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Spirit in Life and Practice: An Interview with Kenneth Cloke

Kenneth Cloke, J.D., Ph.D., L.L.M., is Director of the Center for Dispute Resolution, a nationally acclaimed author of journal articles and several books. His book The Crossroads of Conflict: A Journey Into the Heart Of Dispute Resolution, is excerpted in several parts including this one beginning here.


From Lawyer to Lawyer Mediator

Gini: Good morning, Ken. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts recognized speaker and leader in the field of conflict resolution, and a published author of many and experiences with us. What attracted you to the field of conflict management in the first place?

Ken: I have found it useful to distinguish between conflict management and conflict resolution, and have always tried to bring about complete and lasting resolutions in which people learn from their conflicts, rather than merely moderate them. I came to conflict resolution as a result of several confluent, crisscrossing events. During the 1960’s and early 1970’s, I worked to increase conflict as an active participant in civil rights, civil liberties, and anti-war movements, but found myself unable to avoid the consequent “backlash,” and the failure of resolution and learning as political adversaries became unable or unwilling to engage in open and honest dialogue. By 1980, I was working as an Administrative Law Judge for the California Public Employment Relations Board and assigned to settle unfair labor practice claims, which offered such a relief from the precise, narrow categories of juridical reasoning and arguments over legal entitlement. Through mediation, I was able to help people learn how to talk to each other and solve their problems collaboratively without my having to decide the issues for them. I found not only that I loved the emotional engagement of mediation, but that its outcomes and processes revealed a truer form of justice than I had experienced in the law. At the same time, I was going through a horrid divorce and knew there had to be a better way for couples to separate without injuring their children and each other. Independently, I was selected as the first judge on People’s Court, and fired when, without realizing it, I mediated the pilot case. By happenstance, the Neighborhood Justice Center was conducting one of its first trainings in Los Angeles, and within the first five minutes I was hooked.

A Personal Career Path

G: If you knew earlier what you know now, would you still have pursued the same career path?

K: Absolutely, only a lot sooner – though I learned a great deal that was useful from all these earlier experiences.

G: What is the best advice that you have been given? And what advice would you give a budding conflict specialist?

K: The best advice I was given was to “trust the process.” The advice I would offer is to recognize that everything the parties do or experience in conflict already exists inside you, along with everything they need to know, feel, and learn to resolve their disputes. Therefore, you are the technique, and your capacity for empathy, awareness, and calming presence will resonate inside them, eliciting qualitatively different outcomes. To paraphrase Gandhi, we need to be the resolution we want to mediate in the world.

Conflict Resolution Heroes

G: Do you have a “conflict resolution hero,” and if so, who and why?

K: My principal heroes are my conflict resolution colleagues, and the courageous people who struggle to overcome their conflicts and become better human beings to each other.

The Biggest Questions

G: What do you think are the big questions to be answered next in the conflict management field?

K: The frontiers, as I see them, are both internal and external. The internal frontiers include a deeper understanding of the neurophysiology of conflict and how to respond to it (reading Antonio Damasio’s Looking for Spinoza is a good start) and exploring the ability to explore caring (heart) and energy (spirit) as sources of deep understanding, powerful techniques, and fresh approaches to resolution. The external frontiers include coming to terms with the systemic sources of conflict, especially their chronic social, economic, and political causes; taking responsibility for helping to resolve international disputes through the United Nations; developing a program I call “Mediators without Borders;” and applying conflict resolution systems design principles – not only to organizational disputes, but to social and political institutions on all scales. It is becoming increasingly clear that we will not survive long as a species, or an ecosystem, unless we learn how to communicate, solve problems, negotiate, and resolve our conflicts peacefully across cultural, religious, and national boundaries, without resorting to enmity and warfare.

G: What is the major ethical issue facing the conflict management field?

K: For me, there are two: First, how and at what point do we become complicit in the conduct of wars, social inequities, corrupt organizational practices, and even small-scale relational behaviors that promote conflict and undermine resolution, and what do we do in response? Second, the more skillful we become, the easier it is to be confused about the line separating ourselves from others, requiring us to consider how we can maintain humility and avoid manipulating people into doing what we think they should do to meet our need to be “successful” or right.

Thrills and Spills

G: What has been your biggest thrill in being a conflict specialist?

K: I’m not sure about the word “specialist,” but the greatest thrill I experience is the sudden transition into forgiveness, reconciliation, and redemption, and the re-opening of people’s hearts.

G: What was your biggest mistake?

K: Every important lesson I have learned has been the result of a mistake. I think the biggest mistakes have been not listening closely to what was transpiring beneath the surface of the conflict, not trusting my own inner voice, and not being honest when it was emotionally dangerous for me to do so.

G: Any regrets?

K: That I am an imperfect instrument in a process that is immensely subtle, yet powerful; profound, yet extraordinarily beautiful.

G: Thank you, Ken.


Gini Nelson

Gini Nelson is a sole practitioner in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her practice emphasizes private dispute resolution, including distance dispute resolution, and domestic, bankruptcy and bankruptcy avoidance law. MORE >

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