The Conflict Paradox
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The Conflict Paradox

Seven Dilemmas at the Core of Disputes

Bernard S. Mayer

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The Conflict Paradox

Seven Dilemmas at the Core of Disputes

Bernard S. Mayer

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Find the roadmap to the heart of the conflict

The Conflict Paradox is a guide to taking conflict to a more productive place. Written by one of the founders of the professional conflict management field and co-published with the American Bar Association, this book outlines seven major dilemmas that conflict practitioners face every day. Readers will find expert guidance toward getting to the heart of the conflict and will be challenged to adopt a new way to think about the choices disputants face,. They will also be offered practical tools and techniques for more successful intervention. Using stories, experiences, and reflective exercises to bring these concepts to life, the author provides actionable advice for overcoming roadblocks to effective conflict work.

Disputants and interveners alike are often stymied by what appear to be unacceptable alternatives,. The Conflict Paradox offers a new way of understanding and working with these so that they become not obstacles but opportunities for helping people move through conflict successfully..

  • Examine the contradictions at the center of almost all conflicts
  • Learn how to bring competition and cooperation, avoidance and engagement, optimism and realism together to make for more power conflict intervention
  • Deal effectively with the tensions between emotions, and logic, principles and compromise, neutrality and advocacy, community and autonomy
  • Discover the tools and techniques that make conflicts less of a hurdle to overcome and more of an opportunity to pursue

Conflict is everywhere, and conflict intervention skills are valuable far beyond the professional and legal realms. With insight and creativity, solutions are almost always possible. For conflict interveners and disputants looking for an effective and creative approach to understanding and working with conflict, The Conflict Paradox provides a powerful and important roadmap for conflict intervention.

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Chapter One
The Art of Conflict

