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Building Bridges Between Psychology And Conflict Resolution – Implications For Mediator Learning

Over the last three decades, hundreds of
thousands of people around the world have been trained in community, divorce,
family, commercial, organizational, and workplace mediation, as well as in allied
conflict resolution skills such as collaborative negotiation, group
facilitation, public dialogue, restorative justice, victim-offender mediation,
ombudsmanship, collaborative law, consensus decision making, creative problem
solving, prejudice reduction and bias awareness, conflict resolution systems
design, and dozens of associated practices. 


Among the most important and powerful of
these skills are a number of core ideas and interventions that originate in
psychology, particularly in what is commonly known as “brief therapy,” where
the border separating conflict resolution from psychological intervention has
become indistinct, and in many places blurred beyond recognition. Examples of
the positive consequences of blurring this line can be found in recent
discoveries in neurophysiology, “emotional intelligence,” and solution-focused approaches
to conflict resolution. 


While it is, of course, both necessary
and vital that we recognize the key differences between the professions of
psychology and conflict resolution, it is more necessary and vital,
especially in these times, that we recognize their essential similarities,
collaborate in developing creative new techniques, and invite them to learn as
much as they can from each other. 


Beyond this, I believe it is increasingly
important for us to consciously generate a fertile, collaborative space
between them; discourage the tendency to jealously guard protected territory;
and oppose efforts to create new forms of private property in techniques that
reduce hostility and relieve suffering. 


It is therefore critical that we think
carefully and strategically about how best to translate a deeper understanding
of the emotional and neurophysiological underpinnings of conflict and
resolution processes into practical, hands-on mediation techniques; that we
explore the evolving relationship between mediation and psychology, and other
professions as well; and that we translate that understanding into improved
ways of helping people become competent, successful mediators. 


Among the urgent reasons for doing so are
the rise of increasingly destructive global conflicts that cannot be
solved even by a single nation, let alone by a single style, approach, profession,
or technique; the persistence of intractable conflicts that require more
advanced techniques; and the recent rise of innovative, transformational
techniques that form only a small part of the curriculum of most mediation
trainings.  [For more on mediating global conflicts, see my book, Conflict
: Mediating Evil, War, Injustice, and Terrorism – How
Mediators Can Help Save the Planet,
Janis Publications 2008.]


The present generation is being asked a
profound set of questions that require immediate action based on complex,
diverse, complementary, even contradictory answers.  In my judgment, these questions


What is our
responsibility as global citizens for solving the environmental, social,
economic, and political conflicts that are taking place around us? 

Is it possible to
successfully apply conflict resolution principles to the inequalities,
inequities, and dysfunctions that are continuing to fuel chronic social,
economic, and political conflicts? 

Can we find ways of
working beyond national, religious, ethnic, and professional borders so as to
strengthen our capacity for international collaboration and help save the

Can we build bridges
across diverse disciplines so as to integrate the unique understandings and
skills that other professions have produced regarding conflict and resolution? 

How can we use this
knowledge to improve the ways we impact mediator learning so as to better
achieve these goals?

Locating potential synergies between
psychology and conflict resolution will allow us to take a few small steps
toward answering these questions.  And small steps, as we learn in mediation,
are precisely what are needed to achieve meaningful results.  Why should we
consider the possibilities of ego defenses or solution-focused mediation?  For
the same reasons we consider the potential utility of a variety of
interventions – because they allow us to understand conflict and enter it in
unique and useful ways.  


The logical chain that connects conflict
resolution with psychology is simple yet inexorable and logically rigorous, which
proceeds as follows: 


It is possible for
people to disagree with each other without experiencing conflict. 

What distinguishes
conflict from disagreement is the presence of what are commonly referred to as
“negative” emotions, such as anger, fear, guilt, and shame. 

Thus, every
conflict, by definition, contains an indispensible emotional element. 

