Archive for ‘Theory in other fields/disciplines’

July 19, 2017

Learning Conflict Resolution through Theatre

This morning (very early!), I joined Amanda Semenoff and C.D. Saint for their podcast, Overthinking Conflict.  The topic we discussed was how watching live theatre can be useful for conflict resolution professionals. Our discussion was wide ranging, and we touched on a number of reasons a conflict resolution practitioner might want to watch live theatre (many of which apply to other forms of art, too).

During the conversation, I was asked about recommendations for shows, and was sorry that I couldn’t refer to the upcoming Vancouver Fringe Festival performances because the Fringe program hasn’t been released yet.  (The launch party is Thursday, July 27th, 2017.)  Fringe Festivals are a particularly rich opportunity for conflict resolution professionals to explore plays. After all, there’s always a hodgepodge of domestic and international performers; plays are short, so risk is low (you aren’t trapped for hours wishing you’d made another choice!); standing in line for one performance gives you the chance to hear all about a dozen more shows; and the variety is incredible!

As I told Amanda and C.D., I’ll put together a list of recommendations for conflict resolution practitioners once the program is available, but, in the meantime, I wanted to ruminate further on the kinds of learning one can take away from live theatre.

Ultimately, I came up with a list of 8 ways in which watching live theatre can serve a learning purpose for a conflict resolution professional:

  • Observing and analyzing a contained conflict text
  • Observing, analyzing, or participating in a dramatized conflict resolution process
  • Learning about other ways of viewing the world
  • Engaging with metaphor
  • Reading meaning through physical theatre
  • Observing others’ skills in scripted or improvisational form
  • Explorations of historical conflict
  • Explorations of neuroscience, mental health topics, and other content that enriches our practice

Just as my conversation with Amanda and C.D. allowed only enough time to discuss a few ways we could talk about theatre as “homework” for conflict resolution practitioners, a single blog post doesn’t really give me scope to reflect on all of these topics either.  As such, I’ll concentrate only on the first topic here, and revisit the question over the next short while to discuss the remainder of the list.

Observing Conflict – Cause and Effect

Theatrical performances, especially those following the pattern of traditional European theatre, almost always focus around a central conflict. While there are variations to the pattern, and artists have consciously sought to create productions that resist that pattern,  theatre generally explores conflict.

In a typical, chronological narrative structure, the audience is able to observe a conflict develop and come to a point of crisis. Unlike real life conflicts where it’s virtually impossible to witness all the contributing factors, the contained nature of a well-structured drama allows the audience to see how conflict builds – often from multiple perspectives. As a student of conflict resolution, this chance to observe whole stories and to understand multiple perspectives creates an opportunity for reflection: Where have I seen those patterns of communication before? What kinds of changes in the characters’ communications could prevent the looming crisis? If a mediator were inserted into the mix, when and how would they seek to shift the dynamic?

Some years ago, I was involved in a project that asked the question: what if Hamlet and Gertrude had been able to mediate their family dispute? Our initial intention was to create a short video we could use to start a conversation with large law classes about the differences amongst dispute resolution processes. Instead, we launched many conversations about conflict prevention across multiple narrative art forms! I can say now with great confidence that there are hundreds of ways in which conflict resolution practitioners could have saved Romeo and Juliet! (I won’t even try to describe how little show would be left if conflict resolution students were set loose on Seinfeld: if you strip away the conflict, it really is about nothing.)

Over the years, conflict resolution students have shown me that some of the deepest, and clearest, conflict analyses comes from grappling with a performed, and contained, conflict. The finite nature of the material coupled with the relative linearity of most performances – or sometimes the intentional non-linearity chosen to highlight aspects of the conflict – offers a much tidier “text” for examination than any real life conflict can. Just as role plays are utilized to learn conflict resolution skills (even when some students must observe due to numbers), observations of performed plays allow for both individual reflection and discussion with co-learners.

