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Reflections on Conflict, Respect and the RPM

From Karen Hollett’s blog RPM

The Reasonable Person Model (RPM, see previous posts) describes the environmental conditions under which people are more likely to "be at their best." The model is premised upon three basic and simply articulated – but vitally important – domains which describe human needs and inclinations. The human need to feel respected and heard is an important part of the RPM. Our quest for respect is a major motivating force in our interactions and activities. Consequently, the RPM posits that situations where respect is evident are more likely to result in reasonable, i.e. civil and decent, behaviour as well as more constructive outcomes. And conversely, situations where respect is demonstrably lacking are likely to result in less than optimum interactions.

One environment where this is more and more obvious is in our workplaces. Respectful workplace policies and training are now part of many workplace cultures; however, examples where it is lacking continue to surface and the consequences can be very obvious and even very public. The stakes are indeed high when people feel disrespected in the workplace. People spend so much of their lives there and a person’s work may be closely tied to one’s sense of self and general feelings of wellbeing. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety has identified "civility and respect" as one of the major psychosocial risk factors in the workplace which impacts organizational health, individual well-being and, as they state it, the financial bottom line. This is based on research carried out at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia identifying lack of civility and respect as one of 13 mental health risk factors in the workplace with proven negative consequences including more conflict, grievances and other legal risks.

While lack of respect can lead to conflict, respect can also play an important part in resolving it. Restoring a sense that one has been respected and heard for the aggrieved party or parties in workplace or other situations is as critical in successful conflict resolution as the RPM suggests it should be. In planning for and conducting a mediation, the RPM suggests that attention to all of the ways that the mediation environment, broadly defined, can impact whether or not the parties will feel respected. Agreement on ground rules for civil and respectful interactions among the parties is an important measure that mediators frequently use to create an appropriate social environment. But most, I hope, would agree that the parties involved also need to feel feel respected and heard by the mediator.

Discussions about what makes mediators successful have suggested this is true and there have also been debates about whether or not the ability to demonstrate the necessary attitude is a quality that is innate or is one that can be learned. That is a topic for another day perhaps, but it is not an all or nothing scenario. Sometimes even simple things matter. Barbara Madonik has written an excellent short article, Managing the Mediation Environment, on some of the ways that preparations for mediation can demonstrate respect and influence the process. Symbolic and other gestures, as she notes, can make a difference. This may include such very basic (and to me at least obvious, but sometimes overlooked) things such as arriving on time, providing a variety of food and beverages, and otherwise ensuring that the physical space and other arrangements are convenient and feel comfortable and safe for the parties. In other words, whether or not the mediation environment is designed with the parties’ needs and wants in mind.

The notion that respect is an important part of conflict resolution processes such as mediation is not, I acknowledge, a new concept. As the late Trina Grillo argued, "If the discussion is simply in terms of techniques, it will be of limited value. Rather, we need to focus on whether our interventions are in fact designed to communicate a respect for the parties, their process, and the personal struggle that each is undergoing."

While it is not a new idea, the RPM helpfully places it within a framework or model of human nature which includes other equally important and interdependent human needs and inclinations. In order to create an environment which brings out the best in people, it is necesary to pay attention to all three domains of the RPM. Appropriately structured mediation is well positioned to support these domains and to be the kind of environment where people will be best situated to help themselves. This is, I believe, the greatest strength of mediation as a process. Albie Davis was not an environmental psychologist, but she was thinking like one when she said that mediation was "designed with the human in mind."

Davis highlighted the importance of respect – and its interrelationship to party competence and self determination – best when she wrote:

Why does mediation work?
To paraphrase Elizabeth Barrett Browning, "Let me count the ways."
It works because of our attitude toward the parties.
If I were to use one word for that attitude, it would be respect. Total respect.
Respect for each person’s dignity. Respect for each person’s competence. Respect for each person’s ownership of the conflict.

Albie Davis,
The Logic Behind the Magic of Mediation


Karen Hollett

Karen Hollett is a lawyer, arbitrator and mediator working in Canada. She can can be reached at The Centre for Innovative Dispute Resolution in St. John's Newfoundland, Canada. MORE >

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