An article by Anke Sommer
A hidden dilemma for those affected by conflict
Is conflict resolution only effective if the term ‘mediation’ is in the title? This question arises in view of the current popularity of the method.
Everyone’s talking about mediation. By now, most people who hear the term have at least some idea of what it means. They pigeonhole it under ‘conflict resolution’. That hasn’t always been the case; many people have worked to make mediation what it represents today. However the method is not currently protected by law, so in theory anyone can give themselves the title ‘mediator’.
That isn’t the main problem behind the dilemma for people affected by conflicts, however, because the legal loophole also applies to all consultation and coaching professions. Even if the term ‘mediation’ were successfully protected, it still doesn’t solve the hidden dilemma.
Unresolved conflicts have great destructive power
Legal protection for the term ensures that only trained moderators are licensed to practise; however that doesn’t solve the conflict by any means. That’s a task for a mediator if he/she supports this popular method, thus using its popularity to generate work for him/herself. At the same time, there have always been lively discussions among experts about mediation as a method, because experienced mediators are familiar with both the strengths and weaknesses of the procedure. Unfortunately, however, these discussions have no impact on the method’s popularity. Outsiders gain the impression that mediation is superior to practically all other methods.
What is mediation?
The word ‘mediation‘ comes from the Latin and refers to a structured voluntary process that was developed to promote constructive conflict resolution. What is the dilemma caused by the fact that it is so widely known? It is due to the fact that mediation is often praised as being the best and only method of conflict resolution.
This has gone so far that now that many people think that mediation is synonymous with conflict resolution, because no other method is so often discussed in relation to conflicts and how to resolve them. That could be dangerous and could in the end damage not only the method itself.
For one thing, people who are caught up in conflicts, and after much hesitation have finally come to the conclusion that they should seek help, automatically think that mediation could help them. Another aspect is that from the start, the mediation procedure is the intervention to which good chances of success are initially attributed. However, insiders know both the strengths and the weaknesses of a mediation procedure. Note: mediation is not a panacea.
There’s no such thing as a universal remedy
This is the first mistake that people make when affected by conflicts: they seek the method, not the facilitator, as the means of resolving the dispute. It isn’t the method that automatically leads to success in resolving a conflict; in fact, if there’s anything at all that can lead the participants out of the conflict-related chaos, it’s the skill, experience and sensitivity of the consultant.
Imagine that you’re involved in a conflict. After struggling for a long time, ignoring the situation and shutting your eyes to it, you have now at last started to go through the long list of mediators, hoping to find help. Or you’re allocated a mediator at once. The conflict development has already resulted in your being short of breathing space, and the negative situation has gone so far that it is endangering livelihoods.
If your ‘blind search or recommendation’ has led you to an experienced person who is led by their experience in conflict resolution, not solely by the method itself, this will be seen in the mediation result. It turns out to be a good thing that you opted for mediation, because the conflict could probably be resolved and the pressure is released. The process has limited the damage caused by the conflict.
But now imagine that you encounter a mediator who sees the method’s structure as the decisive factor and is constantly making the effort not to take sides in the conflict. You will soon find that this mediator can’t cope and doesn’t manage to get a grip on the mediation process.
This experience will leave you with a different opinion of the method than the person mentioned above. You’ll be disappointed and will probably deeply regret having embarked on the process, because now your back is against the wall, the conflict has degenerated into pure destruction and no one is putting an end to it.
The destruction becomes blind
Here we can see the dilemma. If you’re looking for a facilitator in a conflict resolution process, you shouldn’t select someone on the basis of the method, because it’s not the method itself but the skill and talent of the consultant that has the decisive impact on the outcome of the conflict resolution.
Conflict resolution is the ‘premier league’ of consultancy
Conflict resolution demands everything that the consultant can give. The resolution process confronts the facilitator with extremely powerful emotions such as hatred, rage and resignation. It reveals hardened attitudes and often an atmosphere that has become marked by intrigues.
We consultants know that, in the end, solving a serious conflict requires creativity and attentiveness in the solution process, and that you need to apply all the experience gained in countless facilitations of conflict-resolution processes in all kinds of companies. In the end, it is following your own intuition in the conflict resolution phase that is also the key to resolving it. No two resolution processes are the same and each one is highly individual.
At any rate, I would advise all conflict consultants to listen to their intuition, because as humans we don’t only perceive things that happen around us through our minds. Our somatic awareness receives additional information of which we are not always immediately conscious, because we are much too distracted by the conflict itself.
However, our intuition has already absorbed and processed this additional information. So when facilitating conflict resolution, we need all our senses in order to heal the conflict at its core. If we don’t also address this core, then the conflict cannot be resolved, with separation the likely result.
After going through many conflict phases, most of those affected only want a separation anyway. If that’s not a problem, separation can take place and the damage be shared, but sometimes a separation involves heavy losses. I have experienced only too often that in a ‘conflict resolution’ process, the conflict itself was the last thing being considered.
The real cause is often lost from view when a conflict has fermented over years. If you can’t find this central point, nothing can really be resolved. It’s then just a matter of intervening and negotiating what each side gets, to achieve as amicable a separation as possible.
What must a good conflict consultant be able to do in the process of resolving a conflict?
A good conflict consultant must be able to withstand the emotions that can be sensed in the course of a conflict resolution process. Emotions such as rage, hate and aggression of all kinds, generated by hurts, often don’t even break out into the open, yet the presence of these feelings influences the entire process.
If the consultant isn’t alert to this then the situation can escalate. Personal processes reflect the individual stages of our personality development and make our current stage externally visible.... Read more of this kind can only be successfully facilitated by a consultant who has experience with these emotions, makes no attempt to dodge them and therefore has no need to suppress them.
A consultant with experience in facilitating these processes immediately seeks the core of the conflict and disarms it, so that there’s no need for emotions to escalate and the resolution and clearing up process can start at once. This usually proceeds very harmoniously, to everyone’s amazement. Once the clearing up process is under way, the gruelling conflict moves into the past.
Otherwise there’s always the danger that the conflict consultant/mediator themselves may ‘burn up’ during the resolution process. You can see this in their increasing inability to maintain their role as consultant/mediator. He or she is interrupted more and more often, is not taken seriously and is isolated by the conflict parties. In this case, even the best method in the world won’t help him/her.
This situation causes additional damage. Not only is the conflict not solved; it enters a further stage of escalation. The dispute now destroys everything in its path, whether people, livelihoods, finances, etc. Lawyers are appointed to represent the opposing parties and the struggle to share out what’s left takes its course.
Which selection criteria can help you find an experienced conflict consultant?
The first selection criterion should be the consultant’s existing experience in the field of conflict resolution. In second place, you should pay attention to recommendations from people you trust; however, the person giving the recommendation should match your own personality profile and perhaps have similar conflict experience to your own.
In third place, be sensitive to the impression you get in a preliminary talk with the consultant selected. A brief phone call is enough for you to gain an idea of what the other person is like: you should follow your gut feeling here. And you don’t necessarily have to wait until the partner in your conflict has given their agreement before beginning with conflict resolution. It would be nice to have this agreement, but it’s often very difficult to persuade the quarrelling parties to move towards clarification.
So even without the other party’s agreement, that is, as only one of the parties, you should begin to push ahead with the clarification process by finding an experienced conflict consultant, because an experienced facilitator can draw the other conflict party into the process and also knows ways of accelerating clarification with the other partner. The important thing is to start the clarification process as soon as possible, so that the conflict’s destructive power is reduced.
Please be demanding when choosing a conflict consultant, because this is a very important choice for you. Don’t risk any experiments and trust your gut feeling. I hope I have been able to give you useful tips and I wish you an immediate start to your conflict resolution.