Conflicts can only be
reached and resolved in their emotional location by people who have acquired
emotional processing skills, or what Daniel Goleman broadly describes as
“emotional intelligence.” 

The discipline that
is most familiar with these emotional dynamics is psychology. 

Therefore, mediation
can learn from psychology how to be more effective in resolving conflicts. 

This logic alone should be sufficient to
prompt a deeper assessment of psychological research and technique.  Yet,
considering the problem from a deeper perspective, we all know that no clear line
can be drawn in life that allows us to separate our emotions from our ideas, or
our neurophysiology from our behaviors.  Quite simply, we are all emotional
beings and must discover their inner logic if we do not want to be trapped or
driven by them. 


Deeper still, when we distinguish,
simplify, or isolate different aspects of a problem, we disregard their
essential unity, and with it, countless opportunities to resolve critically
important conflicts and disagreements, simply by approaching them with a
pre-determined, single-minded, particular point of view, no matter how
profound or useful it may happen to be. 


There is an equally simple, inexorable,
and logically rigorous analysis based on a few simple philosophical assumptions
that point us in a different direction.  It goes like this: No two human beings are the same.  No single human being is the same from one moment to the
  The interactions and relationships
between human beings are complex, multi-determined, subtle, and unpredictable.
Conflicts are even more complex, multi-determined,
subtle, and unpredictable. Most conflicts take place beneath the surface, well below
the superficial topics over which people are fighting and frequently hidden
from their conscious awareness.
[For more, see my book, The
Crossroads of Conflict
: A Journey into the Heart of Dispute Resolution, Janis
Publications 2006.] 


Thus, each person’s
attitudes, intentions, intuitions, awareness, context, and capacity for
empathetic and honest emotional communication has a significant impact on their
experience of conflict and capacity for resolution.  As a result, no one
can know objectively or in advance how to resolve any particular conflict, as
anything chaotic and rapidly changing cannot be successfully predicted or


For this reason, it is
impossible to teach anyone how to resolve a conflict.  Instead, we need to
develop their skills, improve their awareness and self-confidence, and help
them develop a broad range of diverse ideas and techniques that may or may not
succeed depending on inherently unpredictable conditions.  Moreover, we have
known since John Dewey that learning is accelerated when it is connected to
Yet we continue to
train mediators based on a set of false assumptions. 


As an illustration of why it is important
to take a different approach to mediator learning, consider these questions,
directed primarily to those who are already experienced mediators:


What have you learned
since you began mediating that you wish had been included in your training? 

What are the training
values that seem to you to flow naturally from the mediation process? 

Were these values
reflected in the way your training was actually conducted?  If not, how might
they have been? 

How did you learn the
art of mediation — and especially, how did you learn to be more
intuitive, empathetic, openhearted, and wise? 

What skills would you
like to be able to develop in the future, and how might these be incorporated
in the way mediation training is conducted? 


Every mediator to whom I have asked these
questions has easily identified a number of important topics that were not
covered in their training, but were critical lessons that they discovered only
after they started mediating.  Here are some of the responses mediators in a
recent training I conducted gave regarding what they wished they had been


Ways of using “brief
therapy” and similar psychologically based techniques in mediation

Detailed techniques
for responding uniquely to each negative emotion; i.e., fear, anger,
shame, jealousy, pain and grief

Coaching skills for
working with individual parties in caucus

Methods for
increasing emotional intelligence

Ways of discovering
what people think or want subconsciously, and of bringing them into conscious

Facilitation and public
dialogue skills for working with groups

Consulting skills for
working with organizations on systems design

Better ways of
analyzing the narrative structure of conflict stories and a list of techniques
for transforming them

Better techniques for
option generating and “expanding the pie”

Learning when to take
risks and mediate “dangerously”

Ways of becoming more
aware of and responding to the “energies” and “vibrations” of conflict

How to develop,
calibrate and fine-tune intuition, wisdom, and insight

Techniques for
surfacing, clarifying, and encouraging people to act based on shared values

