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Character Traits Of Working Dogs And Conflict Mediators: ‘Systematic Intuition’ And Tenacity

Conflict mediators are a strange breed. The best ones, not unlike police or firefighters, are drawn to manage difficult situations and heated controversies that most other people would just as soon avoid. It’s not entirely natural—running into a burning building or placing yourself in the middle of a fight. Yet, people who have taken on the task of working the middle have been around since the beginning of time when the first fight or war required a peace treaty. They do their work in the precarious, shifting and ambiguous terrain between warring parties. Historically, negotiators or mediators have never garnered much recognition—they are just the people who patch together a way to survive after the big idea guys have ravaged each other, and anyone else in proximity. Most often, only in retrospect, do we begin to appreciate their importance and value to us as a society.

Interviewing close to fifty recognized conflict management practitioners and teachers over the last two years for the Mediate.Com video series, “The Mediators: Views From the Eye of the Storm,” offered me a unique perspective and the opportunity to make some observations about the shared character traits of those drawn to what may yet become a recognized field. In listening and observing them describe their work, my recurring visual image was that of a working dog. In particular, one of the herding breeds like the Australian Shepherd, Border Collie, or Blue Heeler.

About Working Dogs

Being compared to a great dog is the highest compliment I could extend and is so intended. The best of both breeds—conflict mediators and working dogs—have inbred similar behaviors, instincts and habits. Herding a flock of nervous sheep and building consensus among and between warring and defensive parties are not all that different.

The purpose, strategies, and character traits of conflict mediators and working dogs are uncannily similar and worth noting. The dog’s task of moving a flock of sheep prone to stampede to the safety of a corral closely resembles a mediator’s purpose of bringing people in conflict and on the edge of panic to some level of agreement. Strategically, both mediators and herding dogs work from the edges. And, what I found intriguing to observe is that both breeds exhibit a level of sheer tenacity and determination that is just this side of being pathologically obsessive- compulsive. What is also clear for both the herding dogs and mediators, is that their work is anything but formulaic and requires a seamless blending of learned skill and inbred instinct.

To look at them, working dogs are unassuming; they typically lack the grace, majesty, beauty or strength of breeds such as a Labrador, Afghan or Rottweiler, and don’t possess the alluring cuteness and endless playfulness of my own companion, a Wheaten Terrier. The working dogs tend to be smallish or mid-size in stature, with patchwork coats of variegated colors and patterns—brown, black, grey, tan, white— that can appear motley and slightly disheveled. Some mediators’ likewise seem sartorially challenged and only by luck wearing a matching pair of shoes. Not unlike the dogs, by being unremarkable in appearance, mediators can more easily blend into the terrain.

At the same time, working dogs in general and Australian Shepherds in particular, have a characteristic intensity about them. With eyes that don’t match, one brown and the other a wild sky blue, they can at first glance be unnerving, like a creature possessed. They are in a way possessed; their intensity is palpable and they appear calm only when they sleep. When these dogs are working, every fiber of their being is dedicated to their task. They are pure energy barely contained within muscle, skin and bone. In their city lives, they assume responsibility for herding the human subjects for whom they have assumed responsibility; on ranch or farm, managing the sheep or cows are their raison d’etre.

Watching dogs and mediators work, confirms at least anecdotally, the validity of a probable evolutionary connection between the species. Not unlike mediators working a conflict, working dogs begin by surveilling their quarry from the perimeter of the conflict terrain. The dogs assumes a literal crouch position with chins low to the ground, closely tracking and assessing the dynamic and every particular movement of the flock. The mediator initially uses virtually the same technique, metaphorically keeping a low profile while observing the movements and dynamics of the parties. Ironically, dog and mediator strategies also closely resemble a hunting lioness crouched in the grass and stalking a herd of gazelle. The difference is only their purpose: the big cat intends to kill their prey, while the working dog or mediator intends to corral and protect their wards—or clients— sometimes from themselves. Unlike the big cats, where gender roles are more clearly defined and the females do the work and the males sit around and growl, with working dogs and mediators, both males and females engage the risks of their work.

When working dogs and mediators do move, they do so decisively but not necessarily directly. Working dogs, not unlike good mediators sensing the fears and issues of parties engaged in a conflict, anticipate the movement and direction of a nervous herd. Sometimes they will use little deceptions, feinting feint right and going left, just to keep their quarry off balance and have them consider a different, safer direction. Experienced mediators and old dogs seem to know instinctively that an approach to sheep or humans that cuts directly into the center of the group, no matter how seemingly logical, is threatening and likely to be seen as confrontational. The result will be to scatter and panic their respective clients. Dogs and mediators work from the edges, circling back and forth, playing on the fears of the parties involved, ‘nipping at the heels’ of their positional rationales and creating a measure of doubt in their direction and at the same time, clarifying and re-clarifying the issues and allowing less risky alternatives to emerge. (Benjamin, R.D., “Managing The Natural Energy of Conflict: Tricksters, Mediators and the Constructive Uses of Deception,” in Bringing Peace Into the Room, eds. Bowling and Hoffman, 2004.)

