What does it take to create a highly successful career in conflict resolution and mediation? As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Erin Wehrman.
Erin Wehrman, PhD, is an associate professor and the former director of the Center for Dispute Resolution (CDR) in the Department of Communication, Media, Journalism and Film at Missouri State University. Her work focuses on understanding and improving communication within families, friendships and other close relationships. Through her association with the CDR, she has become a frequently invited speaker on several relational topics, including conflict resolution, apology and forgiveness, and difficult conversations. Dr. Wehrman’s work has been published in numerous outlets, including the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Communication Monographs and the Cambridge Handbook of Personal Relationships. Her scholarship has also been recognized by the interpersonal and health communication sections of the National Communication Association.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you ended up where you are?
Like many students, when I started out in college, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do exactly. I ended up taking a required public speaking class with an amazing professor. She had so much enthusiasm and passion for communication, and she really got me interested in the field. I ended up taking another class in interpersonal communication with another fantastic instructor, and I fell in love. I really enjoyed learning about the dynamics of our close relationships and how we could use this information in very practical ways to improve how we communicate and connect with others. Since conflict is such a normal part of relationships, I later pursued a Certificate in Conflict and Dispute Resolution, which helped me develop a better understanding of the role of conflict in our everyday lives. My love for the subject pushed me to later pursue my master’s degree and a PhD in Communication. Now, every day, I get to share this passion for building stronger families, partnerships and other relationships with my students and the community!
You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
One thing that has really helped me as a leader is an openness to learning. So often, we expect leaders to have all the answers, but so much of the success of a team is built by working together. A good leader must be open to new ideas and information. Learning from others has helped me grow throughout the years.
Another skill that has helped me is creativity. So much of my research has emerged from thinking about topics in new ways and being willing to take a chance on unique contexts. Additionally, learning about conflict can be difficult because it involves so much self-reflection. Finding creative and meaningful approaches can be such great tools for sharing that information in useful formats.
Last, finding ways to be organized has enabled me to succeed. I will often have multiple projects going on at once, including developing workshops, teaching, conducting research and more, so I have had to develop methods of keeping everything organized. I keep a running to-do list where I can organize things by importance, and I also try to schedule days dedicated to tasks that are especially significant but can be easy to forget about when my inbox is needing attention. This helps me stay on top of things.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I’m currently working with a colleague on a project where we’re looking at how couples manage their relationships after one partner has had a stroke. We know that stroke can create some significant disruptions for romantic partners, so we’re excited to build our knowledge more in this area. This research is so important for helping families cope with the changes that come alongside various illnesses.
Fantastic. Let’s now shift to our discussion about Conflict Resolution And Mediation. Let’s start with basic definitions so that all of us are on the same page. What exactly is Conflict Resolution?
Conflict resolution involves the many strategies for managing and resolving conflict between individuals, organizations and groups. There are several different kinds of conflict resolution, ranging from our court systems to instances where we individually manage conflicts we have with our loved ones.
What is Mediation?
Mediation is a type of conflict resolution. It involves a neutral third party (the mediator) helping two or more disputants work through a conflict. The mediator will usually meet with both parties together and listen to the issues at hand. A mediator doesn’t solve the conflict for the participants, however; instead, he/she facilitates communication between the disputants to help them come up with solutions that suit their needs. A mediator will generally allow each party to share their perspective and then will point out the issues he/she sees as needing to be resolved. Then, the mediator can walk the parties through negotiating each issue, helping both sides see points of agreement and commonality. Oftentimes, we let our identities and pride get in the way of resolving a conflict, and a mediator helps us to figure out what we really need and helps us negotiate a solution that ideally works for all parties involved.
How are the fields of Conflict Resolution and Mediation different? How are they similar?
Mediation is just one type of conflict resolution, but there are other forms people can get involved in. Most people are familiar with litigation, which occurs when a judge or jury decides the outcome of a case. Arbitration is another third-party form of conflict resolution; it’s similar to mediation except an arbitrator makes a decision on the outcome of the dispute after listening to both parties. Conflict coaching is another popular form of conflict resolution. A conflict coach meets with one party and works with them to figure out what they want out of the conflict and how they might negotiate to get what they want. It’s a very personal form of conflict resolution that can help people feel more confident and aware of their role in a situation.
