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Risky Conflict Resolution

Excerpted from Kenneth Cloke and Joan Goldsmith, The Art of Waking People Up: Cultivating Awareness and Authenticity at Work, Jossey Bass/Wiley, February, 2003]

“Our “opponents” are our co-creators, for they have something to give which we have not. The basis of all cooperative activity is integrated diversity…. What people often mean by getting rid of conflict is getting rid of diversity, and it is of the utmost importance that these should not be considered the same. We may wish to abolish conflict, but we cannot get rid of diversity. We must face life as it is and understand that diversity is its most essential feature… Fear of difference is dread of life itself. It is possible to conceive conflict as not necessarily a wasteful outbreak of incompatibilities, but a normal process by which socially valuable differences register themselves for the enrichment of all concerned.”
Mary Parker Follett

Mary Parker Follett- who was one of the first to advocate conflict resolution and democratic principles in the workplace- wrote this passage shortly after World War I, yet her observations are, if anything, more valid today then when she wrote them. Expanded personal mobility and enormous improvements in global transportation and communication bring us in daily contact with a diverse world. As globalization increases, we come to a growing realization that diversity is rapidly disappearing, that it is a precious resource, and that it is a significant source – not merely of conflict, but learning, personal and organizational development, evolutionary adaptation, and life itself.

As the world each day becomes more interconnected and interdependent, we becomes less capable of tolerating the pointless damage and destruction that accompany a fear of differences. At the same time, a rapid expansion in the power and effectiveness of risky conflict resolution techniques makes it increasingly unnecessary to return to antiquated, fearful, senseless, selfish and domineering responses to diversity and the conflicts they engender. Whether conflicts arise from cultural variations, personality differences, divergent belief systems, competing self-interests, or antagonistic demands for attention, wealth and resources, we always have a choice about how we respond when it does arise.

We can play it safe, retreat from dialogue, and move against our opponents based on a fear of differences, a desire to suppress them and a need to satisfy our own selfish interests. Or we can take a risk, engage in dialogue and move toward our opponents based on celebration of differences, a desire to learn from them and desire to collaboratively satisfy everyone’s underlying interests.

Every conflict, without exception, creates an unparalleled opportunity to wake up. It increases our awareness of what is actually happening around us and teaches us how to become more skillful and successful in our communications and relationships. It allows us to understand and discuss, and learn from our differences, and to recognize that each of our conflicts offers us a unique opportunity to turn our lives around. Taking a risky approach to conflict resolution allows both sides to discover newer and deeper levels of understanding, improve their skills and relationships and find better solutions than either side thought possible. For these reasons, conflict is a valuable personal and organizational resource and a powerful source of learning, development and growth.

Two Kinds of Organizational Conflict

Conflicts regularly occur in every organization, workplace and relationship. Most of these interpersonal disputes that arise from simple miscommunications and misunderstandings, unrealistic expectations, unintended consequences and exaggerated personal differences. Nearly all of these disputes can be prevented, abated, and successfully resolved if addressed at the right time by the right people in the right ways.

In addition to these interpersonal disputes, every organization, workplace and relationship generates chronic, systemic conflicts that go deeper and are far more difficult to resolve. These conflicts are often intractable because the issues they raise are complex and the solutions required are more profound and far-reaching. Whereas interpersonal disputes appear random and unnecessary, systemic conflicts are risky, stubborn, and essential to organizational learning, growth and adaptation.

Conflicts allow individuals and organizations to periodically release accumulated stress and establish newer, higher levels of equilibrium. Just as earthquakes release accumulated tension between plates of the earth’s crust, systemic conflicts expose the hidden fault lines in relationships. Systemic conflicts are indicators of internal weakness and environmental instability. They signal a burgeoning need to change and an increasing resistance to doing so. They are the sound made by the cracks in a system, the voice of new paradigms waiting to be born, the unconscious invitation to satisfy unimagined needs. They expose contradictory cultural messages, the absence of clear vision, and the need for shared values, committed leadership, collaboration and teamwork. They mark the moment of discovery that something isn’t working for someone and the unheralded arrival of a fresh opportunity to fix or transcend it.