Ways of gaining
permission to work with people on a spiritual or heartfelt level

Methods for opening
heart-to-heart conversations

Knowing how to strike
the right balance between head and heart

Improved techniques
for responding to negativity and resistance

How to maintain the
right balance between control and chaos

Helping people reach
deeper levels of resolution, including forgiveness and reconciliation

Ways of addressing
the underlying systemic issues and chronic sources of conflict

How to transition
into positive action, prevention, and systems design in organizational

Techniques for
maintaining balance and equanimity and avoiding frustration and self-doubt when
conflicts don’t settle

Ways of addressing
our own unresolved conflicts and making sure our emotions and judgments don’t
get in our way


Many of these directly concern the
interplay between psychology and conflict resolution,
but what is equally interesting about
these responses is that the way we teach mediation often does not
conform to the core values and principles we practice in the mediation
process, or to what we know is successful in reaching people who are in
conflict, or to what stimulates our learning, or even to how we would most like
to be taught. 


As I have described
elsewhere, values are essentially priorities and integrity-based choices.  They
can be found both in what we do and what we do not do, in what we grow
accustomed to and what we are willing to tolerate.  They are openly and
publicly expressed, acted on repeatedly, and upheld when they run counter to
self-interest.  In this way, they are creators of integrity and
responsibility, builders of optimism and self-esteem, and definitions of who we
are.  They become manifest and alive through action, including the action of
sincere declaration. 


At a deeper level, we all communicate
values by what we do and say, by how we behave, and by who we become when we
are in conflict.  While these values are often inchoate and difficult to
articulate, beneath many commonly recognized mediation practices we can
identify a set of values, even meta-values that, in my view, represent
our best practices as a profession.  Our most fundamental values appear and
become manifest to others when we:


Show up
and are present: physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually

empathetically to what lies hidden beneath words

Tell the
truth without blaming or judgment

open-minded, open-hearted, and unattached to outcomes

for positive, practical, satisfying outcomes

collaboratively in relationships

Display unconditional
authenticity, integrity, and respect

Draw on
our deepest intuition

Are on
both parties’ sides at the same time

diverse, honest, heartfelt communications

act in accordance with our core values and principles

Are ready
for anything at every moment

completion and closure

Are able
to let go, yet abandon no one


While not everyone will accept these
values, merely articulating, debating, and engaging in dialogue over them,
considering how to implement them, and deciding to commit and live by them, will
automatically give rise to a higher order of values – the value of having
values.  Practicing them over time — not solely in what we say or do, but how
we say and do it, will initiate to the highest order of values – the value of being
what we value. 


By living our values, we become what we
practice, integrating who we are with what we preach and do.  This is the
deeper message of mediation: that by continually and collaboratively searching
for positive solutions to conflict, bringing them into conscious attention,
living them as fully as possible, and developing the theories, practices,
processes, and relationships that allow others do the same, we enhance our
relationship to the mediation process as a whole and build a collaborative
community of reflective, emotionally intelligent practitioners. 


Thus, to be fully realized, our values
have to be reflected not merely in our practice, but in all aspects of our
personal lives, including the ways we ourselves handle conflict, teach
mediation, and interact with those who wish to learn it.  Yet many mediators’
lives are filled with intense adversarial conflicts, many mediation trainings
are conducted in ways that do not conform to its core values, and many
mediators interact with students in ways that undermine their ability to learn. 


For example, when trainers do not
acknowledge or respect differences between cultures, styles, and diverse approaches
to conflict; when they try to promote one-size-fits-all models as applicable to
all circumstances; when they downplay and ignore the role of emotions, or
heartfelt communications; when they do not pay attention to the diverse ways
people learn, or even to the ways people are seated in the classroom; when they
ignore the systemic sources of conflict; or when they fail to listen and learn
from those they are teaching, we can say that the processes they are using are
not congruent with the values they espouse. 
Here is a simple, concrete illustration. 