Can you share a few examples of cases or disputes that would be brought before a professional in conflict resolution or mediation?
The types of conflicts a professional in conflict resolution might see vary so much! In fact, some conflict professionals specialize in certain contexts over others. On the more interpersonal side, professionals might see cases, such as disputes between neighbors (e.g., property lines, fallen trees, noisy pets, etc.), co-workers (e.g., credit on work, bullying, etc.) and families (e.g., child custody, divorce, inheritance, etc.). On the organizational side, we might help with conflicts between landlords and tenants, community groups and even international relations.
What are some common misconceptions about conflict resolution and mediation that you’ve encountered, and how do you address them?
One of the most common misconceptions about conflict that I hear is that it’s abnormal or unusual. We tend to think of conflict as a very “bad” thing. In reality, all relationships have conflict, although it might look very different. Of course, there are certain behaviors we associate with conflict that aren’t part of a healthy relationship (e.g., violence), but everyone disagrees or must negotiate from time-to-time. Working through conflict and finding a resolution can make our relationships stronger, which is pretty amazing.
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers why the skills and tools of Conflict Resolution and Mediation are so important?
Conflict is everywhere; no matter how much we want to escape it, it’s a part of our daily lives. Yet, very few people grow up having taken a class on interpersonal communication or conflict. For many of us, having better skills in conflict management can make a world of a difference. It can lead to happier families, more productive workplaces and calmer political discussions. Conflict alone costs us billions of dollars in lost productivity each year, not to mention countless divorces and strained relationships, which can threaten our mental and physical health. Being able to navigate these common issues can make us happier and healthier overall.
Looking back, what are some things that you wish you knew when you first started in this field?
When I first started, I was so worried about getting the conflict wrong — perhaps giving some bad advice or advocating for a bad solution. However, at least in the types of conflict resolution I do, one of the most important things to remember is that it’s NOT the conflict professional’s job to resolve the conflict for the parties. Instead, I’m a guide for helping them to understand the conflict and to break down what they actually need and want. I can help them think critically about different possible solutions and reality-check ideas, but those solutions need to come from them — they will always have more stake in solutions if they come from them instead.
How has your personal background influenced your approach to conflict resolution and mediation?
There are different ways people can approach mediation and conflict resolution, and my background in interpersonal communication has led me to taking more of a transformative approach toward conflict resolution. I’m not just there to help resolve the issue at hand, but I’m also interested in helping people repair their relationship and prevent issues moving forward. As a result, I do a lot of work to help people understand their own role in conflict and to see how the other person may have felt. There are always multiple “truths” whenever it comes to conflict, and helping someone see the other person’s perspective is so important for helping to resolve the issue.
What role does empathy play in the process of conflict resolution and mediation? Can you share an example from your experience?
Empathy is so important to the field of conflict resolution. Conflict naturally brings out people’s emotions, especially hurt, frustration and anger. As such, showing empathy is a big step toward helping conflicting parties feel validated and listened to. Demonstrating empathy can help both disputants develop empathy for each other, which is significant whenever there has been a complete communication breakdown between them. Empathy is also important for building trust with clients. If a person doesn’t feel like he/she can trust the mediator, he/she might be less likely to share the reality of what happened and may be less willing to negotiate on issues. One of the most amazing things is whenever you’re working with someone and you slowly see the person’s body language change from being very closed-off (arms crossed, body turned away, etc.) to being more open when he/she finally feels listened to.
For someone looking to enter these fields what kind of education and certifications would they need?
Anyone can work in conflict resolution, and getting the right training can make it so much easier and more enjoyable. For people just wanting to sharpen their conflict management skills for their current career, taking a class at a local university in communication or conflict can make a big difference. Some schools offer degrees for people wanting more knowledge. For instance, at Missouri State University, we offer a certificate in Conflict and Dispute Resolution, which is incredibly popular. For specific forms of conflict resolution, certifications and requirements vary by state. There are no federal standards for mediators in the United States, but most states require a minimum amount of education (usually 40 hours) and/or experience. For instance, in Missouri, anyone can become a mediator, but a person will need a minimum of 16 hours of formal training to be listed on the state’s list of approved mediators. Additional education and training are required for people interested in mediating domestic relations cases. For those interested in mediation or arbitration, I would encourage them to look up the education requirements for their location.
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