Systemic conflicts are chronic in organizations that are separated into hierarchical layers and horizontal bureaucratic departments, each of which competes with others for resources and recognition and exists, to some extent, in opposition to all the others. As these conflicts and competitive strategies develop, a higher truth is lost- that they are all interdependent parts of a single organizational whole with multiple goals in common. Their momentary differences fluctuate with shifting events that highlight or overshadow them. Yet these same divisions and provide a basis for transcendence to higher levels of unity and effectiveness when employees in collaborative dialogue, negotiate their differences, and use risky conflict resolution to confront the chronic, systematic sources of their dysfunction.

Responsibility for Conflict

Feedback, coaching, mentoring, assessment and supportive confrontation can all be used to help employees resolve their workplace conflicts. But to be successful, these methods require the person offering assistance to take risks and ask both sides to accept responsibility for whatever they did or failed to do that resulted in, sustained or escalated the conflict. Without their acceptance of some responsibility for the conflict, each will blame other for what is actually within our control.

While we all recognize that “it takes two to tango,” we often forget the corollary that it takes only one to stop the tango. We learn much more when, instead of accepting 50 percent of the responsibility for our conflicts, we accept 100 percent. By doing so, we force ourselves to consider why we decided to join the dance, and why we seem unable to stop.

Taking responsibility for our conflicts extends not only to our acts and omissions but to those the other person executes in response. When we accept responsibility for what we have contributed to the conflict, they are encouraged to do the same. When both parties accept responsibility, impasse begins to disappear. Here are some risky questions that can assist conflicting parties in accepting responsibility for their actions:

  • What did you contribute to making this conflict happen?
  • With hindsight, how could you have handled it better?
  • How would you evaluate your responses so far? What have you done that has been effective? What hasn’t been effective?
  • How have you suffered as a result of your own actions?
  • How have others suffered?
  • What does this conflict ask you to let go of or learn to accept?
  • What is the most important lesson you can learn from this conflict?
  • How would it be possible for your version of what happened and that of your opponent to both be correct?
  • In what way could this conflict improve your life?
  • Is there anything funny or ridiculous about your role in this conflict?
  • What would it take for you to let go of this conflict completely?
  • What would happen if you did?
  • Has your communication been effective in creating understanding in the other person? What could you do to improve it?
  • What additional skills could you develop in handling the conflict? In responding to negative behavior?

By answering these questions, employees in conflict begin to confront themselves and wake up to the role they have played in aggravating or sustaining the impasse. Each person may then be willing to communicate more openly, agree to take actions leading to resolution, or apologize and make amends for their behavior. Together they may commit to correcting the underlying systematic sources of their conflict, transforming cultural attitudes that reinforce avoidance, or inventing new approaches to conflict resolution. By taking a risk, they may learn something important- not only about their conflict, but about their opponent and their own capacity to make a difference.

Nonetheless, asking people to take responsibility for their conflicts is risky. Partly this is because everyone in conflict tells a story in which they are right and the other person is wrong. These accusatory, self-serving stories are designed to disguise and divert attention from the role they play in keeping the conflict going, and reinforce their defenses, justifications, countermeasures, and irreconcilable positions. Yet beneath every accusation lies a confession both of desire and powerlessness, and beneath every confession lies an interest that can be framed as a simple request. If you would like to learn more about conflict stories and how to transform them into stories of resolution, see our book Resolving Personal and Organizational Conflict: Stories of Transformation and Forgiveness.

Roles in Conflict Resolution

Feedback, coaching, mentoring and assessment can be used to mitigate unresolved conflicts and moderate conflict-encouraging behaviors. The feedback initiator, coach, mentor, or assessor can also become a mediator and assist in the search for collaborative solutions. The role played by the mediator will vary based on the nature of the conflict, the depth of emotion, the contribution of organizational culture and the needs of the participants. Providers of feedback, coaching, mentoring, and assessment need to make sure before performing these roles that they do not create confusion by contradicting or undermining their original roles. Here are some roles you can play to help conflicting parties wake up. Each role simultaneously expands and limits the attitudes, ideas, and actions of the person who plays it. It is therefore best to play it fully, yet realize that it is only part of a much larger role.

