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Mediating On Two Tracks: The Rational And The Rest Of Human Nature

From John Folk-Williams’s blog Cross Collaborate

Gold Figures Conference

Robert Benjamin’s essay on the place of irrationality in mediation, discussed in the previous post, urges mediators to focus as much on the emotional and even illogical motives contributing to conflict as on the rational analysis of issues. Many practitioners do this, in so far as they can, because they not only recognize the importance of these elements but know that meaningful agreement is not likely to be reached unless all aspects of the situation are dealt with.

Participants in a public policy dispute may come into a meeting room doubting one another’s motives, convinced of hidden agendas, angry about litigation claims, or holding grudges from past clashes on unrelated issues. Some may have been attacked and victimized by unfounded allegations in the media, their professional integrity or even personal honesty called into question. Misinformation may be taken as fact to support stereotypes of elitist environmentalists, greedy farmers, predatory developers or weak-kneed bureaucrats. Communication among them is broken, and the prospect of positive working relationships seems remote.

With all this simmering below the surface, it’s hardly possible to launch right into a step-by-step rational analysis of how to satisfy interests and develop options for conflict resolution. Yet there are pressures to keep a lid on the explosive mix of frustration, grievance, and poisoned relationships. The meetings are expected to follow logical agendas, review technical data, limit discussion to substantive disagreement only and avoid emotional displays. Rational analysis is not merely the preferred structure for managing the issues, it also reflects ingrained cultural norms and habits of thinking.

It’s the mediator who is expected to enforce these norms and maintain rational order while guiding discussion to useful conclusions. Yet it’s also the mediator who has to help the group shape all its tensions and contradictory impulses as well as conflicting interests into an agreement that not only meets technical standards but also will elicit commitments for implementation. A perfectly sound and rational solution, even wrapped up with a page of signatures, may still fail to be implemented because the underlying tensions have never been resolved.

Practitioners have generally learned to manage this paradox of surface rationality and submerged tension by working with stakeholders on two levels simultaneously. In the public meeting room, the rational model unfolds step by step. Away from the table all the other dimensions that stand in the way of agreement are dealt with. There are many reasons why all the dimensions of a conflict can rarely be dealt in a more publicly integrated manner.

To begin with, mediators in the public policy field likely have limited ability or even motivation to add further complexity to the rational model of interest-based negotiation. The use of this model often represents a big step forward in changing attitudes about the use of collaborative methods. Many, if not most of the participants may be getting their first sample of collaboration by trying to satisfy interests rather than relying on positional strategies in a more adversarial negotiation process. That in itself is a great achievement for the convener and mediator alike, and the group needs time to get comfortable with a method they’re not used to. That’s more than enough innovation to handle at one time.

Another barrier is the prevailing technically-oriented mindset of many conveners and participants, one developed through years of training and professional practice. Departures from rational analysis into the realm of the irrational and emotional dimensions of behavior sounds more like therapy than dispute resolution. The deeply rooted mindset focused on data and logic can’t be changed overnight in the context of an ongoing negotiation.

There is also a basic expectation that is often decisive in setting the tone and limits of discussion, and that is the perceived need for order and control. Though some conveners and participants may tolerate the messiness of dealing with emotions and relationships, the great majority of public agency conveners are not. Whether because of personal style, professional mindset or the pressure of time to show results, raising these issues and concerns seems, at the least, a waste of time and at worst a sign that the process is falling apart.

Emotional outbursts in public meetings can reflect on the ability of a project manager – not to mention the mediator – to keep the process under control and tightly focused on the outcome. Reputations, even careers, can be at stake if the effort fails to achieve its purpose in the allotted time frame. Who’s going to take a chance on the irrational?

The stakes and urgency of the process also reflect the strong, decisive influence of the constituencies and institutions that the negotiators at the table are representing. Even if they have the authority to make commitments on the spot, the negotiators are accountable to the groups that sent them there. These invisible players only look at results and won’t be directly involved in any efforts to get at motives behind the substantive issues. This is a factor that always complicates efforts to resolve public policy disputes, no matter how high the level of collaboration during meetings may be.

The position of a mediator working in this setting is also limited by the fact that he or she is often one of several consultants on contract to the convening agency. A technical team will also come on board. While its members may have a collaborative approach, many teams do not. Whatever their attitude about collaboration, though, their methods depend on rational analysis, and they have enormous influence over how the public process is handled – usually a lot more influence than the mediator does.

All these factors and more help keep the business of rational analysis as usual humming along in most collaborative processes. But the insistence on the apparently technical and rational nature of the deliberation process is part reality and part fiction. The hard work of reducing tension, rebuilding relationships and removing the shadow of past hostility still has to be done, and mediators have to do it. Two tracks or one, in public or private, is less important than getting the job done.


John Folk-Williams

I’m John Folk-Williams, the publisher and editor of Cross Collaborate. Since the early 1980s, I’ve been a practitioner and writer in the field of public policy collaboration, interest-based negotiation, mediation and the involvement of citizens in the decisions that affect their lives. A site like this is itself a collaboration… MORE >

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