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On American Arrogance: Styles of Mediation

A comment to one of my columns, “War and Negotiation: Lessons From the Europeans” drew the apparent anger and animus of at least one European, Christiana from the Netherlands (12/13/07). I found her response somewhat baffling, but the article apparently touched a nerve that is seldom discussed and worthy of discussion.

There is a certain level of antipathy that borders on hostility on the part of many mediators and conflict management professionals toward American teachers, trainers and writers, not only in Europe, but in other parts of the world as well. Many express resentment against what they view as American Imperialism in the field: the subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, belief conveyed by American presenters that negotiation and mediation was invented at Harvard, Americans hold the copyright, and the only way to do it is the American way. Americans often exhibit a lack of awareness of the many and varied negotiation rituals and mediative approaches that have been part of the history and culture of every society since the beginning of time. In all likelihood, this issue is more pronounced in response to the present day European EU/American USA relations and the geo-political atmosphere.

However, while the issue cultural imperialism that Christiana’s comment raises is clearly valid, her stated ‘amazement by the outright arrogance of Americans….assuming that we (Europeans) borrowed from them (Americans),” must be coming from a place other than what I wrote.

As should be immediately apparent from the title, “Lessons From the Europeans,” the article pays direct homage to European history and culture that I believe has spawned a unique and valuable approach to conflict management. Having observed over many years, from the honor of having been invited to work in Europe and other parts of the world, this article is my meager and pint-sized imitation of de Tocqueville in reverse. My comment is that the European thinking and sensibility about conflict is one that should be more familiar and studied by more American mediators who often appear to be caught in the grips of orthodoxy of styles and models.

I am surprised by Christiana’s comment because I expressly take to task the ‘American hubris,‘ and presumptuousness, probably born of our isolation and cultural myopia, that plagues too many trainers and writers in the conflict management field, to which she appears to be making reference. (see paragraph 4).

At the same time, I don’t entirely mind being accused of arrogance, although I don’t believe it is ‘American’ arrogance. My arrogance, if arrogance it is thought to be, shall continue to be displayed in all of my future rants about the lack of careful thinking many mediators and teachers, perhaps especially the Americans, bring to the field of conflict management. In fact, the intended purpose of the article, published in a predominantly American forum, is to suggest that we have allowed ourselves to become too narrow in our thinking. We appear content to teach pro forma models of mediation without asking people to think about what they are doing or why. We seem to be content to think that it is good enough to justify ourselves that we are ‘just trying to help’ and that mediation is just a form of counseling where the relationship is of primary importance. Or alternatively, that mediation is just about getting the deal done at all costs.

Finally, too many mediators have not taken sufficient time to study the negotiation process. Most professional training programs do not have sufficient time to delve into negotiation. Too many appear content to think of negotiation as merely a rational, interest based, decision making process. Others, as incredible as it may sound, don’t see any connection between negotiation and mediation. However, if mediators are to successfully facilitate and coach parties to negotiate their disputes, they themselves must be proficient negotiators because mediation is nothing but a multiple party hybrid form of negotiation. To be taken seriously and viewed as viable and realistic modes of conflict management in difficult disputes, negotiation and mediation must be studied in depth. A limited or naive understanding of negotiation simply does not do justice to the depth and breadth of one of the oldest and most noble of human rituals. People in every culture throughout history have always negotiated in their own unique way and been aided on occasion by third parties’. It does a disservice to the furtherance of the conflict management field in general and mediation/negotiation in particular that any style or model of practice would be presented or promoted as universally applicable.


Robert Benjamin

Robert Benjamin, M.S.W., J.D., has been a practicing mediator since 1979, working in most dispute contexts including: business/civil, family/divorce, employment, and health care. A lawyer and social worker by training, he practiced law for over 25 years and now teaches and presents professional negotiation, mediation, and conflict management seminars and… MORE >

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