One further reason that it is relatively easy to grapple deeply with issues in a play is one’s emotional distance from a performed conflict – all the more so when the conflict is known to be fictional. As mediators (or lawyers, arbitrators, etc.), we often try to find a place of empathy with enough distance to be able to offer alternative perspectives. Theatre allows us to step into that place and to become familiar with its feel. Film and television offer similar experiences, but the degree of control we have – to pause, rewind, re-view – makes the experience less immediate (less like the experience in real life) than live theatre.  With live actors, we experience greater immediacy, and, of course, there is a risk of things going wrong, of something unexpected happening, which connects the experience more viscerally with real life.  In fact, sit in the front row and the experience is entirely different than watching a film!

Here are three plays coming up soon on Vancouver stages that offer great opportunities to observe and examine conflict.  Consider getting out to the theatre this summer! And bring a colleague for post-theatre discussion!

  • Bard on the Beach will be showing The Merchant of Venice this year, and, even better, showing Shylock for a short run at the end of the season. Most people know something about The Merchant of Venice, and it certainly offers lots of familial and commercial dispute, a discussion of the interrelationship between law and mercy, and a great deal to discuss in terms of anti-Semitism and, by extension, other forms of bias. Shylock is a play that is often performed in combination with The Merchant of Venice because it explicitly examines the challenges of performing a text that cannot be separated from the prejudices of its times. It is well worth watching both!
  • In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play). I haven’t seen this yet, but its nomination for a Tony in 2010 bodes well. I’m anticipating that this one will offer a study in cognitive dissonance as its characters struggle to recognize the possibility of mistaken assumptions underlying culturally accepted “truths”. The fact that it involves a marital relationship increases the likelihood of it offering a window into a familiar interpersonal conflict.

 

 

 

January 17, 2016

Active listening skills for phone sex operators and other lessons from the theatre

“The cross pollination of disciplines is fundamental to truly revolutionary advances in our culture.”

– Neil deGrasse Tyson

This year our youngest daughter turned 19 and we are now parents of three adults.  They are all at university so it’s not as though all of our responsibilities have ended, but …  We are definitely free to make plans on our own in a way that hasn’t been possible since the eldest two (twins) were born.  It is possible that this freedom has gone to my head – just a bit.  As a former theatre student who attended plays very frequently in my pre-parent days, I upped our theatre-going dramatically this year in response to the excitement of that freedom!  We moved from season subscriptions at two theatres, to a year in which we saw close to an average of one play a week (an average which is skewed by seeing 30 plays in 10 days at the Vancouver Fringe Festival.)

Now theatre, by its very nature, tends to focus on conflict.  Critics since Aristotle have explored the ways in which plays develop around central conflicts; while playwrighting courses teach that nothing kills the entertainment value of a show quicker than characters agreeing about everything!  As a consequence, plays tend to lend themselves to examination through a conflict resolution lens: What is the source of the conflict? How do the characters negotiate? What might a conflict resolution professional take away from the interaction?

While I tend to view most popular culture through a conflict resolution lens – if only to identify great examples for teaching purposes – I realized this year that I have underutilized plays as options for engaged discussions with fellow conflict resolution professionals.  The realization hit me after I watched Tonya Jone Miller’s amazing performance in The Story of O’s at the Vancouver Fringe.  I’ll write more about the play below, but the play and her performance reminded me vividly of how interconnected some of the skills she was displaying are with conflict resolution practice.  As a result, I was inspired to come up with a list of the top plays for conflict resolution professionals that I saw in 2015 – with the hope that others will join me in discussions of even more such plays in 2016.  (To that end, I’ll be organizing a CoRe Speaker event in September specifically focused around plays seen at the Vancouver Fringe Festival. Details to be announced on the CoRe site once the Fringe schedule is announced.)

Jolts for Mediators

My top four plays for conflict resolution practitioners in 2015 were:

1. Tonya Jone Miller’s A Story of O’s

a_story_of_osI didn’t go to A Story of O’s with an expectation of insight into my own profession.  The program description in the Fringe guide told me little beyond the fact that the play was a monologue about sex phone work based on the performer’s real life experiences. It sounded like something that could be entertaining or dreadful; but it was only 60 minutes long so worth the risk given it fit the rest of my schedule for the night.

