“There are two classes of people who tell what is going to happen in the future: those who don’t know and those who don’t know they don’t know.”
John Kenneth Galbraith
“In a revolution, as in a novel, the most difficult part to invent is the end.”
Alexis de Tocqueville
“If we think of the world’s future, we always mean where it will be if it keeps going as we see it going now and it doesn’t occur to us that it is not going in a straight line but in a curve, constantly changing direction.”
“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope. And crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.
We create our own future, but not entirely as we choose. Our freedom to create the future we want, as Hegel recognized, is proportional to our “recognition of necessity,” or in the case of mediation, to our understanding of the nature, or “laws” of conflict and resolution. In this sense, we can describe the future of mediation as mediated or negotiated, in part by our vision, values, attitudes, intentions and actions; and in part by the natural and historical conditions in which we live, imagine and act.
For these reasons, it is impossible to bring about a future for which the preconditions have yet to appear. There could not, for example, have been an African-American President of the United States before there had been a civil rights movement. Nor can we begin to imagine a future for mediation until we have practiced and experienced it over an extended period of time.
Trying to imagine a future that lies beyond what is possible, either naturally or temporally, or a future for which there is no adequate infrastructure, leads easily into utopianism and fantasy. While Lamartine was certainly correct that “utopias are often only premature truths,” and while even fantasies can reveal hidden possibilities, any actual future requires us to link the kind of future we want to have with the kind that is possible, based on our experience and understanding of conflict and the resolution process.
My Experience and Understanding of Conflict and Resolution
My sense of the future of mediation is grounded in my experience, over the last thirty-five years, mediating thousands of disputes, both locally and internationally, from divorce, marital and family disputes to complex organizational and governmental facilitations, public policy, educational and environmental disputes, workplace and collective bargaining conflicts including discrimination and sexual harassment, highly contested litigated cases, victim-offender and restorative justice issues, neighborhood quarrels, antagonisms between ethnic minorities and many others.
In this, I am not unique, but share these experiences with many colleagues, and with increasing numbers of highly skilled and experienced dispute resolvers – not just in the US, but around the world, each of us discovering something different about its characteristics, and rarely integrating or synthesizing what they have in common. These different experiences lead us to imagine different futures, and Mediate.com is to be congratulated for opening a dialogue that allows us to learn from each other’s visions.
For myself, out of these diverse, continually amazing, profoundly moving experiences, I have come to a number of interconnected realizations about conflict that have guided my practice, including a number of very simple, yet widely ignored, profound, far-reaching and consequential ideas that shape my sense of what the future of mediation might look like. Here is a list of my top ten ideas about conflict and resolution:
Each of these points can be elaborated into proposals for future development and a design for future expansion and growth, but considered together, they point in a unique direction, toward what I call a “conflict revolution,” in which mediative principles and interest-based, systems design methods are applied to all conflicts globally, not just those that take place inside us or interpersonally, and especially those that transpire in social, economic and political settings.
Constructing a Logical Chain
To approach the problem of the future of mediation and its potential extended application to a full range of social, economic and political conflicts somewhat more rigorously, we need to construct a logical chain that begins with first principles. Here are a few essential elements, I believe, in constructing that logic:
First, every conflict takes place not only between individuals, but in a context, culture, and environment; surrounded by social, economic and political forces; inside a family, neighborhood, group or organization; impacted by systems and structures; within a diverse community of people; at a particular moment in time and history, in a specific location in space and geography; on a stage; against a backdrop; in a setting or milieu.
Second, none of these elements is conflict-neutral. Each contributes, often in veiled and unspoken yet profound ways, to the nature, intensity, duration, impact and meaning of our conflicts, which follows a geodesic across the curved, internal space of caring. And each, depending on circumstances, can play a determining role in the success of the conversations, processes, interventions and methods we use to prevent, resolve, transform and transcend them.
Third, almost any complex social, economic or political issue can trigger and aggravate individual and interpersonal conflicts. Indeed, social dysfunctions, economic disparities and political incongruities are nearly always experienced as personalconflicts, leaving the systems that regularly reproduce them in the shadows, unnoticed and unresolved.
Fourth, most social, economic and political systems, by reason of their internal antagonisms, embattled histories and win/lose orientations, generate repeated, chronic conflicts, and with them, cultures of conflict avoidance or aggression. These contribute to the rise of a set of adversarial attitudes and defensive behaviors regarding common social, economic and political problems that limit the ability of individuals, families, organizations and nation states to work collaboratively and democratically, even in small ways, to resolve and transform their differences, or to prevent and transcend them.
