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What Our Inner Conflict Tells Us About How We Mediate

Conflict analysis is often taught to be an outward-looking process.  In a mediation, the mediator attempts to objectively analyze a conflict in terms of interests, emotions, context and history, and deploys suitable methods or models to assist the parties involved in reaching a common ground. In other words, the mediator diverts his or her attention outwardly towards understanding and analyzing the perceived conflict. However, little training goes into understanding the inner state of the mediator and its relationship to and impact on the design, process, and outcome of conflict resolution. In this article, it is hoped that an exploration of selected works of Jiddu Krishnamurti on the nature of inner conflict will assist in refining practitioner understanding of the relationship between the inner state of a mediator and conflict resolution, and the link between this exchange and work in the field of dispute resolution. Perhaps, this exploration may offer prospective and hopeful adjustments to mediation, including attention to the emotional world of the mediator; the positive use of mediator emotion; and the symmetry between internal peace and peace-in-the-room. 

The mediator’s inner world

Lack of attention to the inner world of the mediator, including the mediator’s own emotional responses, thoughts, impulses, and bodily sensations, may be rooted in the notion that a mediator is an impartial and/or neutral third party. Impartiality is foundational to the conflict resolution ethic of fair process, where a facilitator or mediator maintains a posture of objectivity, presumingly without preference for any particular outcome or participant. Yet, there are several problems with the notion of mediator impartiality. First, there is a question of whether a perfectly impartial and/or neutral posture is an achievable goal. Biases, preferential and stratifying ideas about race, gender, ability, sex, ethnicity, and religion, include an unconscious dimension that makes them difficult to identify, insidious, and virtually automatic. Second, much of the training in facilitative mediation models operate under the assumption that the objective practitioner (i.e. mediator, adjudicator, or conflict analyst) is an external observer who may facilitate resolution without influencing or directing the process or outcome. In a metaphor, this is like suggesting that a person can visit a national park, and although they did not litter, start fires, or leave identifiable markings, refrain from influencing the landscape (Gunning & Press, 2021). 

Although simple self-reflection and mindfulness may reduce the impact of the mediator’s personal bias, traces of bias remain an inevitable reality. Consider the work of Daniel Kahneman (2011) on the instantaneous processing of mind which he describes as System 1 as compared to the deliberate and complex mental calculus of System 2, which is linked to more thoughtful, conscious thinking. Inherent to System 1 are mental leaps rooted in memory, so quickly computed that they remain in the subconscious. In other words, these processes are often so well patterned and practiced that they can be conducted as if on autopilot, such as driving to work or brushing teeth. Similarly, biases (much of the time) operate on a System 1 quick response system, hidden well beneath conscious awareness. Memory, when being replayed, is reproduced out of a dynamic interaction with cultural and social systems, and in some ways is reconstructed in social interactions. Simply, it is memories, both individual and cultural, that form biases; and while mediators would like to sit safely outside of all of the “isms” of modern society, it is a simple but humbling reality that mediation practitioners are not apart from, but a-part-of, the whole. Consequently, conflict resolution practitioners must work as persons-in families, cultures, institutions, etc., rather than supposed bystanders, even if their participation is short term or temporary. The inner world of the mediator is not an irrelevant, non-factor at the bargaining table, and instead comes into sharp and crucial focus. With the acknowledgment that mediators do influence systems and do have biases, the management of the mediator’s inner world – that is, their emotions, thoughts, and sense of self – is as necessary as parties own self-management, growth, and development of conflict resolution tools. 

The nature of inner conflict 

Most of the time, conflict does not need a definition. The visceral and tactile sensations, fear-laden and worrisome thoughts, and the real-world practical issues at stake (i.e. safety, resources, or dignity), all signal to a person they are in a conflict. The conflict resolution literature attempts to conceptualize conflict by clarifying the meaning of what for many is an apparent and obvious reality. In its most reduced form, conflict is often defined as competing values, interests, and assumptions. However, there is another way to understand conflict. Beneath value-sets and worldviews is a sense of individual or collective identity; the creation of individual or group identity and the way it defends and attacks when faced with a perceived threat is another way to conceive of conflict. 

Although Krishnamurti believed that conflict exists at all levels of human existence, he did not necessarily perceive conflict as a tangible reality with the same degree of solidity that is often understood by conflict resolution practitioners. In the thought of Krishnamurti, conflict is more of a non-reality, where the landscape of past memories, especially unpleasant and unconscious ones, are projected on to present interactions. In other words, conflict arises when an individual associates or identifies themselves with a particular idea, concept, belief or group, including perceiving themselves as inherently separate from others. In mediation, the individual’s unconscious associations, ideas and memories enter into the room and take their seats across the table. A projection is cast on to the person sitting across the table as well as onto the concepts and issues discussed.  It is as if memory, including unconscious experience and preformed ideas, cloaks every person involved with a set of clothing. That newly suited “other” is who is now interacted with. For Krishnamurti, ideas or concepts of another person are barriers to any genuine and present interaction between two people.