Instead of my best case – entertaining – the show was sensational! And much of what impressed me was directly related to Tonya’s demonstration of incredible skills in active listening, spontaneity, trust building (with the audience and with her phone sex clients) and empathy without judgment.  The majority of the show was scripted, but one could readily extrapolate, from the snippets of calls that Tonya performed, just how attentively she was listening to each client and continuously checking her understanding of their interests.  That she was so explicitly concerned with finding empathy without judgment with each caller resonated with me: as mediators we all occasionally struggle with a tendency to judge a party’s approach to negotiation, their behaviour leading up to the conflict or within the conflict, or even their objectives for resolution. Tonya demonstrated an empathy that many conflict resolution professionals must work to achieve.

The show also contained a truly brilliant snippet of improvised monologue based upon audience suggestions for a “weird” desire.  In that segment, of course, we witnessed Tonya’s amazing skills in spontaneity, listening and awareness of audience cues, “accepting offers” (in the sense of “yes, and-ing…” ideas and contributions from others in order to build on their ideas rather than rebut them), and storytelling.  I’d hire Tonya as a mediator based purely on that performance!

If you have an opportunity to see the show – or anything else she creates – you should! And then let me know: I really need someone else with a conflict resolution lens to discuss the show with!

2. A Simple Space

This production by the Australian acrobatics ensemble Gravity and Other Myths inspired me to think about conflict resolution themes in entirely different ways.  The troupe of 7 highly skilled acrobats mix games in which they compete against each other to “win” such challenges as most standing back flips in a row with incredibly challenging “team competitions” in which they carry out incredible acrobatic feats that rely on perfect collaboration amongst all members of the troupe to keep everyone safe and in which they all “win” if they pull it off (even if one or another member might have a “starring role” from time to time).

As a whole, the show is a brilliant display of teamwork at its best and most functional, and ways in which competition can be enervating and push teams working together to higher levels of achievement.  Check out the video below for a flavour of their performance – then imagine yourself seated right on stage as they perform only a few feet away!

3. Cock by Mike Bartlett

Cock_video-01-500x155cockfightCock won an Outstanding Achievement Award in the 2010 Oliviers, so there will certainly be opportunities to see it performed by different companies in different cities.  On a simple, structural level, the play showcases interpersonal and relational conflicts in a rapidly changing series of short scenes.  John is torn between a return to a long term relationship with his boyfriend, M, and a new relationship with a woman, W. Staged without props in a circle intended to evoke a cock fighting ring, the play shows moves from one confrontation between characters to another: first John and M engage in a series of difficult conversations, then John and W circle each other in similar discontent.  Eventually we see the combination of John, M and W, only to have John’s father, F, added to the mix.  The production staged by Rumble Theatre in Vancouver maintained the sense of short engagements in a longer (cock) fight as the characters pick at each other in familiar patterns of verbal conflict.  Each scene offers examples of all the ways that speech and body language can exacerbate conflict.  John’s personal conflict drives the play, but the interactions of the characters in snippets of negative discussions offers the conflict resolution professional a complete study in conflict behaviours.

4. Nirbhaya

nirbhaya_1Nirbhaya is a powerful interweaving of women’s stories of sexual violence and abuse. The stories are woven around the central tale of Nirbhaya who died following a horrific gang-rape on a Delhi bus in 2012. (The name Nirbhaya, meaning “fearless”, was used to identify Jhoti Singh Pandey before her name was known.)  The stories invite the audience to acknowledge the existence of sexual oppression and abuse, and the consequences – to individuals, families, and societies – of the resilience of such cultures. The topic of culture in conflict studies is an extraordinarily broad one: plays like Nirbhaya help us to engage in discussions of such difficult and complex topic through the lens of individual narratives, opening up discussions and increasing understanding.

Honourable mentions?

If you are looking for plays that lend themselves to a conflict resolution discussion, then I’d also recommend:

  • The New Conformity – a narrative about social and peer pressures to conform performed entirely through juggling.
  • Small Town Hoser Spic – Pedro Chamale’s one-man contemplation on growing up Hispanic in a small town in northern BC.
  • 52 Pick-Up – This story of a couple’s first meeting through dissolution of their relationship is told in the order in which 52 playing cards are picked up by the actors. Never the same, every performance offers new insights and connections.

