By Martha C Bean
After decades serving as a public policy mediator, I have learned to introduce myself with this greeting:
“Good morning. I’m your mediator, and I love conflict!”
Those sitting around the negotiating table raise their eyebrows; there are some awkward chuckles. People glance at their neighbors.
I continue: “I’d like you to tell me why you think I love conflict. Beyond the obvious fact that conflict pays my rent.”
The stage is now set for the open and spirited conversation that follows. We have established these three things: First, participants know I will serve their negotiations with the confidence that their conflicts are normal and comprehensible. Second, the concept of fundamental interests has been introduced as I unabashedly state my own. Third, the group is invited to discuss their own insights and wisdom regarding conflicts. Let’s take each in turn.
Normalize Conflict; Make it Comprehensible
Many of us have been led to believe we should never be in conflict; that conflict should be avoided at all costs. This sentiment is so pervasive you may ask: Do you really love conflict, Martha? Really?
Indeed I do.
Conflict is an expected and necessary component of our everyday lives. How boring it would be if everything and everyone were the same! Which is what it would take for there to be no conflict. Each of us comes to the table with different histories, skills, traumas, joys, perspectives, families and cultures. Avoiding, ignoring or suppressing conflict hobbles our ability to make strong agreements. It disproportionately affects those who have historically been kept out of meaningful public policy discussions. Sometimes, would-be participants may be marginalized because the issues they highlight are perceived as too troublesome, or their way of being in conflict doesn’t feel “polite.”
The bottom line is this: conflict is inevitable.
Once we accept this inevitability, we can choose to reframe conflict to pry it loose from the fear-and-shame inducing connotations it has been given.
I reframe conflict as friction and energy. Friction that brings heat, light and spark to collective work. Friction that catalyzes and illuminates opportunities for collaboration, creativity and change. Energy to move us forward. Energy to polish out the painful spurs. Energy to reshape the bumps in the road so we can forge a new path. Energy that can burn back that which needs to be disrupted.
When we honor the fact that conflict is inevitable and reframe it with the positive words it deserves, we can employ our conflicts as a resource. Conflict is a hot and precious engine that can propel us to meet our better future.
Personalize Fundamental Interests
When I say I love conflict because it pays my rent, I am being open about a key reason I am a mediator. This frees others to acknowledge their own basic interests, and helps all to understand these are valid and must be reckoned with for the negotiation to be successful.
Members of negotiating groups frequently tell me that by acknowledging my own personal interest in their success, they become confident about the importance of conveying their own fundamental interests. Interests such as “I want to keep my job” or “I need support to help my elected officials understand this option.” Interests that may have seemed untoward, inconsequential or even banal had I not, through my own example, provided the entrée.
I often note I am more likely to pay my rent as a mediator over time if I successfully guide them – and others – to achieve the collaborative agreements they seek. The people I serve are reassured to hear, unequivocally, that I have a vital interest in their success.
Using the Insights and Wisdom of the Group
When I normalize conflict, and personalize the role and importance of interests through my introduction, participants are relieved to know I am both open to, and encouraging of, candid conversations about conflict. Their conflict. Participants speak more freely and fully about what it is that brings them “to the table” in the first place. I ask evocative questions, offer support for clarity and emphasize that we don’t judge the conflict; we simply accept it. In the beginning, I rarely offer my own analysis of their conflict or my perspective on how the process of addressing the conflict will unfold. I first let the group do that for themselves. When those at the table have their own conversation about conflict, they nearly always generate precisely the points I would have made in a presentation. Brought to the fore by the group itself, these key points are retained with more clarity than had I offered them in a lecture! Groups often hold all the wisdom they need to illuminate, explain and work creatively with their conflicts—their friction and energy. Earlier this month, UEDRBlog.org published an article by Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless about this, and how to unleash the wisdom of a group through Liberating Structures.
Closing Thoughts and a Quote
We need not be afraid of the friction and energy inherent in conflict. You, like me, can conflict, for it generates the spark that brightens the room, lights up the people and adds definition to an issue. Imagine what can happen when we harness the persistent energy and precious friction of our conflicts to see the possibilities and enact our future. As Salman Rushdie wrote: “Free societies . . . are societies in motion, and with motion comes tension, dissent, friction. Free people strike sparks, and those sparks are the best evidence of freedom’s existence.”
Martha Bean is a public policy mediator and graphic facilitator with a background in natural resources management. Her expertise is helping dynamic groups get beyond the paralysis that can be pervasive when opinions are heartfelt, perspectives strong and facts uncertain or conflicting. Martha’s twenty-five years of experience mediating complex disputes and working with collaborative groups gives her the gravitas, grace and knowledge to harness peoples’ creativity and intelligence as they address tough issues and difficult decisions.