During a recent conference of the International Academy of Mediators in Edinburgh, Scotland, I was asked to lead a discussion aimed at inspiring some of the world’s most successful commercial mediators to redirect their skills toward a broader range of societal disputes. I began with an onstage interview with Dr. Scilla Elworthy, a three-time Nobel Peace Prize finalist, regarding her life’s work as an activist and peace builder.
Throughout her life, Dr. Elworthy has observed that ordinary people can do extraordinary things. She believes that many of us feel a compulsion to do something to make a difference in the world, but we don’t know how to get started.
The focus of this article is what we as mediators can do to translate our good idea or noble intention into action, beyond our daily practices. Or, as some might say, begin “to move the teacup to our lips.”
The Mediator’s Mind®
What is unique about those who possess a willingness to walk toward conflict? Clearly, there are elements of courage and optimism that help define them as conflict resolution “first responders”, but there is more. They possess a mental model or Mediator’s Mind® that first instills them with a sense of purpose, as well as an extraordinary capacity for self-awareness and empathy.
As commercial mediators, we understand the critical importance of our role, beginning with the mental model we bring to the conflict resolution effort. As we set out to identify and intervene in broader societal conflicts, it’s even more important to convey the sense of optimism and bold thinking that comes from sometimes being the only person in the room to believe that success is possible. That means we can’t be deterred by reports of historical failures or negative statements that “it’s just not possible”. Who better to truly appreciate the difference one person can make than someone who has seen hundreds of examples of “impossible conflicts” successfully resolved? This begins with the Mediator’s Mind® or what Dr. Elworthy describes as your personal capacity.
Looking Inward: Developing Your Mediators Mind®
Ironically, the ability to help others begins with self-help. The ability to look inward with honesty, clarity and self-reflection, and thereby confront our own fears and limitations, is what provides us the strength to help others in conflict. The personal skills and capacities described below allow us as mediators to intervene in even the most deeply rooted conflict, with empathy, compassion and equanimity.
Our ability to reflect and confront our own individual issues including fear, trauma and bias uniquely prepares us for the challenges that lie ahead. Only by expanding our own capacity for self-awareness are we capable of confronting the extraordinary demands presented by those embroiled in conflict.
• Perceiving Your Own Emotions
The best mediators understand the role of emotions in conflict; there can be no cognitive experience or decision without an attendant emotional component. They appreciate that at the heart of most disputes lies an unmet need wrapped in a powerful emotion. Those seeking to intervene in conflicts, which will necessarily involve the presence of strong emotions, are best served by first developing their own capacity. By understanding one’s emotional competency, including the role of individual life experiences in shaping that competency, a mediator will be best prepared to work in an environment of strong emotions.
Humans are uniquely capable of building empathy and attending to the feelings of others. Research in neurobiology has revealed the powerful role of mirror neurons in our brains that provides the opportunity to identify and experience the emotions of others around us. The capacity to build our empathetic selves is another critical step toward positioning ourselves for conflict intervention.
• Listening with Your Whole Being
Those looking to assist others in conflict can best start by refining their own listening skills. Long known to be the centerpiece of mediation skill, this highest quality of listening still lies outside of the grasp of many. We used to describe the targeted skill as “listening without judgment” although we now know from neurobiology that it’s impossible to withhold judgment entirely. Instead, we now use phrases like, “listening while refraining from judgment” or “listening with curiosity.” The best listeners are those that listen with intuition, for both what is stated and that which is unstated, and to be attentive to the congruity between words and body language. In essence, they’ve learned to listen with their whole being.
Mindfulness requires focused attention. Many mediators already train themselves in meditation, yoga or martial arts, reflecting the wisdom of learning to quiet the mind. Unless you aim to become a Buddhist monk, there is little chance to eliminate entirely the constant monologue within ourselves. However, what we can aspire to is to learn how to quiet our internal distractions as we become centered and mindful about the moment we are in. In that effort, we can become truly present and able to assist those in need.
• Checking your ego at the door
While strength of ego will be essential to persevere in the face of deep seated conflict, that strong ego must be balanced by an appropriate lack of ego reflecting an appreciation that you are intervening in someone else’s dispute. As a famous coach once said, “it’s amazing how much can be accomplished when no one requires the credit”. Develop the capacity for true collaboration and learn to leave your ego at the door.
Looking Outward: Identifying Your Intervention
The opportunities for intervention in societal conflicts are limitless, defined only by people’s inability to get along. Conflict is a naturally occurring part of the human condition. Therefore, possibilities for constructive intervention by commercial mediators abound. The question is simply where does one begin?
• Find Your Passion
Every day we are bombarded by news media accounts of conflict and its repercussions. Some suggest that news ratings correlate directly to the amount of human suffering captured on camera as a result of conflict. Begin the process of identifying an intervention by asking the simple question, “what breaks my heart”. If the answer is the homeless person you literally have to step over on your way into work, you may have your answer. Perhaps the neighboring offshore reef that more resembles a marine desert due to overfishing draws your passion. Or maybe the dispute is more regional, such as the myriad of problems posted by migrant, ethnic populations forced to flee their homes and families. Whatever the conflict that draws you to the flame, make sure it resonates an emotional chord.
• Reflect on your skill set
Begin by asking yourself, what am I really good at? Be honest with yourself in this reflective exercise. If you come to the table possessing extraordinary mediation skills you are well on your way. Perhaps you have other, equally important skills; you are a successful organizer, fundraiser or adept at social media. The process of intervening in conflict begins with knowing what you have to offer, and what additional talents and resources you will need to support your efforts.