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack-Up
When we intervene in conflict, whatever our role, we inevitably address how people think about their disputes. We may believe that we are trying to hammer out an agreement, change the way people communicate, or help them through a healing and recovery process. However, we do not really change the dynamics of a conflict unless we change how those involved see the challenges before them, the people they are in conflict with, or the way in which the conflict has arisen and developed.
This is also true for ourselves. Unless we change how we make sense of our own conflicts, we are unlikely to change the fundamental way in which we approach them. These changes may be minor or transformative; they may be conscious or unrecognized; and it may never be clear to anyone, including ourselves, just what happened to alter these narratives. But unless disputants understand and experience their situation in an altered way, they are unlikely to improve their approach significantly, and the impact of our intervention will not only be ineffective but will probably be unrecognized.
Although changing how people think may seem like a daunting task, it lies at the heart of how we repeatedly make a difference in conflict. Conflict professionals, as a field of practice, have equated our impact on conflict with the intervention roles we play (mediation, facilitation, arbitration, advocacy, systems design, coaching), the tactics we use (reframing, active listening, looking for agreements in principle, identifying underlying interests, empowering participants), the forums we employ and create (negotiations, policy dialogues, consensus decision-making processes, restorative justice programs, settlement conferences), or the purposes we bring (resolution, transformation, healing, peace building, communication, decision making, engagement). All of these are important defining principles for how we approach our work in conflict, but none really gets at the heart of how we make a difference. Though important tactics, processes, and roles, exactly how do they move a conflict forward in a more productive direction?
In Dynamics of Conflict (2012), I discuss five essential elements that we bring to the table as conflict interveners that make a difference in the way people interact. In essence, we
  • Create a new structure of interaction
  • Bring a set of skills that help promote more constructive interchanges
  • Introduce a specific approach to intervention
  • Bring our values
  • Incorporate our personal qualities
Each of these helps frame the way we work on conflict and is an important avenue for making a difference. But just how do they make a difference?
I suggest in this book that the core of what we do is to help disputants change their approach to seven fundamental paradoxes about the nature of conflict. We can understand each of these as a dilemma, polarity, contradiction, duality, or paradox that frames how people view conflict and that limits their ability to be flexible and creative. Everyone involved in a dispute, including conflict professionals, tends to stumble over these polarities or tries to find easy ways to rectify the very real contradictions they represent. The more people succumb to dualistic thinking in response to these polarities, the more they become trapped in a conflict. And the more we as interveners buy into these dualities, the less effective we are in helping others find a constructive way to move forward. However, if we're able to see these polarities as guideposts for finding a way through conflict—and that each element of them is an essential part of the larger truth that conflict presents—we can achieve profound and meaningful intervention.
We can view these polarities collectively as the conflict paradox—the inevitable and defining contradictions that we face when deciding how to approach a conflictual interaction. In essence, the conflict paradox is about the intellectual and emotional maturity that we bring to conflict. The higher the stakes, the greater our tendency to view these polarities in a more primitive or immature way—to believe that we must choose between one side or the other and to see one element as right and the other as wrong. For example, we may view the situation as either hopeless or as very resolvable. We may feel that we cannot trust the other side or that we should fully trust them. We may decide to engage fully in conflict or to avoid it entirely. We may believe that we take either a thoroughly cooperative stance or we zealously compete. In this way, conflict induces a dualistic and simplistic way of thinking. But effective conflict work requires a more sophisticated, nuanced, and complex approach that recognizes that in most instances, both sides of these polarities must be embraced, and we have to get past understanding them as contradictions. The central premise of this book is that these polarities are genuine paradoxes. They appear to offer either-or choices or divergent realities, but the higher truth is the one that embraces the unity of both elements.
This does not mean that we necessarily accept in a nondiscriminatory manner the truth or the validity of all approaches to conflict. We may continue to believe that one side has the moral high ground, the more reasonable approach, the greater need, or the more persuasive argument. But it doesn't serve us well to allow this belief to lead us into a primitive view of the conflict or the potential approaches that can be taken to it. And it is our job as interveners to help disputants see the situation they are in and choices they face in a more sophisticated way.
We do this by working on seven essential dilemmas that disputants face in approaching a conflict. Each of these is generally experienced as a polarity or dualism—a pair of opposites that require a decisive choice between them. The challenge we face is to help others—and ourselves—move to a more nuanced, more complex, and less bifurcated view. Of course, disputants seldom understand it in these terms. As a result, they often fail to recognize the process of choosing how to view a conflict or even the fact that we are choosing a view at all. However, in conflicts large and small, intense or mild, we must find a way of working with these dualities. The way we do this determines to a large extent how we think about conflict and therefore how we react to it.
We will discuss each of these conflicts in a separate chapter. Taken together, they constitute the conflict paradox:
  • Competition and cooperation We view these as opposite strategies that disputants must choose between. A more nuanced view may suggest a mixed strategy, combining cooperative and competitive moves, but it's even harder to grasp that competition requires cooperation, and without competition the motivation to cooperate is absent. Almost every move we make in conflict involves both cooperative and competitive elements; without one, we really cannot have the other.
  • Optimism and realism Optimism without realism is not meaningful; realism without optimism is a dead end. A constructive approach to conflict can occur only when both are at play—when we are motivated by optimism and guided by realism.
  • Avoidance and engagement We cannot avoid or address all conflict. In addition, all conflict moves involve a mixture of conscious and unconscious decisions about how and what to engage and avoid. The decision to address one conflict inevitably involves a decision to avoid another.
  • Principle and compromise People tend to act as if compromising on important issues is unprincipled or cowardly. We believe we must decide whether to carry on a conflict in a principled manner (i.e., in accordance with our most important values or beliefs) or to compromise on something essential to us; yet we never want to forgo our essential principles, because they are the guideposts that help us through all of our decisions in conflict. But without compromise, we can do nothing to advance them.
  • Emotions and logic We frequently hear that the key to dealing with conflict or being effective in negotiations is to be rational and to hold our emotions at bay. However, emotions are an important source of power and an essential tool for moving through conflict constructively.
  • Neutrality and advocacy The line between these approaches to conflict is much thinner than we may think. Conflict interveners have to be effective advocates for disputing parties and for the process while bringing an impartial perspective.
  • Community and autonomy The dynamic tension between our need for community (interdependence with others in our lives) and autonomy (independence) infuses our thinking and action throughout conflict.
All disputants have to deal with these polarities, and all interveners have to find a way of helping parties find their way through them. Together, they define the conflict paradox; simultaneously, they are our greatest challenge as interveners and offer us the greatest potential to make a genuine difference. We can see every move that someone makes during conflict as an expression of at least a momentary choice about how to handle these dilemmas, and every intervention by a conflict specialist as an effort to help people approach them in a more nuanced and sophisticated way.