Howard Gardner at Harvard University has
famously described the diverse ways people learn using the idea of “multiple
intelligences.”  The core of his theory is a recognition that people think and
learn differently.  Gardner believes there is not “one form of cognition that
cuts across all human thinking,” but that traditional notions of intelligence
are misleading because I.Q. tests focus primarily or exclusively only on two
areas of competence: logic and linguistics.   Instead, Gardner believes there
are eight areas of intelligence that account for the range of human potential:


or the
capacity to use the written or spoken language to express ourselves

or the
ability to understand scientific principles or logic systems 

or the
ability to conceptualize spatial relationships

Bodily Kinesthetic
or the
ability to use our whole body or parts of it to solve problems, make things, or
express ideas and emotions through movement 

or the ability to “think” in
music, be able to recognize patterns, and manipulate them 

or the
ability to understand other people and form and build strong, productive

or the
ability to understanding ourselves and know who we are, including our strengths
and limitations

or the ability to see and understand the
interrelationship and interdependence of all living things and have a special
sensitivity to the physical features of the natural world


While each of us may have quibbles with
this list and perhaps wish to suggest alternative forms of intelligence, such
as emotional, heart or spiritual, and political intelligence, it is clear that
most mediations and conflict resolution training programs narrowly focus on
linguistic and logical skills and ignore other forms of intelligence,
intervention styles, and conflict processing skills that might contribute
significantly to success in mediation. 


the word “training” is problematic.  There are, for example, fundamental
differences between various approaches to teaching and learning, and these same
differences can be found in the ways we seek to resolve conflicts.  We can
distinguish, for example: 


Lecture and
involve rote memorization and recall of facts, and result in a transfer of
information, yet often end in testing and forgetting

Education and
which involve
exposure to ideas, specialized theories and practical techniques that result in
learning and understanding, yet often end in disputation and Talmudic clashes
of opinion over minutia

Training and
which involve
group discussion and result in improved technical skills, competency and
confidence, yet often end in mechanical repetition, inflexibility, and
inability to handle problems not addressed in the training

Practice and
, which involve
role plays and practical drills, and result in increased self-confidence and
some degree of flexibility, yet often end in improving skills without also
improving the understanding needed to successfully implement them

Development and Seminars,

which involve discovery, self-awareness, and self-actualization, and result in
authenticity, integrity and personal transformation, yet often end in
non-engagement with others 

Meditation and
which involve
insight and concentration, and result in wisdom, spiritual growth, and
transcendence, yet often end in nothing ever changing or being accomplished,
and a lack of interest in improving others


diverse forms of learning invisibly shift our focus, activity, and forms of
interaction from an orientation toward memorizing, to one of knowing, to one of
understanding, to one of doing, to one of being.  As we transition to deeper
levels of capability in our practice, understanding, and commitment to conflict
resolution, we require learning methods that allow us to develop more
collaborative, democratic, self-aware, and diversely competent skills as


every learning process has a value and each has times and circumstances that
justify and make it successful, in my experience, those that improve our
ability to work through the emotional, psychological, and
heart-based underpinnings of conflict – especially our own –create the greatest
leverage in terms of the development of values, integrity, and overall capacity


Approaching the problem of mediation
competency, learning, and training design from this point of view suggests a
number of interesting questions we can begin asking prospective mediators, in
order to improve their psychological awareness, develop their emotional
intelligence, and facilitate the design of more advanced training programs.  For


What are the most
significant transformational learning experiences you have had? 

What made them
significant or transformational for you?

What did these
experiences have in common that you might want to incorporate into a training

Why attend this training?  What do you
really want to achieve?

What are your larger
goals and priorities, and how might this training support them? 

What could block your
ability to achieve these goals and priorities, and how could these obstacles be
anticipated and overcome? 