Fifth, every conflict possesses elements and characteristics that are fractally organized, or self-similar on all scales, so that common sets of attitudes, emotions, ideas and behaviors connect what appear to be purely internal conflicts with those that regularly occur in relationships, families, communities, organizations, societies, economies and polities, and are valid both for children on playgrounds and the heads of nation-states. This self-similarity on all scales allows us to identify ways of adapting techniques that have proven effective in resolving disputes on one level to those on an entirely different level.
Sixth, nearly all conflicts, no matter how petty or personal, possess veiled social, economic and political elements that inform their evolution and eventual outcome. These include, for example, social stereotyping, discrimination and prejudice, which are reflected in our attitudes toward our opponents; economic selfishness, callousness and greed, which are reflected in our unwillingness to compromise or collaborate over financial issues; and political hierarchy, bureaucracy and autocracy, which are reflected in the divisive ways we make decisions, even in the smallest conflicts.
Even in entirely interpersonal conflicts within marriages and families, it is apparent that people can respond negatively to social, economic or political differences, develop biases and stereotypes regarding each other, interact based on unspoken social assumptions and expectations, and be negatively influenced by differences in status, wealth and power. Thus, they may quarrel over social expectations, compete for scarce resources or disagree over the way decisions are made. They may support or resist future changes, celebrate or denigrate their prior history, critique or defend the status quo, behave bureaucratically or anarchically regarding rules, and exercise whatever power they may have democratically or autocratically. Each of these potential sources of individual and interpersonal discord conceals what can be regarded as a subtle social, economic or political element that leaves their conflict less open to resolution, and can shift it either in the direction of impasse and chronic repetition, or of resolution and prevention.
Seventh, except when social, economic and political issues are explicitly addressed in conflict conversations, it is rare that these contextual and systemic elements are openly identified, acknowledged, discussed or resolved, either by the parties or by their mediators. Instead, they linger in the background, generating distortions and misunderstandings that merely make matters worse; or they remain hidden, and as a result, become blockages and sources of resistance that appear intractable because we do not know how to address them skillfully.
Yet when these same hidden aspects of conflict are identified, analyzed and addressed, they can be transformed into fertile sources of technique for preventing future disputes, reaching successful resolutions, transforming communications and relationships, and transcending chronic conflicts at their social, economic and political sources through learning, collaborative design and systemic improvement. As a result, nearly all such conflicts can initiate revolutionary changes in individuals, families, organizations and institutions.
The consequences of this chain of reasoning are far-reaching and profound, as they lead directly to a consideration of how mediation might be dramatically expanded and applied — not merely to social, economic and political hostilities, which would itself be immensely significant and useful, but to the design of social, economic and political systems in ways that could make them far more effective in preventing and resolving conflicts than we have thought possible.
Some Limits to What is Possible
If we are to avoid merely fantasizing idly about what is possible, our next step should be to clarify the most obvious limits on what is possible to achieve. As individuals, groups and societies, we fight, evolve and make up, and do so universally and repeatedly. In order to gain insight into how we might do so better or more effectively in the future, we need to acknowledge the presence of a number of intrinsic constraints on our ability to alter our experience of conflict. Here is my top ten list of limits on our ability to imagine and design alternative futures for mediation:
The essence of these limitations begins not in the future, but in the present, where we are faced with great difficulties and challenges, and where our individual choices create openings and alternative futures.
Why Conflict is Necessary for Resolution
To elaborate these ideas further, it is important that we recognize the importance and value of conflict, and not automatically assume that they should be mitigated, settled or compromised. In addition, in order to fully understand any technique or use it effectively, it is necessary to probe its limits and push it to the point where it begins to break down, allowing us to discover, in its decomposition, something of its true nature.
Mediation is often presented as a cure-all, a snake oil to lubricate all social ills. While mediation and conflict resolution are nearly always beneficial, are there times when it is not? Under what circumstances might conflict actually be preferable to settlement, compromise, or partial, truncated resolution?
What, for example, of the attempted mediation in Munich by Chamberlain, in which Mussolini interestingly played the role of mediator, between Hitler’s Axis and the Allied powers? Was Czechoslovakia a suitable compromise? Who was and was not at the table when that decision was made? What would a full resolution of the conflict have looked like?