Educator: Teach what the conflict means and how it produces distrust and answering any questions about the process that will be used to resolve it;

Rule-Maker: Establishing ground rules that increase both sides willingness to resolve their conflict;

Contractor: Asking them to agree to abide by ground rules, values, or organizational policies, and contract with each other to implement them going forward;

Power Balancer: Overcoming perceived and actual power imbalances that interfere with genuine consensus so that each person participates fully and collaboratively in negotiating solutions;

Role Model: Creating increased commitment to congruent communication by listening, clarifying, summarizing, refocusing and acknowledging an opponent’s contributions;

Counselor: Carefully surfacing underlying emotions that prevent someone from discussing their conflicts with an opponent, or reaching agreement;

Chair: Creating an agenda and prioritizing concerns, as a way of reaching incremental agreements;

Facilitator: Assisting in conducting joint meetings, negotiating agreements, and easing future communication processes and relationships;

Advisor: Assisting each person in identifying their long-term self-interests, and clarifying goals and objectives.

Option Generator: Stimulating a search for creative options for resolution that recognize everyone’s self-interests;

Negotiator: Supporting adversaries in negotiating collaboratively with each other, perfecting offers, reframing objections, detaching people from problems, and separating positions from interests;

Resource: Securing expert opinion or access to it, clarifying factual disagreements, and searching for criteria to resolve them;

Magician: Using creative techniques including analysis of metaphors and stories, assignment of homework, brainstorming, and strategic silence, in order to overcome impasse;

Consultant: Considering whether a proposal for resolution represents the best approach, and recommending how to fit it into future plans;

Zen Master: Asking people to see the emptiness of their conflicts, and the errors of dualistic thinking;

Lawyer: Documenting agreements in writing and discussing what will happen if there are future conflicts;

Historian: Recalling how the conflict felt before and after collaborative negotiation, and what each person did that could have been done better;

Healer: Encouraging parties to let the conflict go and moving each toward forgiveness and reconciliation;

Celebrant: Celebrating their commitment to improving their relationship by congratulating everyone on their willingness to approach their conflict honestly and bring it to a resolution.

Some of these roles come easier and more naturally than others. By adopting a range of strategies and mixture of roles, including mediation, it is possible for those in conflict to move closer to resolution. As a result, they may reach a deeper understanding of the reasons they became stuck in the first place.

Preparing for Resolution

Offering assistance to people who feel trapped in a conflict or have a pattern of attracting or triggering conflicts may require meeting with the parties jointly and working with them to find a solution. To prepare for a mediation, or facilitated face-to-face informal problem solving conversation, we often ask each person to complete one or more of the following activities before our meeting:

  • List your goals or objectives for resolving the conflict and all the points on which you would like to reach agreement.
  • List what you think the other party to the conflict wants and his or her reasons for wanting it. Indicate where you disagree and why.
  • Identify three things you would be willing to do to settle the dispute.
  • Write the words you would use to describe the relationship you would like to have with the other person.
  • List all the words that describe what you like or respect about the other person. If you are unable to do so, say why.
  • List all the words that describe what you do not like, or is wrong with the other person. Afterwards, opposite those words, write the name of the person in your family who comes closest to exhibiting those characteristics.
  • List your objections to the other person’s behavior in the form: “When you _____________, I feel _______________ because _____________.”
  • List all the words that describe the positive qualities you display when you are in conflict with this person. Next, list the negative qualities.
  • Write down what you think will happen, both positive and negative, if you reach an agreement. Next write what will happen if you do not.
  • List all the options for resolving the dispute without regard to whether they will work.
  • Write down separately what you think each person could have done that would have prevented the dispute from happening.

After both employees have thought about the conflict through one or more of these activities, ask them to exchange what they wrote and respond to the points raised in the other party’s lists. You may then be able to identify a number of areas of agreement and disagreement. The commonalities can then be explored, modified and fine-tuned through a joint, informal problem solving conversation, avoiding relatively useless, semi-rational, emotionally heated serial monologues.

In beginning a conversation to resolve a conflict, it is crucial to understand that the issue of who is right or wrong is, in principle, undecidable – both by you and by the parties. Workable solutions have to be discovered, modified to make them acceptable to both sides and affirmed through dialogue and consensus. In resolving conflict, it may be useful to reveal:

1. There can be more than one truthful “right answer” to experiential questions;

2. Two different sets of facts can both be honestly stated and accepted as true for the person who experienced them;

3. Unilateral declarations of truth and falsehood are not particularly useful in resolving conflicts;

4. The chances of convincing the other person to accept your version of why they are wrong are minimal. What is most effective in a context of waking people up, is for each side to take a risk, appreciate the other side’s experience as a source of improved perspective and increased awareness, add their own, and try to find what they have in common.