And What to Watch for this Year?

I’ve made a few theatre-going choices for early 2016 with the intention of seeking out conflict resolution themes.  If you’re interested in joining me in the endeavour, consider checking out:

December 6, 2012

10 Great Books for Mediators

“Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.” –  Sir Richard Steele

In the spirit of year end “Best of” lists and gift ideas, I’ve decided to pull together a list of 10 great books for mediators.  This is not a list of books from this year only, nor really a “best of” list – 10 is way too small a number for that!  It’s a subjective list of books that I’ve read for the first time – or have returned to – this year, and that I’d recommend to other mediators to jolt their mediation practice.  The holidays offer the perfect time to read a book you might not normally have time for and consider some new ideas for your mediation practice.  Many of these books are available through CoRe’s  aStore: purchases made through the aStore have the added advantage of supporting CoRe Clinic.

In no particular order, then, 10 Great Books for Mediators:

Mediators Handbook1. The Mediator’s Handbook, 4th edition – Jennifer E. Beer and Caroline C. Packard with Eileen Stief

The revised and expanded fourth edition of this mediation primer was released this fall and it’s well worth a look.  This text is practical, readable, and a great tool for new and experienced mediators.  If you have an older copy, the update is worth the price.

Dancing2. Dancing with a Ghost: Exploring Aboriginal Reality – Rupert Ross

Crown Attorney Rupert Ross discusses his own attempts to understand and learn from traditional Native teachings.  Particularly in conjunction with his second book – Returning to the Teachings – this work offers an accessible and mind-opening perspective on the relationship between indigenous people and the Canadian justice system.  Read this book as a jolt to dominant culture worldview.

250px-Clickclackmoo3. Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type – Doreen Cronin, illustrated by Betsy Lewin

Yes, it’s a children’s book, but I always liked it more than my children did.  It’s a labour mediation between the cows and Farmer Brown, with Duck in the role of mediator!  A great introduction to negotiating for children, and a fun read for adults.  There’s a reason that it was a Caldecott Honor Book.

eao-cover4. Everything’s an Offer: How to do more with less – Robert Poynton, illustrated by Gary Hirsch

This is one of the best books I’ve ever found on applied improvisation.  While the book is written with application to business, its cross-over value for mediators and conflict resolution professionals is obvious when you see that the bulk of the book is made up of “Let Go, Notice More, Use Everything – A Fundamental Grammar of Relationships and Communication”, “Shaping Stories”, and “Improvisation and the Joy of Uncertainty”.  I recommend it highly as an introduction to applied improvisation and a jolt to remind us not to “block” possibilities in negotiation through sheer habit and inattention.

post-its5. Rapid Problem-Solving with Post-it® Notes – David Straker

Definitely not a new book (published in 1997), but one I stumbled upon a few years ago and have found useful for commercial mediation work, in particular, simply because the techniques described have been adopted much more by the business world for strategic planning, brainstorming, etc. and are therefore familiar. The tools work well in large class settings for consensus building regarding selection of special topics for study, and can be applied to many training settings.  If you would like to add some easy visual and/or kinesthetic tools to your toolkit, check out this handy little book for inspiration.

cmc-cover-model-sm6.  Conflict Management Coaching: The Cinergy™ Model – Cinnie Noble

This one is a fairly new book, but one that many in the community have been enthusing over since its release.  Cinnie’s book is rightly touted as “thought-provoking”, “concise, comprehensive and informative” and an “outstanding contribution to the field of conflict management.”  Cinnie focuses here on coaching people on a one-on-one basis to improve their skills for engaging in interpersonal disputes, and the applicability to many mediation settings is obvious throughout.  I find the “synergy” amongst Cinnie’s reflective observations on coaching in workplace dispute, the more and more nuanced approaches being brought to bear in collaborative family practice by divorce coaches, and the increasing use of negotiation coaches/strategists in international business contexts inspiring.

DifinitiveCreativeImpasset-web7. Definitive Creative Impasse-Breaking Techniques in Mediation – ed. Molly Klapper, J.D., Ph.D.

