Understanding Conflict, part 3: Mediation
Like conflict itself, responding to conflict is complex and multi-faceted. Though likely quite obvious, it is important to note that responding to conflict should be context dependent. The scale, roots, intensity, proximity, etc. all impact how one engages conflict. Dialogue for Peaceful Change (DPC) identifies five main categories of conflict responses: avoidance, accommodation, compromise, control, and empathetic problem solving.
The approach humans take at a given time is determined primarily by two considerations: importance of relationship and importance of agenda. Avoiders place low importance on both relationship and agenda; accommodators yield to the other’s position, placing low importance on the agenda but valuing the relationship; compromisers view the agenda and relationship as of equal value, and thus are willing to concede some of their position but not all; controllers place great importance on the issues at play and less importance on the relationships at stake; and empathetic problem solvers view both as important and give equal consideration to the interests of all parties so as to maintain the integrity of the relationships.
Often, we have to use more than one approach in a given conflict. Depending on the current stage of conflict, we can pursue prevention, intervention, mediation, or transformation. The role of mediation will be the focus of this post.
During periods of conflict reduction, formal mediation opportunities may be ripe. In the context of a social or political conflict, a neutral third-party may be able to engage with leaders to facilitate the discovery of a resolution to maintain ceasefires and avoid the re-escalation of violence. But, as world-renown mediator and peacebuilder John Paul Lederach notes in his excellent book The Moral Imagination, mediation must break free from narrow definitions that confine it to the realm of political negotiation.
Lederach prefers to speak of an “imaginative mediative capacity,” writing that “mediative suggests a quality of relational interaction rather than the specificity of a role” (95). His emphasis on the relational aspect of mediation links well with DPC’s four different forms of mediation: formal, intermediation, mediative dialogue, and mediative behavior. Particularly in the first, third, and fourth forms, mediation pursues relational restoration as well as hopes to foster opportunities for change. This connects well to Lederach:
“the perspective of mediative capacity focuses attention on introducing a quality of interaction into a strategic set of social spaces within the web of systemic relationships in order to promote constructive change processes in the conflict-affected setting as a whole” (Moral Imagination, 97, emphasis mine).
Mediation then, for Lederach and DPC, moves beyond the desire to settle conflicts and instead pursues transformation.
Mediation must be distinguished from similar processes like negotiation, arbitration, litigation, and legislative resolution, all of which entail a strong power dynamic. Mediation first and foremost must be voluntary. Parties cannot be forced into mediation. DPC pursues what Ramsbotham et al refer to as pure mediation – that is, “a voluntary process in which the parties retain control over the outcome.” DPC’s model of formal mediation is a six-stage dialogue facilitation wherein the mediators’ task is to offer support to the parties in conflict and provide a secure environment in which they can collectively brainstorm for sustainable resolutions. Instrumental in this process are the latter forms of mediation mentioned: mediative dialogue and behavior.
DPC’s training in mediative dialogue and behavior was incredibly beneficial for me. The training focused on intentional, careful listening; constructive questioning; and thoughtful paraphrasing. I soon realized that listening well has far less to do with measured technicalities than it does artistic disciplines. Lederach puts it well:
“Listening is the discipline and art of capturing the complexity of history in the simplicity of deep intuition. It is attending to a sharp sense of what things mean,” (Moral Imagination, 70).
But this is not to suggest that the technical side of listening – or mediation, or peacebuilding – is irrelevant. As Lederach wisely states, we must “seek the genuine connection of discipline and art, the integration of skill and aesthetics.”
He continues: “listening requires the discipline of very few words and enormous patience.” In mediative dialogue, we listen to understand rather than respond. Through open-ended questions and frequent paraphrasing, the mediator is able to give the parties involved the gift of feeling heard and valued.