Eight Paths to Conflict Resolution

We believe every conflict creates multiple possibilities for waking people up and making them more aware, authentic, congruent and committed. Every conflict expands our ability to deliver hard-hitting, turnaround feedback, transformational coaching, strategic mentoring and participatory assessment. In our book, Resolving Conflicts at Work: A Complete Guide for Everyone on the Job, we provide detailed advice on mediating workplace disputes and describe eight paths to resolving conflicts, even among highly conflicted employees, which are:

1. Understand the Context and Culture of Conflict

Discovering the true meaning of the conflict for each party leads not simply to settlement, but expanded awareness, acceptance, and resolution of the underlying reasons for the conflict.

2. Listen with Your Heart

Listening actively, openly, empathetically, and with the heart, can take the parties to the center of their conflict, where all paths to resolution and waking up converge.

3. Embrace and Acknowledge Emotions

When intense emotions are brought to the surface and not suppressed, but communicated openly and directly to the person to whom they are connected, invisible barriers are lifted to resolution and transformation.

4. Search Below the Surface for the Hidden Meaning of the Conflict

Beneath the issues in conflict lie hidden fears, desires, interests, emotions, histories and intentions that tell us what is really wrong. When revealed they become a source of liberation and transformation.

5. Separate What Matters From What’s In the Way

The road to resolution and turnaround lies not in debate over who is right, but dialogue, where our focus shifts from competition over positions to collaboration to satisfy our mutual needs.

6. Learn from Difficult Behaviors

In every conflict we confront difficult behaviors which provide us with opportunities to improve our skills, and develop our capacity for empathy, patience and perseverance.

7. Solve Problems Creatively and Commit to Action

Creative problem solving helps resolve conflicts, but turnaround results require the energy, uncertainty and duality of enigma, paradox and contradiction, which are part of every conflict.

8. Explore Resistance and Mediate Before You Litigate or Grieve

All resistance reflects an unmet need, and is a request for authentic communication. Exploring resistance helps us unlock our conflicts and overcome impasse. Mediation encourages collaboration, dialogue and solutions that meet mutual needs without the pain and expense of litigation, grievances and arbitration.

Each of these paths to resolution can create a breakthrough for any employee willing to risk taking them. Once the relentless lockstep of conflict is broken and dialogue begins, there is a natural unfolding of issues, emotions and insights. This can lead to improved communication, collaborative negotiation, organizational learning, resolution, forgiveness and reconciliation. For these reasons, every organization can benefit from training staff in mediation and using peer mediators to resolve internal conflicts.

Lessons from Others

It is sometimes difficult to understand how conflict, which has so many negative side-effects, can result in increased authenticity, awareness, congruence and commitment. Here are some examples of conflicts that were resolved by risky strategies drawn from our experiences over the last twenty years mediating hundreds of intense multiparty workplace disputes.

Many conflicts emanate from a lack of leadership or clear direction at the top, or failure to build buy-in from below. For example, after investing over six million dollars in a failed reengineering effort, a division of Fortune 100 manufacturing company invited us to advise them in resolving conflicts that threatened to scuttle the entire change process. A number of sweeping changes had been recommended by upper management during a year-long reengineering process that had been run into the ground with internal conflicts. Managers complained that line staff were stuck in old work processes, communication patterns and narrow roles and responsibilities. They claimed they wanted the changes, but felt unable to move their employees forward. We met with the team that was leading the change process and asked each person to indicate one meaning the changes had for them and one barrier they saw to successful implementation. We videotaped their answers and played them back. The tape was painful for them to watch, because it revealed that they were not even close to being a leadership team. Using supportive confrontation, we gave them hard evidence of their own lack of support for the change effort, their inability to convincingly articulate what the change meant, and the problems they had as a leadership team in supporting changes to which they were only superficially committed.

