30 ACResolution Magazine
have a pretty good idea of what skills are important, but measuring them is another story.
But here is my impression: the skill level of practitioners on
the whole is far higher than it was 30 years ago. For example, it
seems to me that the mediators I have worked with are better
able to combine listening and problem solving, being mindful with
being strategic, and empathy with reality testing, than we were as
a group when I first started practicing. We are also more aware of
the cultural and gender dimensions of conflict. We are less naïve
about how big an impact we can make and more strategic about
how to promote effective conflict work. I also think that we have a
broader sense of what constitutes effective work.
I expect that we will continue as a field to become more effective on a practical level and more sophisticated conceptually. But
here again diversity concerns are paramount. My fear is that we
may be getting better and better at working with the same type
of clients we have traditionally worked with – for example corporate clients, upper-level management and middle class families.
We are not necessarily getting better at reaching out to or working with more vulnerable or underserved communities nor are
we showing a growth in our capacity to work with more diverse
populations. Our ability as a field to develop the skills necessary
to work with a far broader range of people will be critical to our
long-term adaptability, and that will require that we become more
a more diverse field.
We tend to think of skills in very practical, behavioral terms, e.g.,
framing, active listening, creating a safe negotiating atmosphere,
responding to power plays, or identifying underlying interests.
But there are at least two other kinds of skills that are critical to
intervention capacity: emotional and conceptual skills. We tend
to be more attuned to the importance of emotional skills (e.g.,
emotional intelligence, knowing our button pushers, comfort
with emotionality in others) than to enhancing our conceptual
and analytical skills, but these too are critical to effectiveness and
adaptability. In this area, our progress is less impressive. We need
more solid, empirical research, a greater commitment to reflective
practice, and a greater willingness to systematically evaluate our
most cherished frameworks and beliefs. It sometimes seems that
the basic tenets of our work remain those articulated 30 years
ago by Fisher and Ury in Getting to Yes. While this still provides
solid practical advice (up to a point), it is not a powerful or sophisticated enough conceptual framework (for example, in relation to
the impact of identity, gender and race) to provide the foundation
for a substantive and adaptable field of practice.
Even when we do push our conceptual frameworks, we tend to
take a mechanistic approach — that is, we want to know what a
framework suggests for tactical intervention, rather than how it
can help us understand the nature of conflict and the dynamics
of intervention. We often adopt frameworks developed in other
fields as our new guiding star rather than as a contribution to our
own body of knowledge. For example, there has been a great deal
of excitement about the relevance of insights from brain science
to our work (and I too find this fascinating). But this is at best an
area that contributes to our increasing understanding of conflict
dynamics—I don’t believe it can or should be the central organiz-
ing framework. If it could, we would be practitioners in the field of
applied brain science. As conflict professionals we are something
other than that.
We need to draw on neuroscience, evolutionary biology, political
science, economics, systems theory, psychology, sociology, law,
organizational development, and other areas of knowledge as we
work to increase the sophistication of our own body of knowledge and conceptual skills. This may be the area that provides the
greatest challenge to our capacity to adapt, but perhaps also our
Our professional and personal values and our ethical commitments are the most important defining force of our identity as
practitioners—and the most crucial to our long-term adaptability.
Our commitment to empowerment, deep democracy, equality,
justice, diversity, and self-determination are what make us who
we are. Our success in turning these values into a practice reality is
what makes us effective and relevant. I don’t see a diminishment
of our intellectual commitment to these values, but as different
institutions and professions have taken over larger chunks of our
practice, I fear a weakening of our capacity to realize our core values in practice.
For example, the more court mediation programs limit the time
and resources available for mediation, the more it seems that
mediation turns into a power play to pressure people into agreements. The domination of the legal profession in many arenas of
mediation risks the dominance of a rights-based, settlement-conference orientation, despite the fact that this narrow focus
may contradict some of our espoused values (such as client
There are many reasons why the legal profession has come to
play such a central role in dispute resolution practice, and there are
many legitimate reasons why sources of funding want immediate results. But these developments do raise some significant
questions about our future and suggest that we may be facing
a significant narrowing of our scope of work. One road we might
take is to reconsider our foundational values and adapt them to
this narrowing – results-oriented, efficiency-emphasis - scope.
If so, we will be a very different (and to my way of thinking, far
less significant) field of practice. Or we can hold fast to our values
and take a much broader and more flexible view about how to put
them into practice.
I think we are engaged in an ongoing and probably long-term
struggle between these two approaches to the tension between
the market reality we face and the values we espouse. Our long-term relevance as an independent field of practice will be defined
in no small measure by the ongoing viability of our fundamental
values and their relationship to what we actually do in practice.
To me this is both exciting and frightening. Frightening because I
don’t particularly want to think about what kind of world it would
be where these values are not relevant. Exciting because it suggests just how important our work is to struggling for the kind of
society I hope we are building.