While I would dispute the use of “creative” in the title of this New York State Bar Association 2011 publication, this is a handy reference for the new mediator learning and practicing impasse-breaking skills.  The primary focus is on a very specific style of court-based or “legal” mediation, and emphasizes the mediator’s role in assisting parties to evaluate their case as part of a primarily distributive bargaining process.  Within that sphere, the book offers a useful summary of such commonly discussed topics as using the lawyer as impasse breaker, helping parties to value a case, how to respond to “insulting” first offers, and dealing with the predictable pitfalls of positional bargaining.

Cover-burgundy8. Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up – Patricia Ryan Madson

Yes, it’s another improv book, but it’s also a particularly inspired and inspiring book on mindfulness and presence.  So broadly applicable is the message that the book was a recommendation of Wiser Now: The Alzheimers Disease Caregiver Tips newsletter.  As the author of that review writes, “Improv wisdom is about taking what life has given us and delighting in it to the fullest by connecting with the people who share our space on earth.”  That tells you just why I think this is a wonderful gift book: it offers the lifelong gift of delight.

5100021_big9. Psychology for Lawyers: Understanding the Human Factors in Negotiation, Litigation, and Decision Making – Jennifer K. Robbennolt and Jean R. Sternlight

Another new book for the list, Psychology for Lawyers turned out to offer one of the best readings on legal ethics I found for my Ethics and Professional Responsibility class this term – a chapter on Ethics that makes psychological sense of the question of how one finds oneself in an ethical problem in the first place and why we all tend to dig ourselves in deeper.  The book provides a great overview of current research into perceiving, memory, emotion, judgment shortcuts, decision-making, persuasion and interpersonal communication and has a full chapter applying these studies to negotiation and mediation.  If you are looking for a great resource on psychology, I’d suggest checking it out.

book_collab_thumb10. The Collaborative Habit: Life Lessons for Working Together – Twyla Tharp

You may have come across Twyla Tharp’s book, The Creative Habit?  The Collaborative Habit is billed as its sequel, but works well as a stand alone book on the power of collaboration. Drawing on stories from the world of dance, the author offers examples of the process of collaboration, its strengths and challenges.  Full of insights, the fact that the book is grounded in a different world (dance rather than mediation) is one of the reasons it connects so effectively: the resonances of shared experiences despite the difference in setting inspires self-reflection without the oft didactic feel of books that are about our own world.

October 31, 2012

Magic in Mediation

“We simply assume that the way we see things is the way they really are or the way they should be. And our attitudes and behaviors grow out of these assumptions.”  Steven R. Covey

Halloween seems like an appropriate day for reflection on a thought-provoking presentation I was lucky enough to attend last month on “Magic and Colliding Cultures.” Wendy Lakusta and Kevin-Neil Klop teamed up at the CoRe Clinic Speaker Series to provide a “jolt” to the group’s collective assumptions about the connection (or lack of) between magic and mediation, while providing a wonderful metaphor for examining our various cultural blind spots.

When I first told people that CoRe would be hosting a talk on Magic and Mediation (before it had a title), the common reaction was to assume that the talk would be about how mediation can be magical in its transformation of conflict, or a discussion of mediator tools that seem to create magic in the room.  The first challenge to assumptions then was to learn that our presenters intended to explore the ways in which magic uses an understanding of human assumptions in order to misdirect us – encouraging us to follow certain assumptions blindly in order to lead us away from an understanding of the magic effect.  Mediation, on the other hand, seeks to illuminate the assumptions made (often blindly) and to help us to examine those assumptions.

The session’s focus was on cultural assumptions. Culture is a set of shared assumptions (a system of beliefs, customs, values, attitudes and lifestyles); and, of course, the deepest levels of culture include beliefs and values that are never questioned or even stated – they are simply implicit.  It is these assumptions that can lead us astray in judging others: we assume from behaviours, words, silences, etc. that we understand another’s motivations and goals and we judge them against our unexamined value system rather than seeking to understand theirs.

As Wendy pointed out so simply, magic makes use of our tendency to make these assumptions and encourages us to fool ourselves.  As a result, learning a bit about how magicians work is a wonderful tool for examining how to instead make those assumptions explicit.  Wendy quoted from Robert Giobbi who tells us that:

“…[M]agic should be easy, since our spectators fool themselves!  All you need to do is avoid any words, thoughts or actions that interrupt this tendency.”

