Sunday, September 25, 2011

Conflict skill #3: Mediation

Some people envisage a career in Conflict Resolution as either volunteer or minimum wage, a labor of love based on value affinity with transforming destructive conflict into constructive conflict and making for a better, happier, more just and less bloody world. That is indeed very often the case. We are a field of true believers in living lives toward the common good, even if it redounds poorly upon our career or earning capacities. I remember transitioning from construction work to community organizing and it was a financial downshift that I would not have been able to handle while I was a single parent, but finally made my full time move and learned to live with much less.

However, professional public policy mediators who handle cases with multiple parties with overlapping jurisdictions and a welter of interests, positions, parties, laws, environmental considerations and a litigious society, these professionals can make quite a good living, certainly far more than my little fixed-term faculty position at a state university in a state with a nearly nonexistent taxpayer support for public universities. My friend who does such public policy mediations will earn far more than most tenured full professors because--why?--because she saves the parties so much in legal billable hours. She assesses the conflict in detail, determines what the interests are for each party, learns about their fallback positions (best alternative to a negotiated solution, or BATNA), and she brings them through a process that results in a legal agreement created by the parties together and that is constructed to maximize gain for each party while minimizing loss and reducing or eliminating resentment and desire for revenge.

This is not easy work. Mediation is practiced in various ways by various professionals and there is no cookie cutter approach, but mediation can simply be the process of facilitating principled negotiation.

So, one path to mediation is to follow this procedural sequence:
  • assessment
  • gathering the parties
  • establishing groundrules for participation
  • eliciting everyone's story
  • brainstorming options
  • agreement on fair standards
  • synthesizing potential agreements
  • evaluation
  • final negotiation of voluntary agreement
  • signed agreement
Mediation can happen between family members, neighbors, friends, co-workers, intra-institutionally, in the community, and in larger collectives all the way to transnationally and internationally. The stronger the mediation skills and the stronger the commitment and motivation toward a mediated agreement of the parties, the more successful and sustainable the final agreement.

Mediation requires recognition of the conflict industry elements that exist in almost all conflicts, that is, the parties that tend to benefit from ongoing conflict, and that open conversation and acknowledgment helps the parties to craft a much more realistic agreement that can withstand the pressures brought to bear by those who profit, whether they are lawyers who can earn more by appealing cases to higher and higher courts or whether they are ambitious fighters who wish to portray themselves as the champions of those who need their protection. War profiteers of all sorts must be identified or they will contaminate and eventually unravel the process, even if they are apparently working for the good of all. In other words, the coalition of those who would most benefit from an end or radical reduction of a conflict need to be the parties pushing the process forward and need to devise safeguards to protect everyone from "the protectors."

Thus, mediation is a unique combination of careful, respectful diplomacy and crucial transparency. Individuals who thrive on problem solving rather than dramatic battles for victory over someone are more likely to be drawn to mediation. Still, there is no mutual exclusivity. Sometimes mediation will reveal the necessity for ongoing struggle, but the mediator's work is to gradually convince everyone to shift from battling each other to battling the problem together.

This is all easily said and is very tough work. Reaching a good mediated agreement saves much more destruction, usually, than it gains for each party. Understanding this is why smart people choose mediation and why really smart people become mediators. Mediators who work hard for a positive peace outcome are some of the most competent creators of what we might call enlightened self-interest for all.

No comments: