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Consciously Incompetent: A Mediator’s Cycle of Learning

I read recently about a man who believes he can master any task or subject by dedicating 3,000 hours to learning about it. He then serially takes on topics of interest to him – flying a plane, buying stocks, or cooking. He masters the subject, then moves on to the next challenge. I ran across the reference to this man at the same time I received my diploma recognizing my completion of an LL.M. in dispute resolution. The diploma came in a cardboard envelope and measured less than 81/2 by 11inches. Given all the time, effort, expense and learning it represented, I really wanted something the size of a 1970s-era Farrah Fawcett poster. It also represented my accumulation of over 1400 hours of training in dispute resolution, not counting the mediations I have conducted, the books and articles I have read independently of my formal studies, my writing, or the hours I have spent preparing to teach ADR topics to law students. Do I feel like an expert at anything? Yes, in a few ADR-related subjects. However, I find myself moving to new levels of conscious incompetence.

The Stages of Skill Development

In Bringing Peace into the Room: How the Personal Qualities of the Mediator Impact the Process of Conflict Resolution (D. Bowling & D. Hoffman eds. 2003), Peter Adler, a well-known mediator, describes the four stages of skill development: (1) unconscious incompetence, (2) conscious incompetence, (3) conscious competence, and (4) unconscious competence. He illustrates these stages by following the efforts of a person who is learning to surf. The first day, after much effort, the new surfer may be half-standing, half-stooping on the board fighting each swell of the water. The surfer is “dumb and happy” and perhaps a little sunburned. He is ignorant of the deeper skill level required to become a master surfer. He has found the unconscious incompetence stage of skill development. If he sticks with the task, he will quickly move to the consciously incompetent stage. At this stage, he is now aware of the skills he lacks, but resolved to learn more. He knows what he doesn’t know. He will eventually move, with practice, to the consciously competent stage of skill development. At the third stage of the cycle, the surfer can skillfully catch a wave, knows a lot about the equipment, and has a good time each day on the beach. But he returns home exhausted by his efforts. He then crosses an invisible frontier in which surfing gets easier. He takes on a bigger wave at exactly the right moment on a beach he knows as well as his the curves of his face. He comes off the wave energized and exhilarated, not exhausted. He has found the fourth level of competency – unconscious competency.

The Learning Cycle Begins Anew

But here’s the good and the bad news. No sooner has he reached the fourth level of competence, he throws himself back to the beginning of the cycle. He decides to learn to surf the giant waves of Hawaii. His first day on the beach leaves him battered. The waves win that day. But because he is now consciously incompetent, he will find the mentors he needs to teach him the mastery of these powerful waves.

Mediators cover this same skill development cycle. The first stage comes after a person completes what I call the “baby” mediation training program — often a 16-hour program that offers the person the very basic techniques of interest-based bargaining, the structure of the classical mediation, some ethics, and some experience in simulated mediations. The new “qualified” mediator rushes home to tell his or her spouse all about this eye-opening experience that was also such fun. The mediator then moves to conscious incompetency the first time he or she mediates a case. The basic training did not cover the topics that now seem to control the dynamics of the conflict – the parties’ psychological and emotional needs. The mediator can work all the techniques he learned in the training program, but he still feels utterly lost and out of control – and he is. He must go home to his spouse to explain that he learned today what he did not know. A mediator with this level of self-awareness begins a self-directed process of learning. He may attend a conference, participate in an advanced training workshop, subscribe to an ADR journal, or read books on mediation. She may volunteer at a community mediation center to get more hands-on experience. After many months of dedicated learning, the mediator may move to the next level of competence. Many mediators stay at this stage — consciously competent — for years.

Five Levels of Dispute Resolution

The master mediators who are unconsciously competent are rare. But I met one two weeks ago at a workshop. Ken Cloke, whose work I reference often in these columns, is one of these masters. He helped me understand why I have started a new cycle of mediator skill development. Cloke describes five levels of dispute resolution:

(1) Stopping the fighting. (2) Settling the issues. (3) Resolving the underlying reasons that generated those issues, and unless resolved, will continue to generate the same issues. (4) Finding forgiveness. (5) Reconciling.

He suggests that the fist level of dispute resolution is fundamentally a physical response to the conflict. It separates people and keeps them from hurting each other. He describes this level of intervention as “addressing the body.” Litigation and arbitration function at this level of conflict resolution.

The second level of dispute resolution “engages the mind.” It involves a logical analysis of the underlying interests of the parties as they relate to the conflict-generating issues between them. Most mediators engage in this type of intervention most of the time. Law school dispute resolution programs largely focus on this type of intervention. Even so, Cloke suggest that this level of intervention resolves perhaps only thirty percent of the conflict.

Only deeper interventions will relieve parties completely of the pain associated with the conflict. Cloke describes the third level of intervention as dealing with the emotions fueling the conflict. A mediator must allow the parties to express emotion authentically. The parties must then process it. This level of intervention “touches the heart.” The mediator may ask: “Who cares? Why? What does it matter?”

Forgiveness, the next level of intervention, allows a party to give up the conflict and re-claim energy that he or she has devoted to the conflict. At this level of intervention, the party undergoes a transformation. Cloke suggests that this intervention has a “spiritual” component, in that it taps a party’s compassion and highest intentions. Cloke says this process allows a party to release himself and others from the burden of that party’s unrealistic expectations.

Reconciliation – the final step in dispute resolution – allows a party to completely transcend the conflict. It is over. Its hold on the party disappears. This final stage, Cloke suggests, makes growth, learning and change possible. Our reconciled conflicts become our greatest teachers.

These stages also coincide with the now out-dated discussion of the various mediator styles – evaluative, facilitative or transformative. The evaluative mediator works somewhere between the first and second levels of dispute resolution. The facilitative mediator works mostly within the second level of dispute resolution. The transformative mediator focuses on the third level of intervention to recognize and empower parties. Mediators working in the restorative justice field address the fourth and fifth levels of dispute resolution.

So why have I started the competency cycle anew? I have taken all I can from the teaching offered by the legal community because the information that community offers focuses at the second level of intervention. My learning now focuses on emotions and psychological needs of parties, on the power of apology and forgiveness, and on reconciliation. My new teachers will have skills of the heart and of the spirit. At the end of the movie “13 Days” – a wonderful study in dispute resolution — the lead character quotes the Fisherman’s Prayer: “O God, the sea is so great and my boat is so small.” The responsibilities of a mediator humble me in the same way. My incompetence frightens me and spurns me on to new cycles of learning.


Paula Young

Paula M. Young is an associate professor at the Appalachian School of Law located in Virginia teaching negotiation, certified civil mediation, arbitration, and dispute resolution system design.  She received in 2003 a LL.M. in Dispute Resolution from the top ranked program in the U.S.   She has over 1400 hours of… MORE >

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