By extension, mediation can be challenging because we are working against this tendency, asking people (and mediators themselves) to identify and examine assumptions – especially those at the deepest levels of subconscious thought.

Jolts for Mediation

The overall thrust of the CoRe talk was a “jolt” for the mediators to think about assumptions in a new way, but Wendy’s willingness to learn a few magic tricks for the presentation (and success in performing for an audience!) inspired me to think too about the ways that one might use magic tricks within a mediation to provide small “jolts”.  Here are a couple of ideas.

  1. The perfect bubble

Wendy’s “signature” magic trick – “The Perfect Bubble” – struck me at the time as a brilliant metaphor for generating options in mediation.  Watch Wendy recreate her magic from the session in the following video clip.

Now imagine performing that trick at a mediation.  (As always, context is everything, but I can certainly imagine it being easy to do this in any context involving children, and probably a few where adults only are participating.  For instance, a facilitation in a workplace or with a large volunteer staff seeking to develop better conflict management tools might be appropriate.)  You perform the perfect bubble trick and then place the perfect bubble in the centre of the table where it will sit for the entire mediation.

“Mediation is like a search for the perfect bubble.  There might be thousands of possibilities for resolving the issues that brought everyone here today, but some are better than others.  We may need to look at many less than perfect ideas before we find the perfect one.  And it’s possible that we’ll need to try more than once to generate ideas to consider.  Some we’ll barely glance at; others will take a bit more consideration; but eventually we will select one that everyone can agree upon.”

2. Simple Card Tricks

Some of the easiest magic tricks to master (as I know from a phase I went through of studying magic around grades 6 and 7) are card tricks.  So many of the simplest card tricks rely on patterns or counting and can be successfully performed with minimal practice.  What they also have in common is the potential to be used to illustrate the idea that mediation is a process: if you work through the steps – even when it’s not obvious to anyone but the mediator why – there should be an answer at the end.  Mediators may also want to talk about transparency of process in mediation as opposed to the intentional misdirection of magic.  Ultimately, the mediator wants the parties to be able to perform the “tricks” themselves and to understand how they’re done.

3. Mediation Magic

Here’s a trick that I found online and that strikes me as a good metaphor for the magic of mediation.  In the Abraca-chicken magic trick (which would require a little adaption for the mediation context – especially in the suggested patter), the magician “forgot” to bring his rope for the rope trick and so uses a chicken bone.  He is going to turn the chicken bone into a rope with a knot in it, but stumbles over the correct magic words a few times and eventually produces instead a chicken bone with a knot tied in it.

I’d suggest that mediation is often like the Abraca-chicken trick: we start out by wanting to achieve a very specific result (parties bring in positions, of course, but even mediators often see possible resolutions that we can get fixed on exploring rather than continuing to open up new ideas), we make repeated attempts to achieve that result and may stumble along the way, and sometimes those stumbles lead us to an even more interesting result than the one we thought we wanted.

Photo credits:

Witch costume at: http://www.spirithalloween.com/adults_costume-ideas_witch-and-warlock-costume-ideas/

Cards: http://www.ehow.com/how_2074290_perform-teleporting-card-trick.html

Bendy chicken bone: http://www.wikihow.com/Do-the-Tie-a-Chicken-Bone-in-a-Knot-Magic-Trick

May 14, 2011

Adult development theory applied to impasse breaking

“Conflict is a fortunate threat to the integrity of the self.” – Gordon White

On April 29th and 30th, I attended the Northwest ADR Conference at the University of Seattle.  This annual two-day conference always offers an array of thought-provoking presentations.  Often I come away intrigued by the cultural differences in mediation styles between neighbouring jurisdictions, and grappling with ways to apply ideas that work in a different mediation context to my own practice.  Working in an explicitly  interest-based context (which I do in Small Claims Court mediations, for instance), which parts of an evaluative mediator’s lecture on impasse breaking techniques, have potential for rethinking my approach?  Trying to think through how to make a square peg fit in a round hole can be a very helpful process for bringing about new ideas.

