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Conflict Resolution in the Time of COVID-19–Voices from Seven Continents of the World: North America

Editor’s Note:  In this article series, seven leading mediators and conflict resolution practitioners share their unique voices on three pressing issues:  the impact of COVID-19 on their practices, workarounds being attempted, and their visions for the future in a post-COVID (or on-going COVID) world.  These contributors are speaking for themselves with their own original thoughts.  Their compelling words come from both their heads and their hearts.  Each essay is unique, yet each essay also confirms universal experiences and travails.  Oddly, collective challenges and painful experiences may stimulate progression within the conflict resolution community.  They may also lead to mediators taking action to familiarize the general community with the benefits of mediation.  Sharing personal experiences and truths, it is hoped, will inspire fellow practitioners to consider the new world and to re-invent their conflict resolution practices and services. 


The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in widespread court closures and limited operations, promoting ADR suddenly and squarely into the forefront as the primary method of conflict resolution.  Perhaps the modern “conflict revolution,”[i] beginning in 1976 with community dispute resolution programs in the 1960’s to address civil rights issues and continuing with the 1976 Pound Conference,[ii] is about to undergo another phase.  If conflict resolution practitioners step up to the challenges, ADR may well come to the fore in the minds of the general public and not only with lawyers, insurance companies and commercial enterprises.  This may require re-thinking of old paradigms and becoming unstuck from old notions.  Mediators and conflict resolution professionals are being asked to adapt–and quickly–to the issues and circumstances of the day. The seven contributors bravely take a giant step forward by providing a chronicle of current conditions and by offering visions of the future.

~ Articles Assembled and Edited by Gregg Relyea


North America


Some Lessons from the Pandemic

Kenneth Cloke

“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” 

~Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

 “Every day silence harvests its victims.  Silence is a mortal illness.” 

~Natalia Ginzburg 

“Everything has changed, except the way we think.”

~Albert Einstein (on hearing of the bombing of Hiroshima)


There are many ways of understanding or defining conflict, each leading to a different set of techniques and approaches, and among them are these, reinforced by our experience of the pandemic:

  • Conflict is the lack of appreciation of the imminence of death or sudden catastrophe.
  • Conflict is the sound made by the cracks in a system.
  • Conflict is a need to evolve, together with a refusal to change.

We have learned from the pandemic that we are all facing death, and are therefore one, connected by crisis and undivided by conflict.  And we have also learned that we are facing it differently, and are therefore many, separated by race, gender, nationality, age, religion, wealth, occupation, social class, political beliefs, emotional vulnerability, and physical well-being, and divided by conflict. 

What we have not learned sufficiently or everywhere is how to turn our differences into deeper and more powerful expressions of empathy and compassion; how to strengthen I/Thou communications and relationships with our opponents; how to use the pandemic to repair the cracks in our systems; and how to evolve to higher orders of conflict that reveal and require higher orders of resolution. 

We are learning that we can withdraw from the world and still be in it.  We are learning to be socially and emotionally connected while physically distant.  We have learned the importance of science, and the equal importance of art, music, and dance.  We are learning that we can be courageous, even when we are frightened.  We are learning the meaning of touch, contact, intimacy, and connection; of having time to reflect, exercise and meditate; of the centrality of celebration and loss.  We are learning the depth, extent and intricacy of our interdependency.  We are learning the value of slowness, and that when we stop even for a moment, our skies clear of pollution, global warming slows its pace, whales and dolphins return to our shores, and we are able to take pleasure in the beauty of nature and each other.  

We have learned that global problems cannot be solved using national or local methods; that death and loss touch all of us; that political conflicts can be deadly; and that it doesn’t matter whose end of the boat is sinking.  We have learned that it is easier to face death together, even if each of us dies alone, and that looking out for ourselves requires us to look out for each other.

What we have not yet learned is how to hold on to these lessons and not return to an addictive cycle that leads only to future crises and conflicts.  We have not learned how to love one another enduringly, or that in all the conflicts we experience between “Us” and “Them,” there simply is no them, there is only us.  We have not, in short, learned the most fundamental lesson in all of conflict resolution: that every one of our conflicts contains opportunities for learning, discovery of self and other, and evolution to higher, better, and more satisfying relationships.  And that the pandemic is pointing our attention precisely toward those outcomes.

Doing so will require us to bring conflict resolution directly into the political arena.  It will require us to strengthen global collaboration through dialogue, negotiation and mediation; to invent interest-based forms of political discourse, economic activity, and social problem solving; and to find new ways of assuaging the pathological belief in medical conspiracy, suicidal resistance to common sense health measures, hostility to science and art, and fear and rage toward migrants and minorities that are also infecting us. 

None of this will be easy or quick.  But, as mediators, we have been silent, confused, reactive, and avoidant in applying our skills and knowledge of conflict resolution to the chronic social, economic and political conflicts that are impacting our response to COVID-19, and to other, equally pressing issues, for far too long, and are paying the price. 

So let us honor the dead and dying, the heroes in hospital gowns and grocery aprons, the friends and families who have suffered – and let us commit that their sacrifices shall not have been in vain, by dedicating ourselves, our energies and intentions, our knowledge and skills, to keeping these lessons alive until we have transformed them into renewed hope for a better world, and not return to our old, former, conventionally conflicted lives, but newer, more collaborative ones enriched by learning. Not just back, but better.



[i] Conflict Revolution: Designing Preventative Solutions for Chronic Social, Economic and Political Conflicts, Kenneth Cloke (Goodmedia Press, 2015).

[ii] The Pound Conference, attended by lawyers, judges, and academics, was held to explore ways to improve access to justice by reducing court congestion, developing low cost or no cost programs for indigent parties, and exploring the concept of offering multiple forms of ADR, i.e., the “multi-door courthouse,” conceived by the late Professor Frank Sander.  


Binary Thinking


Gregg Relyea

Gregg Relyea, Esq. is a full-time private mediator in San Diego, California.  In addition to teaching mediation at the University of San Diego School of Law and the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), Mr. Relyea has written a comprehensive negotiation and mediation practice guide, Negotiation, Mediation, and Dispute Resolution--Core Skills… MORE >


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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