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Speaking for myself, I too believe that humanity will win in the long run; I am only afraid that at the same time the world will have turned into one huge hospital where everyone is everybody else’s humane nurse.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Italian Journey, Naples, May 27, 1787

Several times in the course of my life I’ve been involved with a cohort of people who envisioned themselves as a possible vanguard of fundamental social change even while they were pursuing professional careers. The first time was as a student in the late 50s and early 60s when activism was on the rise and we students saw ourselves as the first wave of a growing progressive movement even though we all were headed toward graduate school and related careers.  Next was when I became a faculty member, later in the 60s, and I connected with groups of faculty members who believed it was our obligation to transform education, raise the (sociopolitical) consciousness of our students and colleagues, and turn universities into a base for radical social change. This development occurred in parallel with my identity not just as a professor but also as a psychologist. In the psychology field too, there was a significant group of professionals who were torn between their careers on the one hand, and their concern about, and involvement in, various sociopolitical issues – the war in Vietnam, the civil rights movement, nuclear armaments, and poverty.  And just like the radical faculty members, the psychologists were eager to find ways to maintain their professional careers while working for change. Indeed both the faculty members and the psychologists seemed intent on proving to themselves and others that the pursuit of their careers was perfectly compatible with social activism and in fact could be a form of radical social engagement. This blending of career aspirations and transformational ideology was illustrated again and even more clearly in the early 80s when I first became an ombudsman and got involved in alternative dispute resolution (ADR). Indeed for some people ADR was both a career and a movement, one that was connected in many ways to broader movements for fundamental change. In fact, many of the early mediation practitioners, especially those not coming from a labor mediation background, were also veterans of civil rights and anti-war activities who were drawn to ADR as an alternative path to justice, equality, and social change.

I do not mean to imply that all those who have been involved in the development of mediation as a career path were drawn to it because of its potential to become a social movement. Clearly, labor mediators were on the scene long before the community mediation movement blossomed in the 70s, and diplomats and others were mediating international conflicts and managing business negotiations well before mediation became a career path, dispute resolution became an undergraduate major, and universities built advanced degree programs. Nor am I suggesting that the majority of mediators share the political orientation of the movement types who were attracted to and got involved in mediation. But I think we can agree that the growth of mediation was related to, and partly energized by, the promises and expectations promoted by the new cluster of mediation practitioners and enthusiasts.  Informing the writings and workshops about ADR is a shared, sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit, belief that mediation is or can be transformative. Indeed, part of what attracts many people to mediation is the hope/belief that we/it can change the world, or at least those parts of the world with which mediators engage. Give us the opportunity and we will create the conditions in which people can understand and be responsive to each other’s interests, perspectives, stories and [fill in your favorite] then interpersonal conflicts can be resolved, corporate disputes settled, peace can be achieved, collaborative problem solving can blossom, racial enmity can be resolved, and self-determination can flourish. In brief “we all can get along.” In this perspective, fundamentally we are all peacemakers.

Interestingly, from today’s vantage point, mediation is failing on both counts : as a career opportunity,– there are many more people hoping to make a living as a mediator than there are positions; – and as a major player in movements for social transformation. Both Don Saposnek’s and Tom Stipanowich’s papers seem to suggest these failures. From Saposnek’s perspective mediation has run up against limitations because “increasingly adversarial values … are insidiously being promoted in our society.”  And as Stipanowich observes,  “today, mediation is overwhelmingly employed after attorneys have been retained and have taken charge.  Instead of becoming a proactive tool for the facilitation of successful relationships, mediation is commonly engaged in as a passage in the dance of litigation.  Early expectations regarding “upstream” intervention aimed at managing conflict at its roots and promoting healthy and productive relationships remain largely unfulfilled. 

I will argue that one of the reasons mediation has been less successful than many of us had hoped it would be is because of a combination of some flawed assumptions, our overestimation of its importance, and our exaggerated sense of what mediation (and related approaches) could accomplish. I will refer to this kind of thinking as the “transformation and peacemaking perspective.”