Gordon White

This time, however, I travelled to Seattle to be most inspired by a workshop presented by a BC mediator – Gordon White – and it is Gordon’s work-in-progress on breaking stubborn impasses by explicit application of adult development theory that I would like to highlight here as a an innovative and thought-provoking approach to thinking about impasse breaking.

In brief, Gordon described the evolution of his own thinking on stubborn impasses and the connection between his personal experiences and ruminations with the seminal academic work on adult development by Robert Kegan, the William and Miriam Meehan Professor in Adult Development and Professional Development at Harvard University.  I plan to read Kegan’s book, The Evolving Self, as Gordon has convinced me that there is value for mediators in working through this academic text, but for purposes of this blog, I’m focusing on Gordon’s own theories.

Gordon’s starting point is a belief that people develop their selves over the course of their lives, some more slowly than others.  No matter how far along one is in this development, conflict can be conceptualized as a threat to self and the self may respond by reflexively defending its current state.  At the same time, conflict is a growth opportunity that may or may not be taken.  Within this frame, Gordon suggests that “the mediator can assist the self to crack open a door and see or discover a new avenue of development and expression.”

Gordon identifies four avenues of development that provide the mediator with alternative paths of inquiry when negotiations become stuck.  I’ll describe  these in more detail below in connection with a discussion of how a mediator’s choice to focus on each avenue might lead to “jolt”, but in brief they are:

  • Acquisition – sense of an abundant universe or not
  • Directionality – sense of direction
  • Worldview – the beliefs and values through which we interpret and interact with all aspects of reality
  • Identity – how we view ourselves

(NB – The glib naming of these “avenues” below as “jolts” is mine, and is meant purely as a mnemonic aid – not as a trivialization of Gordon’s theory.)

It is important to note that Gordon suggests these alternative paths as options in addition to the normal range of mediator skills, not as the starting point for mediations.  These are approaches to try after one has already tried all of the standard interest-based mediation approaches yet parties remain stuck.  Similarly, the majority of the ideas that he generates for questions that explore development are by their very nature questions that would be confined to private meetings with a party.  So Gordon’s developing model is intended to expand the mediator’s options once they have exhausted other more common tools.

Jolts for Mediation

1. Acquisition (or the “Red Truck Jolt”)

Most mediators can quickly bring to mind a situation in which one party was stuck in the belief that s/he needed something and was so focused on getting it from the other party that s/he could not even begin to think about alternative ways to achieve the same goal.  A story that Kathleen Kelly told me many years ago comes immediately to mind for me as an example of this kind of impasse, and I offer a short version of it here with apologies to Kathleen for any garbling that has occurred over the years.  In essence, Kathleen described a situation in which a plaintiff seemed inordinately fixed on a specific dollar figure.  After a great deal of probing, it emerged that the plaintiff had already spent the settlement money in his dreams – he had picked out a red truck that he would buy with the settlement proceeds.  So naturally, he was unable to entertain any settlement that didn’t cover the cost of the red truck!  And he was definitely not thinking about any other ways he might acquire the truck, such as contributing some portion himself.  The truck had nothing to do with the issue in dispute, but the plaintiff had connected the idea of settlement and a red truck so closely in his mind that he no longer saw them separately: he could only get a red truck if he got at least $X in the settlement.

Similarly, many wrongful dismissal claims have an acquisition aspect to them: the plaintiff may not be focused on financial issues, but on receiving some form of recognition or acknowledgment for good work over the years.  The nature of such disputes can cause a plaintiff to lose sight of all the other people who might provide that recognition and to insist upon receiving it from the defendant.

In both of these examples, one party is stuck because they are so hung up on what they expected to receive from the other party that they can no longer value alternative suggestions.  Gordon suggests that we think about asking questions that go directly to a party’s sense of dependence on a set outcome and that open up the possibility of self-sufficiency.  In terms of adult development, such questions follow the path of development from a dependent and isolated self to one of greater awareness of one’s own abilities.

e.g.  from Gordon:

“You are wanting X from him.  What are the ways in which anyone might acquire such a thing?”