What We Bring to the Table and What the Table Brings to Us

As in all professional endeavors, what we as interveners think we are all about and what is important to us are not always the same as what our clients want or what the circumstances allow. For example, conflict professionals tend to believe that the purpose of our intervention is to find an outcome that meets everyone's needs as much as possible—a fair, reasonable, balanced way forward through a conflict. But this is often not even close to what disputants want or to what a decision-making structure may allow. Consider the following scenario:
Pauline had worked for HZD Industries for three years. She had filed several grievances during this time, mostly against her immediate supervisor, Luis. None of these had led to a favorable finding for Pauline, who felt exploited and misunderstood by “the system.” After a couple of unsatisfactory performance appraisals (both of which Pauline dismissed as yet another example of Luis's determination to “get her”), HZD's management terminated Pauline. Again she grieved, and came to mediation requesting reinstatement, a pay raise, and an apology from the company.
In a circumstance such as this, it may be that the company wants to agree on a reasonable severance package and that Pauline's most important goal is to receive guidance and financial assistance while moving on to a new job. If that is the case, there is at least some overlap between each party's goals and the purpose of the interveners. But it may also be that while management feels obligated to go through mediation, they also believe that they have already given all they can or “put up with enough” from Pauline. And perhaps Pauline is simply determined to give them a piece of her mind and to find a way to “publicly shame them.” In that case, our goal as interveners may well be at cross-purposes with those of the parties. We may realize while working through these competing goals that this case has no business being mediated—or it may cause us to redefine our objectives in some way.
Every intervention poses this dilemma, in a sense, because interveners and disputants inevitably have different goals or needs. Where an intervener may want to lower the level of conflict or end it altogether, a disputant may want to have her say and to get her way as much as possible. And while interveners see the necessity of giving everyone involved a voice at the table and an opportunity to promote their legitimate interests, disputants are usually more interested in making sure their own voices are heard and their own concerns addressed. They do not necessarily care whether other parties are satisfied or have had a significant voice in the outcome.
These differences are not signs of poor faith, but they are important. They reflect the different roles that disputants and interveners play in conflict and the necessarily different values and goals that accompany them. One result of these differences is that disputants and interveners often come down on different sides of a paradox. Our response as interveners often is to try to balance an overemphasis on one element by promoting the opposite. Unfortunately, if we merely seek balance—instead of trying to move beyond the polarity—we may evoke resistance and can actually create a more entrenched view of the choices that people face. For example, consider the following possible approaches that interveners might take in Pauline's case:
  • Pauline and HZD see themselves in a competitive relationship and feel the need to compete effectively. In response, interveners may want to urge them to cooperate and look for integrative outcomes.
  • Pauline and HZD feel pretty hopeless about coming to any agreement, and as a result interveners feel that they should be encouraging and optimistic.
  • Pauline and HZD view this as a matter of principle, whereas interveners try to encourage compromise.
  • Pauline and HZD want to assert their independence (autonomy) from each other by denying that they are in any way dependent or vulnerable to the other, whereas interveners may want to encourage them to look at their interdependence (community) by focusing on potential areas of mutual interest.
Because of the difference between what we bring to the table as interveners and what the disputants want—or what the structure of the interaction demands—interveners are always negotiating our way through these polarities. This is the heart of our challenge. We do not meet this challenge, however, by asserting only one side of the polarity—usually in opposition to the element that we believe is perpetuating a conflict. We meet it by embracing both aspects—in Pauline's case, the need for her to compete effectively if cooperation has any chance to succeed. We must seek the truth that encompasses both sides of these polarities (remember that genuine optimism must be realistic). When we truly grasp that what we perceive to be polarities and mutually contradictory choices are not that at all—but are, in fact, paradoxically, essential aspects of the same reality—then we can begin to make a difference in how we approach a conflict.

How Contradictions Make Us Who We Are

Why is it that conflicts or disputes are the defining characteristic of our field? These terms are the central concept in the names of most major professional organizations in the United States (for example the Association of Dispute Resolution, the Dispute Resolution Section of the ABA, the International Association for Conflict Management) and el...

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