth to enter the room.” Recognizing that you will not always have all the answers or always know where to turn next, especially in complex cases, is incredibly powerful because it encourages all us of to take risks and work collaboratively to improve relationships, resolve a conflict or create a community. Fear can be transformed by being transparent and creating new channels for others to step in with solutions to resolve disputes.

Accountability, amends, forgiveness, reconciliation. These are all powerful words and beautifully descriptive of the power of the restorative justice process, whose roots stem from indigenous cultures. Victoria uses them in another chapter that resonated with me, V is for Victim. The chapter shows the depth and range of the conflict resolution field.  The process described in the restorative justice story shows the powerful outcomes made possible by brave individuals, victims and offenders alike, willing to confront shame and harm and take responsibility for acknowledged wrongdoing causing grievous but not necessarily irreparable harm.

Throughout, Victoria encourages both the professional mediator and all of those who have found themselves in conflict (that’s everyone by the way) to try new strategies for resolution. The book guides you to feel emboldened to walk down your own scary alleys. After reading the book you can imagine her saying, “Try this. It’s a strategy that’s worked for me, but if it doesn’t do the job for you, skip ahead a chapter or two. There are lots of other avenues. ”

I have often thought about what a different world it would be if mediation were more accessible. Say mediation shops were as common as coffee shops and you could stop on the way home, knowing you had to address a dispute with a family member. Instead of getting bad advice from your friend, who means well and is “on your side” but inevitably steers you in the direction of more conflict and strife you could stop in to see your neighborhood mediator and work out ways to become more resolution competent. Instead of getting a caffeine jolt, you would face the world with more compassion and understanding. The Grownups’ ABCs of Conflict Resolution is a great substitute to guide us until those shops are a reality. It makes conflict resolution more accessible by providing concrete ways to assess situations in a new light and change behaviors.

In The Grownups’ ABCs of Conflict Resolution, we learn that we “…transcend disputes whenever we rise above our all-too-human tendency to take the easy us-or-them road in favor of the road of we.” Pynchon advocates patience, courageousness and a view to seeing the truths in the stories of others to find wisdom, connection with others and freedom from our biases and prejudice.

Read the book. It will cause you to think more, pause before assigning blame and give you strategies to deal with the onslaught of conflict that swirls around just waiting to become an ass****. Pynchon encourages us all to be more courageous and self-reflective in the firm belief that those practices will lead us to “…greater freedom and authenticity, to greater self-reliance, acceptance, accountability, forgiveness and, at long last, a far more peaceful world.” Noble goals within an accessible little book told by someone who you genuinely feel has your back as you take first steps down a path that might look scary at first but leads to a journey of deal making, resolution and peacemaking as part of our everyday lives in which we judge less and see more.


Monique McKay

Monique is the co-founder and Director of the Master Mediator Institute and co-mediates complex, multi-party commercial, personal injury, catastrophic loss and medical malpractice cases with Robert Creo. She also has experience in community mediation including neighborhood disputes, juvenile issues and victim-offender cases. Her commercial experience includes employment, real estate and… MORE >

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