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Negotiating Shadows: Working With Extreme Conflict

First published in Oregon Mediation Association Newsletter, Spring 2009.

The other day I was having breakfast and was about to open the orange juice bottle and noticed the instructions on the side that read, “Shake well, settling is natural.” I thought ‘wow’ this is how I mediate and attempt to go beyond seemingly intractable conflict. I found after years of working with people in extreme conflict they tend to freeze in place, settle into old patterns, habits and defended positions. I found that anger based on fear-based thinking is a strategy to keep others away. It keeps conflict centered people in thinking patterns that prevent forward movement.

Taking a risk of the unknown is scary for most human beings but is particularly true for deeply conflicted people with raw emotional expression. It is a challenge for the average me- diator to work with this kind of extreme emotion. Moving and getting to ‘yes’ means slogging through ‘no’ to move the parties along and to demonstrate what ‘yes’ looks like. The delicate balance of nudging them to move on while not being intrusive or directive is the challenge. This method is not for the faint of heart.

I have been negotiating shadows (conflict) for over 25 years as an addiction counselor and drama therapist. I have been working with extreme conflict in at-risk people that have complex, multivariate problems, especially youths who are at risk from addiction. Some of the most conflicted people are addicts. However it isn’t just about addiction it is about the conflict and chaos around the addict and their families and community. Addicts turn to substance to relieve stress on life issues. They are seeking empowerment and recognition. Transformative mediation suggests firm but gentle intervention in these cases.

People that stay in perpetual chaos to get what they want use violent forms of communication as their go-to strategy which becomes a deeply entrenched way of life. One of the tools I use is nonviolent communication skills which I find is essential and challenging especially with extremely conflicted people. Dr. Marshall Rosenberg identifies understanding “tragic expression of unmet needs” as a teaching opportunity for the best outcome of unresolved conflict in communication (Puddle Dancer Press). Once they understand they are in this position and see there is another choice things can move to less extreme conflict. It takes time and is not always cost effective but lives are saved over time.

I am a passionate advocate for positive change and conflict resolution in individuals, especially encouraging, empowering and engaging youth who are in extreme, seemingly intractable, conflict. There are times as a mediator I need to trust in the process as clients begin to shake things up to get to the bottom of understanding their extreme conflict.

There is no such thing as working above the fray in these cases. What is required of this type of mediation is being in the middle of the fray but with a ‘tough love’ strategy coupled with empathy, compassion, transparency and equity being utilized simultaneously. Driving a team of horses that are out of control is the best image to describe this technique. But even runaway horses get tired and stop running.

The mediator only has to hold onto the reins and enjoy the ride and I found the gentlest tug on the reins keeps the horses on the road. This approach stays true to the basic principles transformative mediation of following the parties where they want to go, staying detached and yet present while believing they will find their own gold nugget in the center of all the chaos.

Long before I received my masters degree in CR, I realized, as an addiction counselor and a drama therapist, I have been mediating and negotiating extreme emotional conflict in extremely emotional people with deeply entrenched problems with a modicum of success. I bring this background into the mediation field with some success as well. Today I specialize in this type of mediation.

This past ex- perience serves me well and helps the fact facing, fact finding process that stressed people go through in seeking balance in their lives. I believe counselors are also mediators on some level. I also believe mediators can use counseling techniques to help the mediation process and this crossover service is important in extreme cases.

My strategies were tested during a two year research during which I worked with homeless at-risk youth and meth addicted, gang affected boys 13 to 17 years old experiencing extreme conflict in the juvenile justice system. My research included working with staff, teachers, and other volunteers, etc., all who had conflicts with each other and the boys. It was pure chaos most of the time but working with them proved to be fairly effective.

Coming up with strategies to help them negotiate their conflicts was the challenge. I found combining my background in drama therapy with conflict resolution skills helped them work through their extreme emotional problems to the long process of negotiating their shadows.

Resistance to change from a fixed position often feels familiar and safe even through it is uncomfortable. Extreme conflict impacts all parties involved including the mediator. Negotiating these human shadows is difficult. Mostly conflicts will resolve, but since we human mediators will not live the time it takes to come to resolution in extreme cases, perhaps being brave enough to be the one to tolerate, trust and even encourage them to shake things up is worth taking the time and see what happens! The juice bottle says it will settle, and that is natural.

Results of this study can be found in my research Negotiating Shadows: Conflict Resolution for Addicted At-Risk Youths in Juvenile Justice and at


Grace Eagle Reed

Grace Eagle Reed has a MA in Conflict Resolution, is a broadcaster on community radio, and founder of MAPS. She has written ‘Needs’ and Negotiating Shadows: Journey to the Sun.  Her next book, “Old Lady Rolling: My Year with Occupy” will be available soon. Ms. Reed has been working with extreme… MORE >

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