This sense of the importance of mediation is best summed up in John Sturrock’s stirring piece in this Futures series. Sturrock quotes Ken Cloke’s assertion that “in the absence of improved conflict resolution skills it will prove difficult, if not impossible, for us to survive as a species.” Sturrock directs us along Cloke’s path to salvation by offering Ken’s reassurance that “it is not utopian or presumptuous to imagine that we can expand and evolve dialogue techniques in ways that will allow us to discuss and resolve contentious political issues without resorting to violence or coercion. “   Before I go further let me make a confession: in my own work (and career) I make very similar assumptions and statements so what I am about to critique is equally a self-criticism. I do not exempt myself in any way from the remarks that follow. And while I can easily agree with Cloke that we can (and should) “expand and evolve dialogue techniques,” I am increasingly skeptical that doing so will provide the panaceas we promise, or even provide a way to address the underlying issues that require our attention.

Now putting aside for the moment any questions of naiveté and optimism – and there are many such questions – I would argue that there also is a fundamental contradiction associated with pursuing fundamental social and economic transformation through building a new career domain. Careers by their very definition depend on being embedded in the extant social structures and the distributions of power and influence, status and wealth associated with those structures. For conflict resolution programs and techniques to catch on, whether in courts, neighborhoods, schools, or organizations, they have to serve the purposes of those spheres of activity. Necessarily this means that they have to play some part in the reproduction and perpetuation of the very systems that engage them, even when they are engaged to help change those systems. Like all reformers, it is easy for us deceive ourselves into believing that the reasons our interventions succeed are the same as our motivations and intentions when introducing changes within an organization. For example, the people who design and implement integrated conflict management systems (ICMS) might be staunch believers in workplace democracy and employee empowerment, whereas management may accept ICMS because it can function as a means of restoring managerial authority by creating an organizational climate in which employees do pretty much what management wants them to do by voluntarily internalizing management’s perspective or values.

We should pause a moment to acknowledge another dilemma: our analyses of conflict dynamics and arguments on behalf of mediation (and related modes of conflict resolution) are also promotional materials for our work, advertisements if you will.  And just like others who are promoting their products, we have to recognize that we too are prone to over-promise and to exaggerate the potential benefits of our product while also minimizing our limitations.  I realize there is a certain cynicism informing this claim but I do not think the cynicism is dissolved by the fact that most of us sincerely believe in the analyses we offer and the services we provide. People in our lines of work know too well the distorting effects of self-interest, even in the most well-intended and humane people. (But as a side game it is fun to think who you would designate as the Tony Robbins of ADR.) Our dilemma is further complicated by the fact that our product is not just a role (mediator, facilitator) and set of techniques (pick your approach – interest-based, narrative, transformative) and a conceptual framework, but it is also ourselves. Again, people in our lines of work also know full well how personal our work is; even the best defended of us are hard pressed to depersonalize disagreements or failures. When one’s identity is so conflated with one’s work it becomes especially important to believe our own advertisements.

I became sharply aware of this complication two months ago when, after finishing a presentation about all the good works we have accomplished in the ombudsman role at the National Institutes of Health NIH), I was asked by a fellow professional ombudsman:  “So with all of that do you think you have fundamentally changed NIH as an organization?” I answered, without a moment’s hesitation – “No.”  Even after 17 years of developing an ombudsman program that has resolved thousands of cases, conducted hundreds of workshops and trainings, and contributed to the organization in many other ways, if I am honest with myself I have to marvel at how the underlying culture of the organization in which we function has not been significantly changed. I do not think that my experience is unique. I’ll bet that that a careful examination of integrated conflict resolution systems elsewhere would show the same odd mixture of accomplishments at one level and, at a deeper level, the system’s ability to maintain its fundamental character, dynamics, and inequalities even while incorporating most changes. With all we have accomplished, individually in our work and collectively as a field (apologies to Peter Adler) or profession, we’ve really changed very little with regard to how power is wielded and distributed and how disagreements are addressed and resolved.

When one’s work is built around a fundamental commitment to collaborative processes, the ironies of the contradiction between intent and outcome are especially poignant. Collaborative approaches by definition require eliciting the cooperation of all the constituencies at all levels of an organization, which necessarily means addressing the interests and perspectives and appreciating the narratives  of all the constituencies. While we can easily acknowledge that there are times when our processes for intervention help people recognize that their interests or perspectives may not be as incompatible as they thought they were, power, privilege, and status are not readily relinquished. As my friend Bob Benjamin put it in an email to me, “Are we apologists for the status quo, or revolutionaries? I suspect most practitioners see themselves as the latter when they are viewed – often more accurately—as the former.” By definition collaborative processes are not revolutionary; they are gradualist. They promise stability as an accompaniment to change. Mind you, this is not a criticism. I am not arguing against collaborative processes and gradual change, I am arguing for truth in advertising. 