The Core Character Traits

It’s a beautiful sight to see a good herding dog work a flock of sheep or a mediator work a conflict. On display is often an elegant blend of inbred instinct—the origins of which are still not completely understood—and rigorous and disciplined training. This blend is apparent throughout almost all the interviews of the leading conflict management practitioners, regardless of their profession of origin, style, approach to practice, or the dispute context in which they worked. I deciphered three core character traits or dispositions that closely track those of a good working dog. The first is commonly known, an organized and analytical disposition that is responsive to training and disciplined study. The second, linked to instinct, is a well developed intuitive sensibility, which has been given attention only in very recent years. The third, is actually a composite of tenacity and optimism. The determination and belief that a dispute can be effectively managed, sometimes in spite of all indications to the contrary. This third trait, while it would appear to be obvious, is largely overlooked and too seldom discussed. While this may be a mere oversight or just taken for granted as a necessary ingredient for quality professional practice of any kind, I suspect it has been dismissed in the zealous pursuit of establishing the conflict management field as a recognized professional discipline. As such a rational enterprise, susceptible to critical study and evaluation, this very personal character trait of tenacious optimism, which is largely inbred, is minimized.

The three qualify as “core” character traits because none of them alone is sufficient for high quality conflict management practice especially in difficult and complex matters. Being analytical without having a developed intuitive sensibility is not enough; being intuitive is of limited use without a well prepared strategy and plan. Finally, neither the best analysis or the most insightful observation is of any use without the tenacity, determined belief that a resolution can be obtained and to give the deliberations sufficient time for connections and alternatives to emerge.

Larry Susskind, an Urban Planner by training, and a highly regarded environmental and public policy mediator, observed in his interview that the best and most effective mediators first have a clear structure or plan for approaching the dispute and second, are able to be flexible and shift in approach as circumstances require. His observations match up with the first two core character traits.

Analytical Acumen

Analytical acumen is the ability to rationally assess, analyze, and calculate what is required to effectively manage a conflict, to devise a strategy and design a structure to approach the dispute, and learn the techniques and skills necessary to effectuate that strategy. Analytical acumen is about the methodical and systematic study of the nature of conflict from source to management. The ability to reconnoiter the conflict terrain and develop a strategy to manage the conflict is essentially the same as a General sizing up the battle field and having a plan of attack. For a mediator, negotiator, conflict manager, or for that matter, anyone who must engage conflict, this ability is essential. Whether drawn from Sun Tzu’s, Art of War, or Ghandi’s strategic nonviolence is less important than the mediator having a map or game plan in mind about how to approach the conflict terrain in question, take stock of the sources of resistance and possible alliances available. This is the systematic, analytical piece that requires research and study about how people in conflict can best be approached in order to constructively shift their focus sufficiently to allow an agreement to emerge if at all possible.

Intuitive Sensibility

The second character trait of effective mediators, of equal importance but more elusive, is an intuitive sensibility. This allows for the flexibility and confidence to change or even abandon the game plan. This is what Peter Adler describes as the ‘protean mediator or negotiator.’ This is the ability to sense when a shift in style or approach is necessary, and have the technique and skill to make that shift, depending on the parties’ involved, the context, or evolving situational imperatives. Almost all of the mediators interviewed described their own version of being protean, being alternatively pragmatic, empathetic, strategic or moralistic. (Adler, P. “Protean Negotiation: Rejecting Orthodoxy and Shifting Shapes,” in The Negotiator’s Field Book, eds. Honeyman and Schneider, Forthcoming 2006 )

A good measure of the intuitive sensibility is inbred and separates those with a natural genius for negotiation and mediation from the merely good and competent. It is the ability to feel the undercurrents of the conflict—what’s really going on as opposed to what’s being said—and to connect with parties and quickly gain their trust. Howard Bellman in his interview, associates mediation with improvisational jazz. John Coltrane or Miles Davis hear different rhythms and dimensions of sound and are able to improvise and move in directions that allow for completely different interpretations. So too, can some mediators move in directions that at first glance seem to be outlandish but somehow allow the parties to shift in their perspectives. To be sure, those of us who are not naturals can cultivate a good measure of intuition by commitment to reflective thinking and considerable experience. Over the years, most of us gain confidence in our gut instincts and play our hunches. Donald Schon’s early work, The Reflective Practitioner (1982), and more recently, Malcolm Gladwell’s, Blink (2004), both investigate the necessary quotient of subjective tacit knowing that is required for the best work. This is the stuff of instinct. (Benjamin, R.D., “Gut Instinct: A Mediator Prepares,” 2001)