What specifically do
you want to be taught?  How did you learn that?

What do you think
will be the best way of teaching what you want to learn? 

Who else should be
trained?  Why them?  Who should not be trained?  Why not? 

Who would be the
ideal trainer?  Why?  Who would not?  Why?

What values, ideas,
and skills do you most want to learn?

How might those
values, ideas, and skills be built into the content and process of the training? 

How will the training
actually result in changed behavior?  How should you be supported in changing?

How might others
support you in changing?

Will the training
lead to improved systems, processes and relationships?  If so, how?

How will you learn
the art of what you want to do? 

Should the training
encourage you to participate, think critically, and feel free to be yourself?  How?

How might your future
needs and problems be anticipated in the content and process of the training?

How will you know
whether the training has been effective? 

Based on the answers
to these questions, how should the training be designed and conducted? 


The answers to these questions may collaterally
help stimulate a number of potential growth areas in the field of conflict
resolution, such as marital mediation between couples who would like to improve
their relationship using mediation skills; applying conflict resolution systems
design skills to a broad range of social, economic, and political issues; mediating
the connections between families, community groups, workplaces, organizations;
integrating conflict resolution skills into teambuilding and project management
workshops; extending school mediations to encourage parents and teachers to
work through their personal conflicts along with the children; working with a
broad range of hospital and health care disputes that flow from the need to
process grief, guilt, rage, and loss; and new ideas for resolving intractable
international conflicts. 


of the object of a truly meditative approach to education ought to be to
encourage students to become responsible for their own learning, and teachers
to be responsible for finding the deepest, most profound and effective way of supporting
them.  One way of doing so, inspired by paradoxical approaches to therapy, is
by asking students to complete the following questionnaire before their
training, then discuss their answers:



Please rate your expectations regarding
the session we are about to have, and how you expect to participate on a scale
of 1 to 10, 10 being highest.

How valuable
an experience do you plan to have? 
= terrible, 10 = fantastic):

2.         How
participative and engaged do you plan to be? 
(1 = asleep, 10 = extremely excited):

3.         How much risk
do you plan to take? 
= none, 10 = serious adventure):

4.         How open,
honest and constructive do you plan to be? 
(1 = silent, 10 = painfully honest):

5.         How willing
are you to listen non-defensively and non-judgmentally to others?
(1 = doing email, 10 = completely open):

responsible do you feel for your own learning? 
(1 = not at all, 10 = entirely):

responsible do you feel for the learning of others? 
(1 = not at all, 10 = totally):

How committed
are you to implementing what you learn? 
(1 = amnesia, 10 = complete commitment):

[Based in part on work by Peter Block]


Applying these ideas to conflict
resolution, we all know intuitively that mediators are not immune from
conflicts, and that we will become better dispute resolvers by working through
and resolving our own conflicts.  It therefore makes sense for us to
incorporate into the mediation training process the psychological components
that will allow people to work directly on resolving their personal conflicts. 
At present, few mediation programs allow or encourage them to do so. 


In the end, we are the technique. 
As imperfect as we are, it is who we are that forms the path to
resolution, and that same path invites us to become better human beings, simply
in order to become better mediators.  This realization returns mediation to its
human origins and essence, as an exercise not solely in empathy and
compassion, but in creative problem solving, emotional clarity, heartfelt
wisdom, and social collaboration.   


Hopefully, these practices will encourage
us to look more deeply and wisely at the world within, as well as the world
without, and assist us in finding ways to translate our own suffering into
methods and understandings that will lead to a better, less hostile and
adversarial world. 


Kenneth Cloke

Kenneth Cloke is Director of the Center for Dispute Resolution and a mediator, arbitrator, consultant and trainer, specializing in resolving complex multi-party conflicts internationally and in designing conflict resolution systems for organizations. Ken is a nationally recognized speaker and leader in the field of conflict resolution, and a published author… MORE >

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