Or what about the many efforts to mediate growing conflicts over slavery before the US Civil War, all of which guaranteed the continued existence of slavery? What about conflicts over apartheid in South Africa prior to the release of Nelson Mandela? Is it possible that, in these circumstances, the only way to reach a full and genuine resolution of the conflict is by participating actively in promoting it? What, then, is the role of mediation? How do we know when, instead of resolution, we are actually guaranteeing the continuation of the conflict?
Or, on a more personal level, what would mediation before the event consist of between a murderer and an innocent intended victim? What of the rape victim, or the slum tenant who resides with rats, or the parents of a molested child? Is a “win-win” approach always possible, and what do we do if it isn’t? When does compromise become unacceptable and conflict preferable? When does neutrality mean siding with the powerful against the powerless?
In my own experience as an active participant in the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, both in the South and in the North, there were many occasions when confrontation became necessary and useful, for example, to draw public attention to injustice, or bring people to the negotiating table, or offer a voice and small sense of dignity to people who would otherwise be silenced. All of these, in hindsight, can be viewed as essential steps in securing deeper and more lasting resolutions.
Through these examples we can recognize that, not only for individuals, marriages, families, workplaces and other interpersonal relationships, but for nations, cultures and societies, there are times when conflict needs to be expressed in order to identify its chronic and systemic character, and thereby make genuine and complete resolution possible.
This is not to suggest that destructive conflicts ought to allowed to continue indefinitely without making strenuous efforts at resolution, or that peacemaking is not a fundamental goal, but that there are limits on the desirability of ending conflict prematurely, without discovering their hidden secrets or revealing their systemic bankruptcy, and that it is sometimes necessary to increase the level of conflict in order to resolve them completely.
If we broaden our definition of the role of the conflict resolver to include not merely stopping a conflict, but helping the parties effectively express it, opening it up and exposing its hidden nature, encouraging principled opposition to its chronic nature and long-term destructiveness, we may assist them in learning to fight more productively, intelligently and competently over their essential disagreements, and thereby learn to transcend them.
In the case of chronic social, economic and political conflicts, this requires us to design a better systems design process that prioritizes the use of interest-based methods, such as dialogue and collaborative problem solving, in which, as Fisher and Ury remind us, opposition is directed against the problem, rather than against the people.
Resolving Chronic, Systemic Conflicts
So what exactly are chronic conflicts? I believe they can be defined as those that individuals, families, neighbors, schools, organizations, cultures, societies, economies and nations:
Chronic conflicts can be distinguished in part by their high rates of repetition and low levels of resolution; by their tolerance for disrespectful and adversarial behaviors and seeming irrationality; by an incongruity between high levels of emotion and the apparent triviality of the issues over which people are fighting. They are commonly mistaken for accidental misunderstandings, interpersonal miscommunications and personality clashes, and while they appear to be based on idiosyncratic causes and circumstances, which characterize every conflict, their underlying similarities suggest that they are not substantively unique, but patterned responses to underlying systemic causes.
Over the course of centuries, we can identify a number of “meta-sources” of chronic social, economic and political conflict. Here again is my personal top ten list:
None of these are unavoidable or inexorable in human affairs. Each can be reduced, resolved and prevented once we understand its apparent necessity and underlying rationale. While there are others, these ten are rarely discussed in conflict resolution circles, partly because they are difficult to address, partly because the problems we are now facing globally require fresh solutions in each of these areas, and partly because a fundamental, far-reaching transformation in the ways we respond to conflict is actually possible in each of these areas, and in my view, within our power to promote.
By learning to prevent, resolve, transform and transcend conflicts in the relatively constrained context of interpersonal disputes, we can discern a larger truth: that it is possible to produce a higher social order than one that is based on domination and inequality; a higher economic order than one that is mired in greed and short-term advantage; and a higher political order than one that relies on power plays and petty personal attacks.
More profoundly, through mediation practice we are able to discover that we cannot fully comprehend conflict in general or completely overcome any particular dispute, no matter how trivial, without also addressing the sometimes subtle social (relational), economic (equitable) and political (power- or rights-based) influences that directly and indirectly shape the ways conflicted parties and their mediators understand their discord and respond to it.
As we develop more skillful and effective methods for resolving individual and interpersonal conflicts, we discover that, with a little tweaking, it is possible to apply them successfully to organizations and institutions, workplaces, schools and communities. From there, it is not difficult to imagine how we might apply similarly scaled-up, suitably modified methods to global social, economic and political conflicts.