Many practitioners have good instincts but have been taught to mistrust them. The best mediators appear to have ‘untrained’ or released themselves from the training of their profession or discipline of origin. For example, as a mediator who comes from a legal background, knowing the legal considerations of a conflict can be helpful but managing a conflict—-even a legal one, such as a personal injury matter— in the same way one conducts a legal case settlement conference, may not be effective. The best mediators rely on their gut instinct and have escaped the constraints of seeing what they have been professionally conditioned to see and instead, allow themselves to sense what is really happening between the parties, legal or otherwise. While intuitive sensibility cannot, strictly speaking, be taught, awareness and preparation can allow those less naturally endowed to escape “flatland” thinking and become more flexible and creative in their approach to practice. (Benjamin, R.D., “Gut Instinct: A Mediator Prepares,”, 2000; “Mediation As Theatre and Negotiation as Performance Art,”, 2000; “Strategic Uses of Cognitive Art in Problem Solving,” in The Creative Problem Solvers’ Handbook for Negotiators and Mediators, ed. Jack Cooley, ABA Sect. on Disp. Res., 2005; Bono, E. de, Lateral Thinking, 1970.)

The dynamic interaction of the first two mediator character traits is what I term the practice of ‘systematic intuition.’ This intentional oxymoron is meant to describe the unique ability of a negotiator or mediator to be at once disciplined, rational and organized, with a clear strategy and game plan in mind, and at the same time, able to feel or intuitively sense what is personally happening for them and the shifting dynamics of the parties. This allows her to strategically adjust and modify as the situation requires. While many of the mediators interviewed used different words to describe this idea, it is clearly evident in the work of virtually all of them. (Benjamin, R.D., “Effective Negotiation and Mediation of Conflict: Applied Theory and Practice Handbook, 9th ed. 2004; “The Guerrilla Negotiator: The Use of Warfare Strategies in the Management of Conflict, 1998.)

Tenacity and Optimism

This third character trait that I gleaned from the interviews of the best conflict mediators, is surprisingly, seldom expressed directly, but perhaps the most critical of all. Tenacity and optimism is the glue that congeals the first two character traits. The ability to rationally analyze a dispute, and conjure brilliantly intuitive insights about the relationship dynamics of the parties, are unquestionably valuable, but those abilities cannot be effectively brought to bear in the most difficult and complicated matters without sheer tenacity and determination. Sometimes the mediator has had to learn to suppress his or her own skepticism that an outcome is remotely possible given the obstacles presented. The parties’ intransigence, the politics, or the timing of the dispute, or any of countless other factors, can be daunting. But, “what mediators bring to the mix,” Albie Davis observes, is that “…we know from experience that the impossible can be done with enough patience and street smarts.”

All of those interviewed displayed a tenacity that bordered on being obsessive and an unceasing optimism that flirted with being downright Pollyannaish. As Chris Moore’s discussed his work in South Africa and John Paul Lederach spoke of his work in South America, what is most compelling is how they pressed ahead despite, some might observe, any rational notion that they could be successful. Tenacity is the character trait that motivated Terry Waite, against all advice, to negotiate to a successful result with the “crazy and evil Satan du jour” Col. Omar Khadaffi of Libya for the release of three Anglican Priests he held hostage twenty some 20 years ago. Waite’s tenacity and willingness to risk himself, it is fair to say, was probably a major factor in establishing his authenticity with Khadaffi, such that a breakthrough could occur in the negotiations. (Benjamin, R.D., “Terry Waite: A Study in Authenticity, Mediate.Com, 2001.)

Examples of the importance of this trait abound. George Mitchell observes in Making Peace (1999), his description of his work as the mediator in the Northern Ireland Peace Accord, how excruciating difficult it was to see the prospect of an agreement emerge and evaporate into thin air over and over again. Only after five years of negotiations, when he had all but given up, did an agreement emerge that held, and then and even now, not without difficulties.

