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The Art of Jackson Pollack and the Artistry of John Haynes: Harnessing the Natural Energy of Conflict on the Mediation Canvas

Few who had the opportunity to observe John Haynes mediate disputes would deny his artistry.  His elegant presence, accented by bow tie and British accent, and framed by graceful hand motions, were suggestive of a shaman drawing evil spirits out of tortured souls.  He died in 1999 but we would do well to summon as much of his stage presence as we can through in his books and video tapes.  John had a sense of timing worthy of the best Shakespearean actor. And like all great actors of the theatre, he was able to draw from the other cast members of the drama at hand—the parties—their best performances. He knew how to reach behind a person’s defensive posturing and release the closeted fears that stiffened their words and made their lines sound hackneyed and wooden.   He would be the first to admit that he was playing a role, and saw nothing disingenuous about that.  For, there was never a question of his authentic compassion for and tenacious dedication to the people enmired in a dispute.

Haynes exhibited a rare genius as a conflict mediator.  Not uncommon in the face of genius—be they great surgeons, trial lawyers, scientists, artists or mediators—they rely as much on hunches borne of their intuition and tacit knowing as they do on their careful preparation and disciplined study.  And, not unlike other geniuses, when asked to explain I found that he could not clearly articulate why or how he had chosen to follow a particular tact.  I suspect he would say that it merely felt right.  What is clear is that he offered-up a vision of artistry that pushes our notions of practice well beyond the bounds of mere technical competency and remains worthy of study for any hints.   As the practice of mediation becomes more formalized and common and is subjected to the inevitable and inexorable forces of institutionalization, there is a real risk that the artistry Haynes personified will be lost.    

True artists, from whatever discipline, seem to share as much or more in common with each other than they do with others in their immediate field. Many practitioners can be competent and proficient practitioners and even reach a level of excellence.  The art has more to do with tapping into an intuitive power source available only to a gifted few,  that is not wholly removed from substantive expertise, but not tightly tethered to it either.   As often as not, they draw fresh perspectives and inspiration from outside their particular discipline and refuse to be constrained by settled expectations.  Not surprisingly, John Haynes work bears close resemblance to that of another creative icon of the 2Oth century, the painter Jackson Pollock.

Pollock, the brilliant abstract artist of the mid-twentieth century.  is probably best known for his seemingly haphazard ‘drip paintings’.  They were initially ridiculed and the artist dismissed with the abrupt moniker of “Jack the Dripper.”  But Pollock pushed back, insisting that “(m)y rhythms are concerned with nature.”   Some 50 years later, scientific analysis by some physicists have concluded that Pollock’s drip paintings did in fact accurately depict yet to be discovered fractals—irregular geometric patterns that turn up in clouds, waves, lightening, coastlines, trees and even the human body. Pollock, of course, had no inkling that he his natural painting motions emulated the fractal patterns that would foreshadow quantum and chaos theory, but his art did tap into the natural flow of energy.   (Richard P. Taylor, The Oregonian,  “Science and Spontaneity”, Richard L. Hill, p. B1, March 7, 2001) 

Haynes’ work followed a similar course.   In the early years, mediation was dismissed as a passing new-age fad.   Some 25 years later, it has been formally incorporated with the court structures of most states, and recognized as a vital part of the legal system by those who were once it’s most severe critics.    Haynes, like Pollack, devised a process that harnessed the natural rhythm of conflict, removing some of the stifling restraint of the formal legal system.   In later years, he and others would express concern that the institutionalization of mediation risked compromising the quality of the process, but the essential value remains undisputed.  The abstract painting of Jackson Pollack is still derided by some as little more than thoughtless chaos; likewise the core notion of mediation, that people can best decide for themselves how to arrange their affairs,  is still threatening to many.  

As artists, Haynes and Pollack were also alike in that neither was a theorist and both had trouble explaining what they were doing or why.     While Haynes describes techniques and suggested strategies in his many books, his work did not delve into abstract discourses about his approach, or draw heavily from theory.  Both were the epitome of an intuitive practitioners; they operated by “tacit knowing”, sensing how and when to intervene on their canvases of choice as opposed to acting by rote prescription.    But even if he neither could articulate or describe was they were doing, Pollock visually displayed natural energy and Haynes, like few other practitioners before or since,  displayed a natural affinity to manage conflict.   It is only from such demonstrations that good theory can be effectively drawn.  

Just as artists study human models to grasp human form, musculature and expression, mediation theorists should study Haynes’ approach.  His style reveals one of the most well-developed and purest samplings of mediation practice and principles to be found.  He combined a highly developed intuitive sense with a clear analytical structure, all of which was enwrapped in a passionate commitment to the belief that people in conflict must be respected and given every opportunity to make their own decisions.

John harnessed and constructively re-directed the energy of the conflict.  He did not give rules or try to suppress or avoid their anger or frustration or, as is common, try to  “separate the people from the problem” as he did respect the peoples’ emotional state as he worked the problem.   That allowed him to subtly shape the direction of the discussion.   He had considerable power and authority as a mediator, none of which paradoxically it was derived from any external source—a court, judge or any other agency—but wholly from the parties.  His authority of was of the most powerful sort, granted voluntarily.  Haynes, a Quaker, understood a basic Zen concept:  more power comes from having directly garnered the personal respect of others, than can be demanded by a thousand court orders.    His most powerful technique was the use of his own vulnerability.   He never assumed he could or should attempt to persuade, cajole, or otherwise convince anyone of anything; therein was the source of his effectiveness.  He understood in his bones the essence of the paradoxical injunction that governs much of the energy of conflict: it is only when people are free to do what they say they must, that they can decide to do otherwise.  No amount of logic will deter them.  Haynes’ drew his effective power as a mediator from the parties’ ever present right to walk out.

Haynes displayed an authenticity that is becoming more rare as mediation becomes more common.  Too often, it seems, mediators’ think backwards and assume they are doing people a favor by helping them settle their dispute.  Haynes viscerally understood that people showed him the greatest honor by allowing him to enter their conflict—their most intimate space, their emotional bedroom.   Even his preparation for a mediation session was more attuned to  managing the natural energy of the conflict;  he was less concerned about rationally analyzing the dispute than he was about centering himself.   He talked of  ‘clearing his own mind’ before each session, years before ‘mindfulness’ came into vogue.  He felt the responsibility, before entering other peoples’ conflicts, to become aware of his own biases and preconceived beliefs about the dispute.  His ideology was less lofty than transforming the people and more practical than directing an outcome.  He just wanted to help them survive and come to an understanding they could live with.

25 September 2003


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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