Doing so will demand not only that we take a collaborative, non-violent and appreciative approach to dissent and diversity, and thus to conflict, by seeking out the systemic sources of chronic hostility and antagonism; but that we recognize that every conflict experience and opposing perspective contains some truth that can be reconfigured or reframed in ways that allow it to be understood by its opponents, and contribute to improved, synergistic solutions.
More profoundly and consequentially, it means that, on a large enough scale, with deep enough empathy and a clear enough understanding, we can move beyond “Us versus Them” based conflicts, simply by realizing, finally, that there is no “Them,” there is only “Us.” The “Them” we have created is only the flip-side of our pain and disappointment, our alienation from wholeness, and our loss of capacity for empathy.
These understandings encourage us to imagine how we might fundamentally redesign and revolutionize the systems, processes and relationships; the groups, institutions and organizations; the cultures, contexts and values; even the syntax, narratives and language we use to interact individually and interpersonally, but also socially, economically and politically, by shifting from adversarial power- and rights-based assumptions to collaborative interest-based ones.
An Algorithm for Systems Design Processes
When we consider systems design processes as a whole, regardless of whether they are used in public or private sector organizations or in families or couples, it is apparent that they follow certain rules or patterns and express a set of shared values, and it is possible for these rules, patterns and values to be expressed directly in the form of design criteria, or as an algorithm or procedure that works through a series of steps to produce a result.
Here are a few very simple, commonly recognized design criteria, values, principles, standards, or elements, expressed as an algorithm, that might be adapted, tweaked by the parties, and used to guide systems design processes, or evaluate existing resolution systems to see whether they can be improved. They are not intended to be fixed, final or mandatory, but suggestive of what is possible in redesigning social, economic and political institutions and cultures from an interest-based point of view:
In these ways, it is possible for mediators to significantly alter the course of chronic conflicts, not only in individuals, families, marriages, and couples, but in communities, organizations and nation states, by inviting people to speak to each other directly—not just about their recollections, facts and opinions, or even about their angers and fears—but also about their unspoken desires, their wishes to live in harmony, their needs for respect and dignity, their love for one another, and their wish to work together to solve the problems they care about most deeply.
It then becomes possible for mediators to design conflict resolution systems that genuinely turn conflicts into learning experiences and heartfelt opportunities for deeper and more satisfying relationships. Doing so takes considerable ingenuity and skill, but these are exactly the skills we need to keep relationships alive in any family, group or community, and worth practicing whatever effort it takes.
How Do We Know a Better Future is Possible?
If we want to imagine a future for mediation that builds on our experiences and acknowledges our limitations, it is also important to have a clear sense, not only that interest-based approaches are better than their power- and rights-based cousins, but exactly how and why they are better.
We can easily demonstate that conflict resolution in all its forms, which include informal problem solving, group facilitation, collaborative negotiation, public dialogue, prejudice reduction and similar techniques, have amply revealed, in countless conflicts over several decades, that there is a better outcome than winning and losing, a more successful process than accusing and blaming, and a deeper relationship than exercising power over and against others.
These better outcomes are achieved when both sides win and no one loses, when former adversaries participate in meaningful dialogue and reach satisfying agreements, and when power is exercised with and for others by jointly and creatively solving common problems. This is not wishful thinking or utopian idealism, but the regular and repeated result of applying interest-based conflict resolution techniques to a wide variety of disputes in diverse communities around the world.
The highest outcomes occur when people genuinely recognize that opportunities for improvement flow precisely from their differences; when they overcome defensiveness and selfishness to reach consensus and negotiate collaborative solutions; when they forgive each other and themselves; and when they open their hearts to each other, empathize with their opponents, learn from their conflicts, and seek to reconcile and repair their relationships.
These higher outcomes are deepened and made more lasting when they move beyond resolution and begin to collaboratively redesign the dysfunctional communications, processes and relationships; the contexts, cultures, systems and environments that created or aggravated their disputes; when they strengthen their conflict resolution skills; and when they jointly and proactively search for ways of preventing similar difficulties from arising in the future.
These higher order outcomes can be achieved not only by individuals, couples, families and next-door neighbors, but by completely diverse cultures, workplaces, schools and organizations; and most importantly for our future efforts, by entire societies, complex economies, nation-states; and global political institutions. This, I believe, is a real possibility for what our future could be, if we are able to act individually and together to imagine and create it. And, as Albert Camus recognized, “Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present.”
Our overall challenge, therefore, is to connect the microscopic, emotionally entangled quantum-like lessons we are able to derive and distill from resolving individual, interpersonal and organizational conflicts with the macroscopic, discrete, systemically relativistic-like lessons we are able to derive from a mediative understanding of the chronic sources of social, economic and political conflicts.
Doing so will allow us to identify a number of unique, creative solutions to global conflicts; initiate an innovative, revolutionary redesign of our social, economic and political communications, processes, relationships and cultures; and build intricate collaborative mechanisms into the processes, relationships and daily operations of our institutions and organizations, locally and globally.
It will also assist us in learning how to be more effective in preventing, resolving, transforming and transcending conflicts at their chronic, systemic sources, whether they be individual, interpersonal, couple and family conflicts; neighborhood, organizational and workplace disputes; social, economic and political disagreements; and an expanding number of global environmental skirmishes on which our survival increasingly depends.
The mere idea that conflict resolution principles could make our social institutions less adversarial, ameliorate the chronic sources of economic conflict, reduce the costs of competitive, adversarial political disputes, and encourage deeper, cheaper, longer lasting resolutions is reason enough for us to focus our energies and attention in this direction. More broadly, the ideas discussed here pose a number of unique and profound additional challenges and opportunities for those who wish to turn them to practical use.
Our first challenge is to discover how we might use conflict resolution theories and practices to gain fresh insights into the reasons social, economic and political disputes become so adversarial and intractable. This will allow us to develop a richer set of options for preventing and resolving these conflicts, and become more effective in halting the disheartening and senseless destruction of communities, brutalization of life, loss of pleasure and enjoyment, and wasteful human misery that are experienced in violent conflicts every day around the world.
The second challenge is to discover whether we can use social, economic and political principles to clarify the systemic factors that contribute to impasse in what appear to be purely interpersonal conflicts. This will allow us to plumb a wide array of sociological methods, economic analyses and political theories for innovative ways of deepening and sustaining the dispute resolution process in a variety of conflicts.
A third challenge is to discover whether we can apply conflict resolution systems design principles to the root causes of chronic social, economic and political conflicts, and design from first principles an interacting set of communications, processes and relationships for organizations and institutions that will be more successful in preventing, resolving, transforming and transcending and overcoming them. This will allow us to include greater choices in our social, economic and political lives, and evolve to higher orders of conflict and resolution than, in our current state, we believe are even possible.
Our fourth and significantly deeper challenge is to clarify the human, heart-based values that inform our profoundest understandings of conflict resolution and elucidate the techniques responsible for its most far-reaching successes. This will lead us to the deepest heartfelt desires that inform all collaborative, interest-based processes; anchor them at the center of our social, economic and political lives; and invent more humane ways of solving environmental and international problems across the borders and boundaries that divide us.
A fifth challenge is to meet all of these challenges both locally and globally, and initiate practical international partnerships that seek to assist our brothers and sisters in neighboring countries in doing the same. This will allow us to realize that conflicts have no borders and can easily spread across those we imagine to impact all of us. We may then work more actively and conscientiously to increase conflict resolution capacity internationally and work more collaboratively beyond these imaginary separations to solve our common problems.
The sixth challenge is to bring about these genuinely revolutionary changes without triggering additional conflicts by our use of power- or right-based processes of change, thereby hardening resistance to what most needs improving. Doing so will require us to find new ways of improving highly complex entrenched global systems, while recognizing the validity of Gandhi’s deep insight that we need to be the change we want to see in the world. As writer Michael Ventura pointed out, “The future lives in our individual, often lonely, and certainly unprofitable acts of integrity, or it doesn’t live at all.”
Our seventh and perhaps deepest challenge is to be audacious enough to become global citizens and “conflict revolutionists;” to have the courage to take on the world and imagine how it might be made better, and at the same time to be humble enough to recognize our imperfections, appreciate the danger of meddling with what we don’t fully understand, and realize that, in the end, it is we who create our conflicts, and ourselves who most need changing.
This realization raises a final challenge that leads back to ourselves, and our capacity to create an integrated, heartfelt sense of Self and Other internally, while simultaneously recognizing and celebrating their diversity, complexity and right to independent self-determination. This future is brought into existence within each of us every day, in every conflict, in the moment-by-moment choices we make as mediators. As the eminent historian Howard Zinn recognized,
We don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.
*[Excerpted in part from Kenneth Cloke, Conflict Revolution: Designing Preventative Solutions for Chronic Social, Economic and Political Conflicts (2nd Edition) to be published by goodmedia press, www.goodmedia.com, 2015]
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