One of the reasons I feel so strongly about the value of the Stone Soup Project is that it inspires us to develop deeper understandings about how conflicts unfold. I have encouraged colleagues to assign students to get detailed accounts of cases from the outset – not focus only on the tail end – because I think that we easily can miss or misunderstand important things if we don’t have a good understanding of the context.
I recognized this when I practiced law and mediation, noticing how my understanding developed over the course of a case. This was reaffirmed when I interviewed lawyers about cases that they settled, starting from the first contacts with their clients. Of course, I still got only a part of the story in my practice and in my study. But it was much more than if I knew only about the end.
Two recent programs offer vivid illustrations of the value of understanding the context of conflicts – and what this could teach us about conflicts (and life) more generally.
Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
An episode of the This American Life podcast entitled Five Women provides a rich account of sexual harassment in the workplace. It involves Don Hazen, the former executive director of Alternet, a news website. According to a news report, “six women, all of whom are journalists or work in media, accused Hazen of openly discussing their sex lives, touching them inappropriately, sending emails detailing sex positions, showing one woman a photo of his erect penis and assessing his female employees’ physical appearances. A seventh female journalist told HuffPost that Hazen would often talk about sex during meetings and once mimicked a sex act with his hands while he was eating lunch with staff.” Mr. Hazen acknowledges some of the behavior but disagrees with some of the accounts.
In this time of heightened awareness of sexual misconduct, we often hear accounts of behavior like these but not much about how the interactions came about. Most news accounts and stories about dispute resolution processes typically provide only terse, clinical descriptions of behaviors and so we don’t understand the reality as if the stories provided more context. Appellate case reports are examples of this par excellence — and excerpts in law school casebooks are the piece de resistance (though I understand why they are written that way).
The great value of this podcast is that it provides a deep and nuanced understanding of five women’s realities. It tells a “different kind of #MeToo story, about several women who worked for the same man. They tell us not only about their troubling encounters with him, but also about their lives beforehand. Who were they when they entered the workplace, and how did their personal histories shape the way they dealt with his harassment?”
The podcast consists primarily of excerpts of interviews with women who were harassed as well as with Mr. Hazen’s long-time life partner. Some women’s early life experiences conditioned them to expect that sexual harassment is a fact of life in the workplace, which they had to accept and deal with.
The interviews illuminate the process by which Mr. Hazen met and hired some women, often young women who were flattered by his attention and thrilled to get the opportunity to work for him. His inappropriate behaviors included angry, bullying outbursts that weren’t necessarily directed at women or sexual in nature.
The podcast reveals how the harassment was part of his relationships with the women, who developed different strategies for avoiding and/or dealing with it. Some felt that they didn’t have any better work opportunities and they had to endure it or face the wrath of a powerful male boss. Some strategically figured out how to reduce their risks and retain the benefits of their association with him.
By the end of the podcast, we have a much deeper understanding of the process in which harassment sometimes develops and various ways that women experience and deal with it.
The TV show This is Us is all about context. It follows a couple and their three kids, along with an assortment of related characters, with flashbacks to various points in their lives. The result is that we get a rich understanding of the characters and their relationships.
One story line involves a foster child named Deja, a teenage African American girl. The most recent episode, This Big, Amazing, Beautiful Life, provides a remarkable portrait of Deja and how the world looks through her eyes. Having directed a child protection mediation program for several years, this episode (and whole story line) really rang true to me.
Deja’s mother had her when she was very young and not ready to be a good parent, especially since the dad apparently wasn’t “in the picture.” This episode depicts Deja’s experiences with her mother and grandmother, her mother’s boyfriend, foster parents, another foster child she lives with for a while, and her social worker. Like many foster kids, Deja is strongly attached to her mother even though she recognizes her mom’s serious flaws.
Being a kid can be hard in any situation. Deja’s story shows how it can be that much harder for foster kids. It’s amazing that some foster kids turn out remarkably well despite their upbringing – though sometimes they do well precisely because they learn to cope with adversity.
The Importance of Perspective Taking
These two stories – of Mr. Hazen’s actual victims and the fictional character Deja – are illustrations of the profound importance of understanding situations in context and being cautious about making judgments without such understandings.
They reflect a theme in my posts about the importance of perspective-taking, that is, seeing the world through others’ eyes.
This is a valuable approach for people generally and particularly for neutrals and advocates. Obviously, mediators need to understand all sides’ views to help people find something mutually acceptable. Arbitrators and judges try to get each side to accept that their process is fair and legitimate. Advocates need to understand their clients’ viewpoints and interests and relate them to others.
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