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Style Wars And Other Little Hypocrisies

At first glance, writing poetry would appear to be the most pacific forms of human activity. Of the aesthetic arts, the precise design of word arrangement seems the most removed and unaffected by crass commercialism and least contaminated by the impurities of practical business necessity. Thus, poets, one would think, can generally escape the crazy-making pursuit of power and prestige since only a handful of people read poetry anyway, let alone buy books and few poets are naïve enough to expect to get rich in their chosen art form. Of course, the practice of poetry is not conflict free; there is the intra-psychic conflicts that sting the poets’ genius and have tortured the souls of many of the greats like Yeats, Dickinson, Plath or Cummings—but nothing visibly apparent. Anyway, their anguish as human beings did little but add to the mystique of the enterprise.

For one accustomed to this elegant view of poetry as a private moment to see into the heart of our human endeavors, imagine the jarring dislocation of the modern concoction of the ‘poetry slam’. All decorum is abandoned in a flagrant, violent contest of wits between competing poets. Their words and phrases are hurled at one another like trained fighting dogs. Dickinson’s reflective tone in her poem: “Much madness is divinest sense…To a discerning eye; Much sense the starkest madness.”, are supplanted in a slam contest by the unedited raw passion of shrill, screamed lines, such as, “…his eyes still open… attacked each other….in a head cracked open…on the jagged, protruding edges of a concrete sidewalk…that long ago ceased to lead anywhere…”

Although perhaps not yet welcomed or invited into established poetry society, there is little doubt that these poets of the ‘poetry slam’ ilk have shaken things up. Whether carefully constructed façade, or desired perception, the notion of poetry as a peaceful, contemplative pursuit has been shaken if not shattered. Perhaps, for the better. Perhaps poetry had been for too long straight jacketed by tradition and with these slams has regained a sense of relevance, vitality and visibility.

Curiously, not unlike poetry, those of us in the field of mediation and conflict management have perhaps constructed a façade and allowed the perception that our work is about the cooperative, trusting, reasoned and thoughtful pursuit of the peaceful resolution of conflict. While not wholly inaccurate, there is an implicit suggestion that to consider mediation, all parties must be trusting, cooperative and reasonable. Mediators have been sidelined and perhaps marginalized themselves from dealing with the raw, angry passions of serious conflicts. We frequently talk about the kinds of cases that are not susceptible to mediation; matters where there is family violence or child abuse, ‘school bullies’, and all manner of perceived ‘power imbalances’. We have severely limited our available market and undermined our relevance in the societal discussions of how we manage conflicts and violence.

More troubling is that we as professional mediators have come to believe our own hype to such a degree that we take every opportunity to suppress and cover-up our own conflicts. Mediators appear to be notoriously bad at dealing with own personal and professional disputes. One would think that the same honed practice skills made available to clients could be easily be applied to the deft handling of our own issues and differences. But not so. We have few open and visible forums for the discussion of difficult issues. Conflict mediators seem to prefer to engage in passive-aggressive ‘cold wars’, that go on in the corners, the hallways outside the conference sessions, and just under the surface of many important discussions, but unacknowledged openly.

There are a number of examples. There are the jealousies between sections and practice contexts. There remain antagonisms between mediators of varying professions of origin; many mediators who are attorneys have concocted an approach that looks more like a settlement conference and challenge the expertise of those who are not attorneys to practice. Collaborative law looks very much like an effort by attorneys to co-opt the practice skills of mediation and hold disputes within the legal frame. Certainly the battle between evaluative and facilitative approaches to mediation continue to seethe under the surface but are seldom discussed openly. And then there are the ‘transformative’ mediators who have all but created their own organization to distinguish themselves from other mediators.

Our failure to openly grapple with professional conflicts encourages groups to fractionate themselves into insular colonies and in some instances, coalesce into cult-like groupings. Consider how mediators who have adopted the ‘transformative’ model have moved in the past 5 years or so from a valid criticism of the field as being too preoccupied with outcome, to a distinct and separate sect that seeks to stamp it’s brand name on how mediation is done, and to challenge the competence, if not outright preclude from practice under their banner, mediators who do not adhere solely to the ‘empowerment and recognition’ model. They did not seek intellectual scrutiny or discourse, and in fact, cried foul when criticism was raised, and the rest of us acquiesced. The practice of ‘collaborative law’ is being offered the same free pass and exception from close scrutiny.

We need to create a version of the ‘poetry slam’ for the mediation and conflict management field. There needs to be a means to deal with the raw passions of difficult discussions that need to be held within our profession. The intellectual life and professional vitality of our field hangs in the balance. There should be no objection to differences in approach to practice, there should be louder objection that we are so preoccupied with keeping the peace that we fail to hold ourselves to a standard of intellectual rigor and bring these important discussions out of the shadows and subject points of view to scrutiny, engage in dialogues, and yes, sometimes even heated argument.

Many of us adopt a style or approach to mediation quite by chance, doing what’s familiar or following the lead of a particular ideology or trainer. From there flows the tendency to demonize other styles or worse, engage in personal attacks. I remain unclear why mediators, who arguably, should understand the dynamics of conflict, are so willing to escalate the conflict. (In formerly serving on the Ethics Committees of the Academy of Family Mediators and the Society of Professionals in Dispute Resolution, I was fascinated with the number of mediators, when given the opportunity in the grievance process, who were unwilling to mediate.) Of course, we are human and subject to the same foibles as others, but our training appears to offer little protection.

I openly admit this is a biased, opinionated column that need not be read, or hopefully read and strongly agreed or disagreed with. My stated intention is to encourage discussion. I have, however, been troubled by the number of letters to me personally and to the editor that have been personal attacks. That is curious. If we do our work well as mediators, we ask clients hard questions, why won’t we ask them of ourselves? I have concerns about lawyers who appear to want to legalize mediation beyond recognition, mediators more intent on being spiritual guides than engaged third parties, and mediators so preoccupied with party self determination that they offer little useful leadership. Along with others, those discussions are likely to be difficult but necessary, but with our skills should be manageable without personal attack.

Mediators—those folks that purport to help other people manage conflict—like to present themselves as open minded, tolerant and thoughtful people. Prospective mediators come to trainings armed with a career counselor’s recommendation, often bolstered by the results of their Meyers-Briggs test, that certifies they are caring human beings and good listeners. Not wholly a lie, but not the truth either—-just like any myth, a story we need to tell ourselves and believe to make sense of our world. Scratch any mediator, and just under the surface you will find an ego-centric, voyeuristic, and competitive human being, who wants their style and approach to be vindicated and acknowledged as the best. We publicly make supercilious statements like, “each person has their own style that works for them”, while at the same time feeling in our gut that what we do is right and what they do is…well…not so right. This is the source of our confidence and can be the cause of our downfall. These are the little hypocrisies that are part of being human, but left unchallenged, can fester and infect not only our personal and professional growth, but the health of the field. I propose a ‘mediation slam’. It is time to catch up with the poets.


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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