The fundamental assumption of mediation as radically transformative vastly underestimates the ability of the grossly unequal, conflict ridden, hostility driven societal structure and its attendant social forces to assimilate and dilute all efforts at deep transformation. Equally important, it overestimates the incredible complexity of organizations and social systems and the multidimensional challenge of producing genuine change. Enhancing peoples’ ability to negotiate and resolve conflicts is no guarantee that they will do so. One need only look at the nature of interpersonal dynamics in many of the academic conflict resolution programs to realize that the same abilities that help people resolve conflicts can be used to sustain them, to keep them alive. To be sure, some wonderful things have been accomplished – an occasional peace treaty, labor disputes successfully mediated, children in school conflict resolution programs learning how to negotiate rather than fight, scientists collaborating to address complex biomedical problems, important environmental public policy issues addressed through facilitated joint fact finding, court cases diverted and resolved through mediation programs, and even some almost amicable divorces. All of these are increasingly aided and abetted by the growing availability of exciting new technologies that expand our reach and help many more people become aware of the sensibility and techniques of ADR.
While these outcomes are noteworthy they exist in the shadows cast by horrific events and recurring conflicts that seem to transmute and replicate even as we rush to modulate or resolve them. Have you seen the newspapers recently or watched the news on TV? Despite the growth and spread of mediation programs and mediators in many countries and the ever expanding number of conflict resolution academic programs with their attendant courses and research projects, the world is the same. Ethnic, religious, and national hatred, hostilities and warfare abound and public discourse is increasingly and shamefully hostile, divisive, and disrespectful of both people and ideas.  Even looking within the boundaries of North America, where ADR is arguably most developed, much of the picture is dismaying.

I recognize the cynicism that pervades this piece and I can easily imagine lots of readers thinking “these are the rants of an old man facing retirement whose idealism has been trashed by reality.” That may be partly true but I haven’t given up on idealism and I do not believe we should give up the fight to change things. (Where would we be without Jean Paul Lederach?) But I believe idealistic visions, whether grounded in religious, political, ethical, or humanistic principles, should be formulated after a confrontation with reality and tempered by critical self-consciousness. So rather than throwing in the towel I think there are several steps we can take.

