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Facilitating Disagreement

After twenty years practice and at the point of retirement, one of my mediator colleagues reflected on her experience of working with people in dispute. What struck her most forcefully was how rare it was for people to be able to disagree constructively. Disagreement inevitably ended up as conflict. At which point, people no longer had different points of view, they had a fight.

Such outbreaks of hostility are of course, the meat and drink of mediation. And in many cases, mediation helps those locked in conflict to find a way forward. The key to success is almost always a rather late arriving insight; that beneath the noise and smoke of battle, there lie surprisingly large tracts of common ground. Having stumbled upon this shared terrain, the former combatants begin to map out some form of peaceful resolution.

Peace in this instance is an expression of a shared humanity. We reach resolution because even in enmity we can identify common interests, concerns and needs. The other is only partly other, there is also a large portion recognisable as ourselves. Similarity overpowers difference. 

And sometimes it doesn’t.

There are some differences which defy resolution. We often refer to such disputes as intractable. These are conflicts in which each person’s beliefs and values will forever maintain their distance, however hard we push.

When such issues arise in mediation, the mediator often takes a deep breath. The nature of these disagreements challenge our practice and we approach them cautiously. Our first port of call is usually to test out the strength of the opposing positions. Are they genuine? Can we access the underlying interests and needs? Are the parties open to any shift or movement?

And sometimes, despite our best work, people won’t budge.

This lack of movement can bring mediation to a halt. We aren’t sure how to locate common ground, how to help the parties move towards resolution. Peace seems an impossibility. From a practitioner’s view, when faced with such uncompromising differences, positivity and optimism feel hard to maintain.

While despair is one option, I believe there is another choice available – we can widen our view of peace. Dejection seems most likely when we equate resolution with peace. While resolution is one expression of peace, it is not the only one.  

In mediation, resolution is a movement towards mutuality, an expression of similarity and connectedness. In order to make this gesture, we need to call on our capacity to empathise with the other, to see past what divides and to glimpse what unites. Resolution is respectful  insofar as it finds a way to incorporate their world as well as our own. 

In the case of fundamental disagreements, such mutuality may well not be available. This is not, however, to rule out the possibility of peace. In  these instances, peace isn’t to be found in overcoming differences, but in our capacity to tolerate difference. To do otherwise, to try and push parties into some form of resolution, is a form of coercion which denies the reality being expressed in the room.

One form of peace is that of unity. Peace can also emerge in multiplicity. When we forget the latter, we come unstuck when trying to facilitate disagreement.

In most mediations, disagreement doesn’t rise towards peace, rather it descends into argumentation. Parties aim is to persuade or convince the other to ‘see reason’ and change their view.  Every point raised is met with objections and refutations. Each side feels misunderstood. If only the other would listen, they would see the error of their ways.

This form of disagreement is so collectively practiced, so much part of normal behaviour, that we forget how fundamentally disrespectful it truly is. Peace isn’t about overcoming disagreement and diversity. Peace can only be practiced in a world of difference. In every fundamental disagreement, we are collectively split apart, opening gaps in relationships that generate enormous tension. It is precisely in how we respond to these gaps that builds our capacity to actually  ‘do peace’.

In most cases, we can’t bear to hold the tension. We collapse the gap by transforming persons into labels. Instead of facing another human being, we are in the presence of someone who is  ‘unreasonable’, ‘irresponsible’, ‘pig-headed’, or ‘childish’. We shrink the gap by diminishing the person. It is very hard to muster any real interest in a caricature.  

And interest is precisely what is needed at this moment. The ability to listen fully, without judgment, just trying to understand the other’s point of view. To mute all our internal rebukes and rejoinders, so that we have a true and accurate picture of the gap that stands between us.

For the gap matters. It matters enormously. All creative endeavour requires such a gap. New ideas need disjuncture. They are called into existence when the world doesn’t quite fit together and a gap appears. Something new arrives when we can no longer stitch together the old.

This is not to guarantee that the parties will find a way forward. Creativity doesn’t do guarantees. Nor does peace. But unless we can bear the tension, sustain real interest and let go off our fixed preconceptions, then nothing new will ever appear. This is the other face of peace, the one engendered by disagreement.

And it may be that what emerges from the gap isn’t a new idea, but a battle cry. Not as a threat or a ploy to get the other to shift their position, but as a sincere expression of committed opposition. The recognition that neither side will give up or give way. War is in the gap too.

Sometimes this is a literal fight, and sometimes it takes a more ritualised form, as in a court battle. In either case, it is conflict consciously chosen, not as a source of revenge, punishment or point-scoring, but of acknowledgement and recognition.  When we act from this motivation, then these conflicts, far from being the opposite of peace, are an expression of the respect we hold for our opponents in not insisting that they must change who they are.

For most mediators, this is a real  challenge to their sense of purpose and competency. We are wedded to resolution, and treat ongoing disagreement as a sign of failure. What I am advocating is that we really only fail, forsake our roles as peace-makers, when we perpetuate the myth that peace has but one face.

What needs to be stressed is that if we help people disagree more fully, more respectfully, if we can enable listening without labelling, we are practicing peace. Disagreement is the testing ground of peace, to see whether we can encompass the reality of the other – however different it may be from our own. And it takes real courage and trust to facilitate disagreement to the point of real tension, knowing that both inspiration and conflagration are possible outcomes.

People come to us because they are stuck. They feel trapped, confined, cornered. In facilitating disagreement we open up a gap, a highly charged space. We cannot know in advance whether the spark that leaps across that gap will be a flash of insight or one that sets off the cannons.  Peace is never predictable. All we can promise is that something new will emerge.




Michael Jacobs

Michael Jacobs has been mediating for the past 23 years across a range of disputes, including family, community, workplace and civil/commercial. He appreciates the fact that even after all this time, he is still quite capable of making mistakes and getting things wrong – it means that he has more… MORE >

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