Two crucial elements of mediative dialogue are suspending judgment and developing cultural fluency. Both these elements were central to my particular mediation simulation during the training. My colleague and I mediated a conflict between a village headman and his community in Zimbabwe. After a promise from an international donor to provide the village with a grinding mill, the headman decided the mill should be placed near his home, which was outside the village, citing security as his primary concern. The community spokeswoman protested this, asserting that the mill should be placed in the center of the community for the convenience of all. Due to the cultural context, my colleague and I had to be mindful of who we should invite to speak first, how we as a male and female mediator should engage the headman and community spokeswoman, how often we should interrupt and where we should look so as not to appear disrespectful, and so on. Regarding the suspension of judgment, my colleague and I both felt after the initial conversations with the headman that security was not actually his primary motive. His was a power play, we thought. In fact, we were wrong, and a solution was found between the parties that met the headman’s need for security and the villagers’ primary need for accessibility. Through firsthand experience, I learned the necessity of suspending judgment and cultivating cultural sensitivities.
DPC’s mediation training taught invaluable skills for constructive interpersonal engagement as well as offered experiential guidance in cultivating some of the artistic disciplines of conflict transformation. Through voluntary participation, full inclusivity, consulting and gathering the “critical yeast,” and building improbable relationships, mediation should work towards ushering in the tides of peace: transformation, interdependence, diversity, equity, and sustainability. I learned from DPC that by listening intentionally and carefully, facilitating constructive dialogue between conflicting parties, offering continued support, and making use of peripheral vision, we might transcend the cemented positions of parties and seek transformation through addressing the needs and interests of the respective sides as well as the quality of their relationship to each other. Peacebuilding has everything to do with relationships. As Lederach says, peace is not a static “end-state,” but rather the fluid, complex cultivation of relationship. Peace is not the shore, so to speak; it is the tide.
Dialogue for Peaceful Change. Training of Facilitators, 3rd ed. Belfast and Ballycastle: Unpublished, 2011.
Lederach, John Paul. The Little Book of Conflict Transformation. Interocurse, PA: Good Books, 2003.
—. The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Lederach, John Paul, and Angela Jill Lederach. When Blood and Bones Cry Out: Journeys Through the Soundscape of Healing and Reconciliation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Ramsbotham, Oliver, Tom Woodhouse, and Hugh Miall. Contemporary Conflict Resolution, 3rd ed. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2011.
 On a side note, some have critiqued language of conflict stages, suggesting that thinking of conflict as progressing linearly is not always helpful. In When Blood and Bones Cry Out, John Paul Lederach and Angie Lederach critique the dominant metaphor of conflict as linear, suggesting that “lived experience at the community level suggests something less linear and sequential, more fluid and ambiguous … Hard hit by repeated waves of open warfare, people in local communities experience violence, structural and direct, as ongoing and resurgent in their midst,” (49). What is needed, then, in building peace is the establishment of “process-structures.” Process-structures “are dynamic, adaptive, and changing, while at the same time maintaining a functional and recognizable form and structure.” Paradoxically embracing the notions of circularity and linearity, considering process-structures allows us to view the overall trajectory of conflict while simultaneously recognizing that violence, conflict, and peace happen in cycles. See Lederach, Little Book of Conflict Transformation, 40-41.
 In The Moral Imagination, Lederach introduces the notion of critical yeast. Regarding social movements, volume is generally perceived as the determinant of success. High numbers mean the movement and issues are important; low numbers mean the opposite. Lederach suggests we are asking the wrong question when it comes to the success of social change movements. Rather than asking how many? we should ask who?: “Who, though not like-minded or like-situated in this context of conflict, would have a capacity, if they were mixed and held together, to make other things grow exponentially, beyond their numbers?” Lederach says that what is needed is “getting a small set of the right people involved at the right places.” See Moral Imagination, 91.
 Lederach writes that “peripheral vision…is the capacity to situate oneself in a changing environment with a sense of direction and purpose and at the same time develop an ability to see and move with the unexpected,” Moral Imagination, 118.