The videotape clearly revealed that the true source of resistance was themselves! In the ensuing feedback process, they spoke authentically and honestly to each other, and it gradually emerged that they were in conflict because they felt the whole idea had been forced on them by their boss, that it was likely to be a huge failure, and that they felt they would be blamed for his bad ideas! Rather than honestly discussing these issues or working together as a team, the tape revealed them yelling at each other, retreating into their shells, being unable to reach key decisions and not listening. After watching the tape in silent horror, each person took responsibility for what they observed in their own behavior and gave everyone else honest feedback about what they saw.

The tone, style and success of the conversation that followed was in remarkable contrast to the one that preceded it. We asked them what they needed to do, have or be to lead a successful change effort. They decided to begin by creating a vision for themselves as a leadership team. They identified a number of conflicts with their boss, brainstormed strategies for resolving them and agreed to honestly inform him together about the weaknesses in his plan. They next decided to invite all staff to a dialogue and strategy session to redesign the organization. They even decided to transform the change process by modeling the behaviors they wanted. They each agreed to work on becoming more successful communicators and better leaders, work collaboratively as a team and actually shift the behaviors that were keeping the company stuck.

Throughout the entire process, everyone was completely awake, aware of the impact they were having on each other, engaged in authentic conversation, working in congruence with their values and committed to their team vision. By exercising courageous leadership, they created an improved plan for personal and organizational improvement. We then conducted a risky conflict resolution session with their boss, who was angry and defensive at first, but by the end of the session was able to compliment them on their excellent preparation and leadership. By the end of the second session, he agreed to implement their plan.

We then facilitated an open-ended dialogue and strategic planning session for over a hundred employees and reached consensus on an improved vision. They analyzed what was not working and needed changing in their structures, systems, processes and culture. They identified what each person could contribute to creating a newer, better organization. At the end, we asked each employee to state how they felt about what they had done and what these changes meant to them. Emotions ran high, and their commitment to change was reflected in their action plans which made it clear that they fully owned the reorganization plan. Their conflict had triggered a process that led to deep individual learning and organizational renewal.

In another example, we consulted with a highly conflicted technology organization that decided to restructure itself into self-managing teams. They came to consensus on creating a coordinating committee that would oversee the change process in the future and respond to criticisms, conflicts and glitches that might arise. Later, one employee who was identified as having created a series of conflicts drew criticism from many of her team members. Rather than dismiss her, the coordinating committee decided to hold an open feedback and conflict resolution session to discuss her issues among all staff so as not to undermine the consensus they needed for the change process to be successful.

The coordinating committee discovered in the ensuing risky dialogue that her real issues had nothing to do with the conflicts she had sparked, but with problems related to how her manager was relating to her and how her team was communicating with her. Because she had been unsuccessful in raising or resolving these issues with her manager or her team, she felt she needed to bring the issues to the committee. It became clear when she presented her issues that many people, including her fellow team members, shared her concerns.

In exploring these issues, they realized that she had been using the change process to address her own issues with the team and had no objection to the change. As a result, they were able to come up with a conflict resolution strategy with her manager and team members that allowed her to resolve the problems that were preventing her from supporting the change effort. New suggestions emerged to improve team and managerial communications. As a result of having her conflicts resolved, she became a leader in the organization and was able to make a vital contribution to the change process. In another example, a company and its union jointly asked us to resolve a conflict with an employee who was accused of excessive absenteeism. She had worked for the company for more than l6 years and been satisfactory in her work performance. She offered many reasons for her tardiness, including traffic jams, her car not working and her windshield wipers not functioning on a day when it wasn’t raining, none of which were convincing. Her manager had received complaints from other employees about her “foul mouth.” She had been suspended two times for tardiness in two successive months, received a final warning, and just been handed a letter of termination.

When we asked her in a joint session with her manager to respond, she indicated that her last evaluation gave her high marks in quality and a higher than acceptable rating in quantity of work. She said she had become addicted to drugs, but had not wanted to tell her manager. We took a risk and asked her to talk about her addiction and how it had affected her performance and relationships. She said she felt constantly out of control and that she was “going crazy.” She said it felt like “going downhill without any brakes.” She could not plan or be anywhere on time and often felt suicidal. She became obsessive about unimportant insults or slights at work and, as a result, felt herself falling apart. She described feeling out of control and recovering through therapy, which was helping her immensely. She had recently returned to night school and graduated in the top l0% of her class. She felt much better now and capable of handling her work assignments.

Her manager had been unaware of her drug addiction and personal efforts at recovery. While her answers were honest and personally moving, her manager was not convinced she could perform according to company standards. We asked what he would need as a commitment from her in order to give her a second chance. After lengthy consideration, he said that he would consider reinstating her if she would agree to meet all her job requirements including work performance, attitude, foul language, attendance and punctuality for a period of three months during which she would be on probation with a final warning in her file.

We asked her whether she wanted her job, and she said she did. We asked her to take a big risk and tell her manager what she was willing to do to win back his trust. She told him she was willing to meet all the company’s standards for the three months he required and that to prove she meant what she was saying, she was willing to extend her probationary time to six months, because she knew that she had to earn his respect in order to recover Her manager was overwhelmed on hearing her answer. He said he now believed she would succeed and wanted to support her in being successful. A year later we spoke to him, and he told us she had not had a single complaint about her work. She had been on time every day, was getting along well with her co-workers and had become a model employee.

The Importance of Attitude

The deciding factor in nearly every conflict resolution is the attitude, spirit, intention and determination of at least one of the parties to resolve the conflict. Courageous listening, paradoxical problem solving, supportive confrontation, risky conflict resolution and the entire process of waking up fundamentally depend on attitude. Once there is a positive attitude and commitment to waking up, it becomes possible to shift traditional responses to mistakes, problems and conflicts and develop higher levels of unity, more effective solutions, better communication and improved relationships.

Constructive collaboration flows naturally from an attitude which regards conflicts as opportunities for learning and change. Conflicting employees discover that they can easily let go of their resistance to dialogue and honest feedback and perceive that more can be gained through collaboration than through unresolved conflict. Once people decide they want to resolve their conflicts, the rest is easy. The conflict suddenly seems unimportant, or a minor difficulty to overcome, or a challenge to address collaboratively.

Risky conflict resolution can also have an impact on a wide range of relationships and communications in otherwise hierarchical, bureaucratic and authoritarian organizations. Waking people up and resolving their conflicts invites people to significantly alter their attitudes toward each other. It encourages them to:

  • See conflict as positive and an opportunity for growth and change, rather than as a threat;
  • Acknowledge subjectivity and emotions rather than deny them and rely exclusively on objectivity to resolve disputes;
  • Listen and engage in dialogue rather than dictate or argue;
  • Respond to others perceptions rather than flatly deny them or become defensive;
  • Value diversity rather than homogeneity;
  • Assume equality rather than superiority and inferiority;
  • Search for mutual gain rather than unilateral victory and defeat;
  • Work through problems rather than mandate solutions;
  • Empower others rather than search for control or take advantage of powerlessness;
  • Affirm multiple truths and diverse perspectives rather than single, unitary Truths, and not label disagreements as heresy;
  • Continue striving for consensus rather than assume that zero-sum games are the only ones possible;
  • Search for long-range solutions rather than temporary ones;
  • Affirm cooperation as primary over competition;
  • Work for closure and reconciliation rather than support continued hostility.

The true risk of conflict resolution lies not in risking resolution, but overcoming the fear of telling the truth, changing our attitudes, and seeking common ground with our opponents. In the final analysis, conflict can be seen to consist of complimentary yet mutually opposing attitudes toward issues that are shared and important to both sides. In this sense, conflict is simply a set of lessons waiting to be learned — not only for individuals, but organizations as well. When employees wake up and change their attitudes, organizations will inevitably follow suit. Waking up finally requires organizations to shift from hierarchical, bureaucratic and autocratic systems and structures and adopt flattened, self-managing democratic alternatives. These automatically wake people up by encouraging participation and collaboration and cultivating awareness, authenticity, congruence and commitment at work.


Joan Goldsmith

Joan Goldsmith has been an organizational consultant, coach and educator for the past thirty-five years, specializing in leadership development, organizational change, conflict resolution, and team building. Joan has authored several books on leadership including (with Warren Bennis) Learning to Lead, and the soon to be published Women Leaders at the… MORE >


Kenneth Cloke

Kenneth Cloke is Director of the Center for Dispute Resolution and a mediator, arbitrator, consultant and trainer, specializing in resolving complex multi-party conflicts internationally and in designing conflict resolution systems for organizations. Ken is a nationally recognized speaker and leader in the field of conflict resolution, and a published author… MORE >

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