Krishnamurti further perceived conflict as an attempt of the mind to escape the turmoil of the inner landscape and seek relief. All the loneliness, despair, longing for permanent resolutions and control, existential crises, senses of powerlessness in life, angst at the hard work of change, are attempts to seek a form of relief. It’s easy to buy into political or religious ideologies, social movements, individual people, or gurus, as a source of relief for inner, unresolved, chaos. Some people even claim to be holders of the key to life’s problems, a position that can be incredibly dangerous. Not only does this create a vulnerability, – mediators often speak of this as “power imbalances” – when people reach out for a final solution, it simply does not work. Krishnamurti emphasized the limitations of seeking relief and security in authority and often highlighted the dangers of psychological dependency on external sources of guidance, be it political, intellectual, or religious, at the cost of escaping the hard work required to unearth internal guidance and agency. Instead, Krishnamurti believed that true understanding and growth is achieved by first looking within, resolving struggles using independent thought and meditative self-inquiry.

We have two ideas from Krishnamurti then: First, conflict is a function of memory, and; Second, conflict is an attempt to seek internal relief. Conflict resolution then cuts to the heart of it all, right at the core of human struggles. This extends not just to persons in conflict, but also to the inner world of the mediator. Here we ask: What happens when the mediator holds fear? How does the ego and unconscious biases of the mediator influence the conflict? Here, mediators find themselves in a dialectic of attempting to obtain impartiality and/or neutrality while acknowledging the presence of  unconscious bias. Holding this tension requires that mediators dually strive towards ethical, impartial mediation; yet, acknowledge that their biases, fears, and inner world may – likely, are – impacting the mediation process. Through this admittance, mediator’s can consciously and intentionally (System 2) harness their place in the system, be it a family, community, business, institutional, or socio-cultural one; rather than operate unconsciously (System 1), unaware of how their biases, worldviews, fears and unresolved inner struggles have an impact on the process, participants, and outcome. Perhaps, to some relief for mediation practitioners, the self is not to be left outside the mediation door.On the contrary, it is invited in: mediators are encouraged to bring their whole selves to the mediation table when assisting in the repair of social systems.

Practical implications

Now, as understanding evolves about aspects of conflict and how it arises through identification and association, it would be helpful to discuss a few practical exercises that conflict resolution practitioners may find helpful to apply to their field of work. When conflict arises from inner assumptions, beliefs, and values, would it not require an examination of these on a personal level in order to understand how the individual actions and decisions of a mediator contribute to conflict? From this point, the discussion will focus on how to bring a deeper level of internal awareness to the practice of mediation.

Self-awareness, compassion and non-judgmental observation are effective tools that are often applied during mediation, but what does it mean if mediators were to also apply it to themselves on a regular basis, cognizant of their biases and behavior in whatever space they interact? In traditional mediation approaches, the majority of the attention is focused on the participants themselves. Considering Krishnamurti’s thoughts, this approach focuses on the internal world of mediators. In its most reduced form, meditation holds the potential to become a powerful tool to accomplish self-awareness for both parties and the mediator, by creating the understanding necessary to transcend personal and collective limitations, refine approaches, perspectives, and skills. It is up to mediation practitioners to determine how they would like to incorporate this habitual discipline in their life, as a continual practice. Further, creating a consultative and safe space with other fellow conflict resolution practitioners to reflect on the interplay between one’s inner state and conflicts and meditation may also offer useful insights, through the following example exercises: 

