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The Art of Conversation and The Future of Mediation

I think I began writing this article well before being asked to submit something on the “future of mediation,” having had an enlightening conversation with a woman I met at a conference about extremism and violence against women. The woman, Dr. Fawziah Al Bakr, happened to be from Saudi Arabia and we got together for dinner a month after the conference, coincidently on the night of the Charlie Hebdo violence in France. The topic of violence and religion therefore was unavoidable, but many times since that evening I have thought wistfully, “I wish others could have this conversation.” Indeed, I wish thousands upon thousands of humans could have insightful dialogues with people they hardly know, ask what I described then as “stupid” questions, and learn about different cultures, races and religions.

Although I am pretty good at envisioning the future — I started my own law practice just out of law school, helped write ground breaking domestic violence legislation, litigated precedent setting cases and started an alternative mediation service for lesbian and gay clients in the 70’s — I don’t really have any grandiose images of the future of mediation. Rather, I have some cautionary tales and a few suggestions for how we might impact the future and avoid the pitfalls of insularity.

Most commentators on mediation dwell on the ways in which the profession needs to be regulated to insure that mediation is conducted according to certain uniform standards. Others focus on spiritual attributes of a world able to negotiate conflict without resort to violence – mediator as transformative guru, soothing the waves of hostilities between parties. Both approaches are useful, but I’d like to suggest an altogether different avenue of analysis: to what extent can mediators provide leadership to communities that will increase peaceful dialogue on multiple societal levels?  In other words, how can we scale up the experience of mediation so that the skills we teach/employ in our individual sessions can be used for the greater good? How do we take the individual dialogues that many people have with each other under “normal” circumstances (like the one I had with Dr. Al Bakr) and expand the circle of conversation so that big social issues can be addressed?

Mediation in its simplest form is, after all, a facilitated conversation between two people/opposing sides or many people, in the case of public dialogues.  What brings people to mediation is that they have a conflict that they wish to resolve and don’t feel able to have that conversation alone or among themselves. It occurs to me then, that the growth of mediation – un- regulated or not – indicates a much deeper need for social connection that is not met by other forms of dispute resolution. Currently we look at mediation as a means to resolve conflict or avoid litigation. Perhaps we should begin to look at mediation (and mediators) as a means to encourage dialogue between people, as a means to encourage people to learn the skills necessary to have decent social conversations with each other. This is particularly true of conversations that take place in public spaces, whether on social media or at more traditional public forums. (As a former public official, I have sat through more than one high pitched accusatory public “conversation” where little was accomplished.)

With the advent of social media, the world seems as though it is becoming smaller, bringing together many diverse cultures. I can continue to have conversations with my Saudi Arabian friend over the internet; I can also learn what is going on instantly in far-away places, experience both the joys and horrors of events thousands of miles away from me and raise money for good causes. The flip side is that non-email conversations on-line often reflect nastiness, crude language, and one-upmanship. Thoughtful posts frequently include follow up diatribes by someone enraged by something someone else has said, context and nuance totally missing from the string of words thrust into the mix. Smartphones can take pictures, send emoticons, receive texts in a garbled alphabet and find the nearest restaurant. But can they touch another person’s soul? Can they tame someone’s anger or lift up someone’s despair in a reassuring voice? Like many others, I worry that our children are learning to navigate technology exceedingly well but aren’t learning social skills that enable them to engage in the art of conversation. We see this every day in the news as simple conflicts between two human beings escalate into tragic killings, as evidenced by the recent murder of three Muslim students in North Carolina.

I think that long term, if mediation is going to progress and not become just another “tool” in the conflict resolution kit, then it must grow back to basics – namely, how do we teach people to have civil conversations with each other? How do we put ourselves out of business by sharing our skills with the average citizen so that they too are able to resolve conflict on their own without the intervention of other costly systems? In many ways, mediation has begun to resemble the legal system it sought to replace — it is costly and mostly available to white middle-class participants. It has a language and procedures of its own. It is practiced mostly by white, middle/upper class educated people. (Look around the room at the next ADR conference you attend. Who is present? How and when is diversity and inclusion addressed?) We have to stop looking at mediation as something separate from ourselves, an esoteric science of skills that only the anointed few can learn.

There are three areas where I think we as mediator/leader can have an impact on the future. First, we need to look for ways to bring more school children into the “mediation as dialogue” fold. Individually we need to take a more active part in creating curriculums in schools that teach people from a young age how to talk with one another so that they can resolve conflict on their own, especially given the trends driven by technology. Second, we need to look for ways to increase actual public dialogues within communities and in government so that our energies are directed toward solving real problems, not competitive word battles for attention. As a corollary to this, I think we need to look at how diplomats are trained. (I often wonder when reading newspaper accounts of so and so flying off to some other country to negotiate with his or her counterpart and the negotiations fail, to what extent his or her training has involved conflict resolution skills.)

Second, we need to increase the pool of mediators who are from other cultures, races, creeds, classes and education, looking at diversity not just as “having people who look different sitting next to each other” (although that helps) but “redefining diversity” itself.  Professor Lani Giuiner, put it succinctly in an interview about diversity recently stating that “groups made up of the highest-performing individuals are not as good at solving complex multidimensional  problems — like designing environmental policies, cracking codes or creating social welfare systems— as groups with a mix of skills, backgrounds and ways of thinking…” In the article she was referring to the use of testing to gauge competence and how elites (the high performers) benefit from such tests throughout their lives but tend to have similar perspectives.

Third, we need to encourage the development of community mediation models for use in other countries. As mediation begins to unfold internationally, many countries are following models of lawyer-turned-mediator, instituting strict controls for how and by whom mediation can be performed. In Greece, for example, only lawyers could be mediators until just recently; fees, certification and training are still heavily regulated by the government. By restricting who can mediate and under what circumstances, we decrease the available pool of candidates whose skills and talents can actually increase vibrancy. Keeping the field open to all and financially accessible locally is another way to insure wider inclusion and innovation.

The morning after my encounter with Dr. Al Bakr, she reminded me via e-mail of the “wonderful conversation” we had that “will help solve the world’s problems.” In the very next e-mail I read the headlines that the French had “declared war on radical Islam,” similar to the response to the 9/11 attacks here in the United States. No doubt, radical jihadists need to be confronted forcefully, but I wonder if the answer to the world’s problems is more war talk. Maybe what we need is more “peace talk” between thoughtful people able to ask “stupid questions.”  

Since the bombing in France there have been other incidents, including horrific violence in Nigeria where 2,000 souls have perished at the hands of Boko Haram, the Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badawi flogged for daring to speak his mind about the country’s conservatism, American journalists beheaded, a Jordanian pilot was burned alive and millions of people continually displaced by war and violence. Social media is awash in opinions about whom and what is to blame. The discourse is sometimes useful, even cathartic, but I am anxious to hear from the “wise people” who have solutions for fixing the underlying problems, not just the vengeful responses that many of us feel when attacked.

The future of mediation lies in how we will have meaningful conversations, both large and small, that will deepen our understanding of each other. Ultimately, we need to bring back the art of conversation so we can hear the “wise people” among us leading the way for future generations to engage in creative problem solving.


Katherine Triantafillou

Katherine Triantafillou is a lawyer/mediator in Boston and Edgartown, Massachusetts, diversity trainer and volunteer with Mediators Beyond Borders International Dialogue Process Project. MORE >

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