• Bridge Your Passion with Your Talents
It sounds simple, yet many good intentions fail from the beginning. Perhaps the mediator overshoots the appropriate conflict intervention opportunity. Perhaps they are viewed as an outsider to the conflict or someone with a personal agenda. Whatever the reason, if one has not properly aligned their passion with their skill set from the beginning, they may be setting sail with a hole in the side of their ship.
• Organize to Achieve Sustainability
There are two key parts to this simple directive; organization and sustainability. Organization shouldn’t necessarily imply an unwieldy business structure. Simply put, it means finding like-minded partners or as one colleague described the process, “gathering a tribe”. The goal is to connect with others, including those who may already be working in the same space, and develop an organization that is sufficient to support implementation of your plan.
Any organization, regardless of size, needs to be sustainable to be effective. This means developing a business plan and attention to funding. Most successful interventions require long term effort and economic stamina. Conflict partners need assurance that you are there for the duration.
Six Practical Steps Toward Successful Intervention
Once you’ve identified your passion and become more reflective about the skills you have to offer, the real work can begin. Here are several practical steps to putting ideas into action.
1. Define your focus/be realistic
There are a multitude of local, regional and international issues and conflicts in desperate need of thoughtful intervention and mediation. Issues such as allocation of natural resources, climate change, return of “stolen” national artifacts, gender inequality, financial inequities, religious disputes, and mass migration are all issues that impact millions of lives. And, they are potentially ripe for intervention. As a skilled mediator, you can make a significant difference by identifying a conflict that is “big enough” to be worthy of your efforts, but not so large as to present an insurmountable challenge. In short, your passion must be tempered by a healthy dose of realism.
2. Identify and cultivate key relationships
If you have been involved in developing commercial mediation markets, you have probably sought access to and developed relationships with key decision makers in government and industry. Now, seek out those who are tasked with finding a solution to challenging societal conflicts and offer to assist their efforts with mediation. It was just this type of relationship that led to Judge Weinstein’s appointment as a Special Envoy by then President Bill Clinton to assess economic redevelopment opportunities in war torn Bosnia.
3. Understand the issues at hand
As commercial mediators, most days we don’t need to be subject matter experts in every dispute that we are called upon to assist. Yet, in seeking to intervene in broader societal conflicts, I believe it is imperative to possess a deeper knowledge of the issues in dispute. David Carden described this as “understanding the forces beneath our feet that influence the conflict and its potential solution.” Your greater understanding of the complex issues at hand will help establish credibility with the parties, while allowing for more meaningful participation in the discussions that follow. There are a variety of information partners available to assist the pre-mediation education process, ranging from governmental officials, universities, internet articles, and individual experts, such as economists. Only by developing this deeper knowledge can we hope to be welcomed to the table and best serve the parties involved.
4. Identify all potential stakeholders/ avoid failure by exclusion
Any credible dispute resolution process begins by casting a wide net to identify all stakeholders who may have been impacted by a dispute. The gold standard in the United States for how to conduct this convening process is Convergence Center for Policy Resolution, a non-partisan organization dedicated to resolving issues of national importance across the political divide. Once an issue has been identified, such as health care, education reform, or improving relations with Pakistan, the organization seeks to identify every possible stakeholder whose participation will be essential to a meaningful discussion and credible outcome. In some instances, hundreds of interviews are conducted over many months, just to ensure that all appropriate stakeholders have been identified and invited to the table.
There are many mistakes that can lead one to trip out of the starting block on the track toward resolution. Perhaps the easiest one to avoid is not to overlook an essential stakeholder.
5. Develop a roadmap to success
Strategic thinking and a specific action plan lie at the intersection of a good idea and its implementation. Once a “conflict target” or issue has been identified, the hard work begins. Developing a specific action plan to present to decision makers is essential for any credible offer of assistance. The plan must include details regarding who will serve as the individual or panel of mediation experts, what is the cost and time frame projected for the intervention, and who will participate in the process design. Demonstrating a detailed understanding of the process involved is an important first step in convincing others that you possess the mediation skillset essential for the task.
6. Have Confidence in Applying Proven Mediation Skills
You already know the importance of building connections with stakeholders. You’ve no doubt taught others about the importance of critical listening and feedback techniques. Now you need to trust your skills, and instincts, as you help stakeholders move beyond positions to identify common interests, using understanding and empathy. Seek to move people beyond the idea of right and wrong to a deeper level of connection. And trust that the same skills that served you and others successfully in the world of commercial mediation can be applied, with equal success, to a broader range of conflicts.
In Dr. Elworthy’s recent book, A Business Plan for Peace, she points to research by Barrett Values Center on the hierarchy of qualities of the 21st-century leader, where it was found that the highest level of consciousness is service. Barrett describes this as “selfless service in pursuit of your passion, purpose or vision”. In her book, Dr. Elworthy, describes this potent combination of developing inner power and applying it toward selfless service:
“In this way you will become robust as well as empathetic, courageous as well as sensitive, resilient at the same time as being full of grace. In short, you will become a noble person, in service to your community and the world“.
Let your journey begin.
Bruce A. Edwards is an ADR industry pioneer and recent chairman of the board of directors of JAMS, this country’s largest private provider of ADR services. Along with his wife, Susan Franson Edwards, Mr. Edwards recently cofounded Edwards Mediation Academy, an online education platform dedicated to improving the skills of mediators around the world.