  1. Go beyond your career. If you are interested in social change, more justice, and less inequality don’t expect your dispute resolution career to carry and enable all of your values and your politics. One of the reasons our sensibility, techniques and programs have not spread more widely and caught on more broadly is that the cultural and socio-economic conditions in which they could thrive do not exist. While we like to believe that our work can help to create those conditions we need to acknowledge that there are structures and political forces that resist the changes we promote and that there are also people out there who will resist most efforts at change, who will not give up power or let go of hatred, and who will not engage in the sorts of fora for addressing political and social issues that we favor and promote. If social change matters to you then you will have to do more than pursue your career and engage in your work ethically and professionally. The work we do will not, by itself, create the conditions in which our work can flourish.
  2. Go beyond peacemaking. Peacemaking may well be our highest and most noble ideal but we have to be more than peacemakers, more than conflict resolvers. Doug Yarn writes beautifully in this series about reconciliation and the importance of helping people to reconcile. To his admonition I would add – teach people multiple ways to be in conflict, how to disagree.  Several years ago Bernie Mayer wrote eloquently in the book Beyond Neutrality about the various other roles people with our skills and sensibilities could pursue. I would complement both Yarn’s and Mayer’s work by adding that we ought not to be conflict-phobic. One of our major tasks, I would argue, is to help people be better at engaging in conflict and pursuing disagreement in productive ways.  When I first became engaged with scientific disputes and conflicts among scientists at NIH my approach emphasized processes for resolution.  I soon learned that science thrives on disagreement; more than ways to reach resolution, scientists needed processes by which to effectively disagree and engage in conflict. It was when my approach shifted the work with scientists flourished.  Daniel Kahneman’s  writing on “adversarial collaboration” is a fine example of innovative approaches to engaging, and resolving disagreements.
  3. Go beyond linearity – appreciate complexity. Our thinking is still evolving beyond over-simplified linear notions of cause and effect, but there is a lot of interesting work being done to make sense of the complexity of cultures and organizations. Every attempt at changing a system to solve a problem elicits reactions from the constituents of that system, and not all those reactions can be anticipated.  Many of those reactions serve to restabilize the very system we are trying to change, while other reactions present new problems we had not foreseen. People like Peter Coleman and Glenda Eoyang are engaged in  interesting research and practice from a complexity framework perspective in attempts to better understand the dynamics of complex systems. Without an appreciation of these dynamics we cannot come close to realizing our ideals.
  4. Go beyond neutrality. While the notion of neutrality has served us well in many ways, allowing us to be seen and to serve as non-partisan facilitators of parties’ efforts to resolve conflicts, it also misrepresents the lived realities of conflict resolution work.  In Mayer’s book he wrote about how people with skills in negotiating and conflict resolution could engage effectively with advocacy groups. But I would argue that even for those working toward conflict resolution true neutrality is problematic and probably unachievable.  That doesn’t mean being a partisan or advocate for one of the parties but it does entail a highly refined form of critical self-consciousness  to identify implicit biases and other factors that can undermine one’s efforts to treat all parties to a dispute impartially and with fairness.  Understanding the functions of systems and the ways in which any “neutral” is embedded in them could be an important first step toward redefining neutrality in a way that is meaningful.
  5. Go beyond self-determination. Self-determination is probably the one principle in ADR about which people agree no matter what approach they take or model they fancy. But how to create the condition in which self-determination is a real possibility and not just an inspiring ideal is another question. To begin we need to move away from free-market understandings of self-determination that assume everyone is equally able to negotiate on their own behalf. We have to come to terms with inequality and figure out how ADR can be properly deployed in conditions where the participants differ significantly in their power or status or resources (see below).  In addition our understanding of self-determination has to be built around the recognition that sometimes people are held captive to their own conflicts and need help in escaping from them. We need to also recognize that sometimes people have difficulty differentiating between expressive and strategic responses to conflict situations and sometimes act in self-defeating ways. At these times those we work with may need assistance in taking a critical stance towards their own instincts, impulses, and reactions. These situations call for deep engagement with people (read Susan Podziba’s Civic Fusion for a fine example), and maximizing self-determination requires more than a non-interventionist stance.
  6. Come to terms with power. For all that has been written about negotiation, fairness, neutrality, and impartiality, the dispute resolution field has never come to terms with discrepancies in power – either personal or systemic. While some people feel they can modulate power discrepancies among parties to a dispute I’ve never seen a useful analysis of how to equalize differences in power. In fact, not since the great Susskind-Stuhlberg debate years ago about mediator responsibilities has there been an intelligent discussion of the issue. Rethinking neutrality and balancing power are related challenges for us. If we maintain our current notion of neutrality then our work is limited to replicating extant power relations. But the answer is not simply to side with the less powerful as some have argued.  If we move to balance power between uneven protagonists by strengthening the weaker party we risk losing the credibility and trust that go along with our claim of neutrality and commitment to fairness.
  7. Recalibrate our goals – Put aside the schemes for unrealizable transformation and engage with people who are grappling with current issues and problems. The old slogan “think globally, act locally” is not a bad guide. Look at the work and writings of people like Jean Paul Lederach and Wallace Warfield for stellar models. Each drew strength from an internal moral commitment without their personal motivation becoming an ulterior focus.

In our work (the workshops and trainings we conduct) we should help people appreciate the importance of negotiation, the potential of collaboration, and the value of developing perspective in dealing with difficult matters. It is crucial for our credibility and integrity that we be direct and realistic with people about what we can provide and what we cannot achieve merely through spreading the word and sharing techniques. In fact the very authenticity, credibility, and competency that we need to do our work, further our professional development, and promote the virtues of ADR may be derived from a realistic appraisal and presentation of ourselves, our skills and abilities.


Howard Gadlin

Howard Gadlin is the former Ombudsman and Director of the Center for Cooperative Resolution, at the National Institutes of Health since the beginning of 1999. Before that, from 1992 through 1998, he was University Ombudsperson and Adjunct Professor of Education at UCLA. He was also director of the UCLA Conflict Mediation… MORE >

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