In her column, Complicating the Narrative, Amanda Ripley referred to Gary Friedman and Jack Himmelstein’s book Challenging Conflict. Although I knew about their ideas about transformative conflict resolution, I hadn’t read the book, so I dashed out and bought it.
It lays out an intriguing approach to mediation that could and should be useful to all of us in the conflict resolution and peacebuiiding worlds. Although they call it an understanding based model of conflict resolution, it goes much farther.
To begin with, they prefer having the mediator and the clients in the room working together at all times. Like the most advanced peacebuilders I know of, they are convinced that the parties to a dispute know best how to solve it. The job of the mediator is to accompany the parties and help them find a solution they are all happy with because they have reached it together with, of course, the help of the mediator or other third party.
Even more importantly, they develop some key terms and ideas which I’ve found m myself turning to in revising my own book which is aimed at undergraduates rather than the trained lawyer-mediators Friedman and Himmelstein wrote for.
- That starts with their idea of a conflict trap—that our traditional ways of thinking about a given conflict and/or conflict in general keeps us blocked, unable to see ways out. The mediator’s job is to help break that roadblock by helping everyone involved dig deeper into the nature and causes of the conflict, including its emotional and symbolic sides.
- They do not have a single methodology they use in all cases. However, they try to help each side see where the other one comes from. Ripley was particularly taken by their use of “looping” or having the mediators and/or the parties repeat what they think the others have said until they reach the ability to at least understand and empathize with each other. If nothing else, it “shows each that the other’s view, which often seems incomprehensible, can be understood at least by the mediator.
- They sometimes even ask the parties to role play each other for much the same reason.
- With time, the parties come to understand—though not necessarily agree with—each other.
- Once the parties uncover what they call the “ground of understanding,” it becomes easier for all sides to work together to find a common solution because they have now come closer to a common point of departure. Similarly, the emotional as well as the intellectual or political nature of their disagreements will have surfaced.
I started reading this book with a good bit of skepticism. I have read dozens of books on how to negotiate and mediate. Usually, they leave me less than satisfied because the tools and techniques the author pushes don’t work everywhere. That’s true here as well, as Friedman and Himmelstein themselves point out. I’m also skeptical that mediation alone can bring any conflict to a lasting end. Friedman and Himmelstein recognize that, too, but I found myself far less dissatisfied with their book than I have been with most precisely because they are convinced that by looping, digging deeply, seeking common understandings, and the like, the mediator can also lay the groundwork for the longer lasting effort of creating right relationships of out of what once looked like intractable conflicts.