  • Awareness of Visceral Experience. One exercise mediators may find helpful is to dedicate time after each mediation session to document their visceral experience during the mediation. This would entail bringing non-judgmental attention to emotions and thoughts that the mediator observed within themselves before, during, and after the session. The goal of this exercise is to start bringing awareness to the inner state of the mediator and to understand what situations or circumstances brought up certain thoughts and emotions. A mediator may notice, for example, any senses of emotional discomfort and pause to reflect on their own conflict style, seeing how that discomfort is reflected in conflict behaviors from their personal lives. In this example, a mediator may notice the link between avoidance of challenging emotions in their personal life and the automatic urge to suppress or resolve difficult emotions of participants in mediation. Another mediator may notice their discomfort with uncertainty, particularly pertaining to unresolved participant issues, and its visceral impact on them in mediation. Working out discomfort with uncertainty internally will assist the mediator to hold space for that state of feeling, which is often associated with change, grief and the emotion of fear, with more integrity in mediation. Eventually, it will be realized that there is as much happening within the mediator as there is between the conflicting parties. Creating awareness around one’s visceral experience will provide meaningful opportunities for the mediator to positively use their emotions in the mediation. 
  • Positive Use of Mediator Emotion. Awareness of the emotional world of the mediator opens up the possibility for positive harnessing of facilitator emotion in the mediation process. Converse to traditional dispute resolution approaches, the authentic and responsible emotional self-expression of the mediator may be a catalyst for participant self-realization, empathy development, and openness to challenge.  More than an object (mediator) working with two or more subjects (participants), presumably parties in a dispute who are encouraged to work with their own emotional responses in mediation, the mediator is also a subject who can skillfully bring their whole emotional self into the room. “Skillfully” and “artfully” are both words that convey the therapeutic and intentional use of mediator emotional sharing: it is not to resolve their own emotional world, relate with the struggles of participants, or attach and/or develop an emotional bond. Instead, using the tools of authenticity and transparency, it is to provide a mirror – using the mediator’s own emotional system – that brings necessary clarity to the present or current circumstances disputants find themselves in. A mediator may, for example, reveal their own exhaustion at the dispute, then ask the parties if it is a relatable experience. They may note when matters feel uncomfortable, unresolved, or unknown, and invite participants to courageously embrace those difficult experiences. Feeling anger, a mediator may be signaled to set a boundary – or even to model the positive communication of anger using “I” statements. To much relief, a mediator’s humanness is a valuable tool, and in the same way as clients, is to be offered sacred space in the mediation room. 
  • Bringing Peace into the Room. Most of the time, the mediator’s concern is centered on bringing peace and resolution to participants. This makes sense: conflict resolution practitioners are called upon to assist others in their journey to peace in the face of rigid or intractable conflict. Yet, this approach ignores a crucial bit of information, perhaps the only information a mediator may truly be able to access when assisting in the resolution of a dispute: their own internal relationship with peace. Sitting with participants in a posture of fear, certainly, does not create a process that will result in an outcome of peace. The process of mediation must align with its supposed goal; if that goal is peace, the mediator must find a way to be peaceful. The uncontrollable is the inner world of the participants; whereas a mediator can reflect internally during a conflictive mediation and ask: “What conditions would be necessary, so I can feel peace even here?”This shift away from exclusively coaching and retooling participant behavior, to the simple requirements for peaceful relating and internal harmony for meditators, often prompts concrete, actionable changes to the relationship system that benefit all involved.

Concluding thoughts 

Jiddu Kishnamurti’s contribution towards understanding the mind and the nature of inner conflict provides a valuable insight for mediators. As much as it is important to master techniques, tools and models, it is equally critical to practice an ongoing awareness of the self and its associated conflicts. This may require an uncomfortable shift in thinking for mediators.  This task reveals, first, the level of challenge mediators put in front of participants when they ask them to resolve their own conflict; and second, the subjectivity involved in the application of dispute resolution tools. On the latter, what “works” in mediation is a uniquely designed intervention that is co-designed by the mediator and those who are served in mediation. In other words, it’s a working-out of dispute resolution tools in specific contexts that makes them relevant. To design such conflict-specific tools, it is crucial, on both a personal and professional level, to incorporate an active mode of learning surrounding our inner state and its impact on the mediator’s decisions and behaviors in mediation. To bring peace into the room, one must bring peace to themselves, which is a task that requires one to refine their understanding of themselves and others and become aware of the constructed assumptions, beliefs and subsequent emotions that unconsciously operate from within and are relied on to navigate conflict. Fostering awareness of the internal world of the mediator weaves together various life compartments, where life is viewed as a whole system and conflict resolution principles are applicable in not one but all of its many spheres and activities. In this view, to resolve one’s own conflict is as integral of a task to mediator development as education in theory, process, and technique. This is very much what adult emotional development is all about: mastery of the self through awareness of the self, ownership of desire, and courageous grappling with fear. 

References:

Bohm, D. (1996). On Dialogue. Routledge, London and New York. 

Gunning, I., & Press, S. (2021). Is Whiteness Embedded in Mediation. Quinnipiac-Yale Dispute Resolution Workshop, New Haven, CT. https://law.yale.edu/yls-today/yale-law-school-videos/whiteness-embedded-mediation

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Krishanmurti, J. K. (1973). The Awakening of Intelligence. HarperCollins, New York, NY. 

                        author

Aaron Leakey

Aaron Leakey is a Research Fellow at the BC Access to Justice Center for Excellence and a PhD student in Law and Society at the University of Victoria (Uvic) where he focuses his studies on critiquing Western/Eurocentric approaches to justice system design. He holds a Masters of Dispute Resolution (MAdr)… MORE >

                        author

Nur Masoumzadeh

Nur Masoumzadeh-Smith is a public policy professional with over eight years of field and policy experience focused on intercultural and political conflicts, public and international policy issues, and workplace disputes. She has worked with the local, provincial and federal levels of government as well as the international and not-for-profit sector… MORE >

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