Albeit in more traditional matters, such as personal injury or medical treatment disputes, Jeff Krivis, Terry Wakeen, Bob Creo, and other business mediators interviewed, recount how they had not infrequently worked through the night or for many days straight, to reach agreement. This is where the imagery of mediators as working dogs appears most apt—those dogs, and these mediators, just won’t give up. The character trait of tenacity, like an intuitive sensibility, cannot be taught. They are both inbred to a greater or lesser extent and brought forward by a passion for the work, whatever that might be. Tenacity is important in virtually any human enterprise, but nowhere more so than in conflict management work.

This tenacity may also well be the lynchpin between mediator as a mere facilitator and a more activist mediator as leader. Those interviewed all displayed a determination and vision that reflects the boldness admired in a good leader. While all might first try to lead from behind, or at least not move too far out in front of the parties with whom they are working, none of the mediators interviewed seemed willing to play it too safe. All of them had, in a very real sense, taken a risk with their careers over the last quarter century by dedicating themselves to a largely unformed field of practice that continues to struggle for acceptance to this day.

Likewise, they all appreciate the need to take risks in their practice approach. The best mediators have a good sense of irony and an appreciation for ‘crazy wisdom.” Almost all of them demonstrated a charismatic energy and flirted with appearing almost arrogant in the belief that a settlement could be had—even when the parties themselves might not have believed it possible when they began their negotiations. Peter Adler, describes mediators’ work to remain open to possibilities for agreement that are often not immediately apparent, by saying “even a blind hog finds a truffle once in a while.” Less alliterative, but to the point, Roger Fisher maintains, against the grain of the current political climate, that there is “always value in talking—-even to terrorists.” They both have developed a disciplined faith in what can happen if allowed that bears much in common with those who are devoted to a religious faith.

Some years ago, in a piece titled, “The Natural Mediator” (Mediate.Com, 1998), I questioned the notion that caring, a good ear and empathy were the primary and sufficient attributes of a good conflict mediator. Too many career counselors, it appears, actually believe in the value of the “Meyers -Briggs Inventory” and knew too little about what was actually required to survive in the middle of a difficult dispute. I continue to suggest that a mediator is best served by being naturally a confused soul, never sure of whom is right or wrong; voyeuristic and endlessly fascinated with how other human beings construct their realities; compulsively dedicated to being organized to fend off the looming chaos and confusion that accompanies most conflicts; and, marginal, meaning disassociated from any particular cause or purpose other than furthering the prospect of an agreement. The interviews have confirmed for me the basic validity of these attributes, with the addition of one further natural tendency. Enduring in the middle of difficult disputes requires a good quotient of plain stubbornness, or more constructively phrased, determination, almost to a fault.

While comparing mediators with working dogs might appear to some to be whimsical at best, and at worst, runs the risk of deteriorating into anthropomorphic dribble, please note that the similarity of behavioral patterns and personality traits shared between animal and human species are being given serious study by animal behaviorists, evolutionary biologists, and other scientists. (Siebert, Charles, “The Animal Self,” The New York Times Magazine, pps 51-87, Jan. 22, 2006). Of course, throughout the literature and folklore of almost every culture, this metaphoric correspondence has persisted. What else would account for the attribution of human personality traits to different species in fairy tales and cartoon characters. Even Isaiah Berlin, one of the Twentieth Centuries’ most brilliant intellectual historians, usefully employed the character traits of animals to illustrate how people engage the world. (The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History, 1953) He distinguished between hedgehogs who knew one big truth, and foxes who knew many little things. The former were the ideologues, who sometimes forced their theory to fit reality; the later, were the consummate pragmatists who move in many different directions at the same time, sometimes seemingly un-tethered from any obligation for consistency and unbounded by any set model. Largely the same discussion is ongoing in the conflict management field, yet most of the leading practitioners interviewed appeared to lean toward the fox-like approach.

Mediators could do far worse than being compared to working dogs. Some might infer that the dogs herding behavior is demeaning and taken to suggest that the purpose of mediation is to force consensus and corralling people together. That can be risk. In this age of political correctness and ‘groupthink,’ sometimes the press for collaboration and consensus can be pressed too far. In the conflict management field, there sometimes appears to be a preoccupation with peace or agreement at all costs that can result in a form of ‘coerced social justice,’ as Laura Nader and others have warned. At the same time, while the ultimate intentions of the working dogs and mediators might differ, humans do well to observe them in action. Ironically, the best mediators’ have effectively adapted many of the dogs’ herding strategies, not to suppress or control people, but to allow them to manage their differences constructively.

February, 2006


Robert Benjamin

Robert Benjamin, M.S.W., J.D., has been a practicing mediator since 1979, working in most dispute contexts including: business/civil, family/divorce, employment, and health care. A lawyer and social worker by training, he practiced law for over 25 years and now teaches and presents professional negotiation, mediation, and conflict management seminars and… MORE >

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