In the red truck scenario, perhaps one could ask “If you were to leave here with $Y (or some creative non-monetary settlement), how else could you find the remaining funds to purchase your red truck?”

2. Directionality (The “Six Feet Under Jolt”)

Gordon notes that “conflict tends to distract disputants from their important intentions.”  In the context of a stubborn impasse, questions that help a party to think about those intentions or to contemplate bigger picture plans may help parties become unstuck on the smaller details.  Family mediators, for example, will have come across the person who is afraid of the great uncertainty facing them on separation and avoids thinking about that uncertainty by focusing on the minutiae of their conflict.  An ex-spouse might insist on repeating over and over what their former partner did wrong or failed to do and be unable to move into a future-focused discussion because of a lack of conscious directionality.  

Gordon offered us several possible questions to consider using in such circumstances, and I am repeating them all here (with his permission) because they each helped me to think of several more questions that might have a similar impact in the right context.  They could be risky questions to ask, and will sound to some like therapeutic questions, but the intention is not to engage in a counselling discussion, but rather to dislodge the blocked thinking that prevents a party from looking forward.  Each question is clearly a “jolt” to a person focused on rationalizing their own perspective on the underlying conflict.

Six Feet Under“What matters most to you?  What do you want people to say about your life at your funeral?”

“What are the most important directions you are taking in your life at this time?  How come that matters to you?  How much clarity do you have?”

“What tiny doubts or uneasiness might you be having about your direction?”

“What are your current life concerns and what are you doing to address them?”



3.  Worldview (The “Fraser Crane Jolt”)

We all have deeply held beliefs – frequently unconscious – that impact our decision-making in conflict.  These “worldview” beliefs often present as black & white thinking – I’m 100% right, so he’s 100% wrong.  When we are locked into unconscious, mechanistic thought patterns, we can’t imagine more complex worldviews and miss out on opportunities for creativity.

This type of thinking permeates all kinds of disputes, but an easily recognizable example of worldview “blindness” is television’s Dr. Frasier Crane.  Over the course of many seasons, Frasier’s constant disputes with friends, family members, and strangers arise from his stubborn refusal to examine his worldviews.  He engages in every dispute, no matter how small, from a “principled” perspective: in other words, “it’s the principle!” and he will go to extraordinary lengths to maintain his view of that principle.

If you watched Frasier, then you’ll recognize the dispute he has with a parking lot attendant in “Enemy at the Gate” (10:2) as typical.  In that episode, Frasier is driving his brother, Niles, on an errand.  As he pulls into the parkade, Frasier realizes that his dashboard clock is wrong and he has to rush to get to work, so he drives directly to the parkade exit and tells the attendant that he didn’t park – check the time stamp.  The attendant demands $2 anyway as the price of any portion of 20 minutes.  Frasier, of course, refuses to pay.  The dispute escalates as Frasier decides to pay $2, but then sit and block the exit for 20 minutes so he gets full value.  He truly expects the drivers lined up behind him to support him in his protest and lectures them on the importance of standing up for principle.  In the meantime, Frasier’s brother tries repeatedly to pay for him or to convince him that he’s made his point and should move on – it’s just not that important a principle.  Frasier, of course, is locked in a worldview where the parking lot attendant’s actions are unjust, rather than limited by his lack of power and authority.  Frasier can’t see beyond his own black and white view of the dispute, and won’t/can’t entertain any alternative viewpoints.  His brother sees the world in more complex terms and places value on both harmony and efficiency, but Frasier can’t imagine other worldviews having validity.  Eventually, Frasier goes to pay his $2 and exit at the end of his 20 minute blockade, but is so overwhelmed by the need to lecture the parking attendant on the “rightness” of his stand, that he overstays the 20 minutes: the parking lot attendant tells him to pay $4 now since he took so much time with his speech.

Frasier’s dispute is trivial, but so very many disputes we see  are based on a similar rigidity of worldview that requires a plaintiff to pursue “justice”, no matter how disproportionate the cost of its pursuit with the potential result.  Small Claims disputes may look the most like Frasier’s dispute, but many larger commercial disputes are driven by the same “principles”.  Child protection mediators see fundamental conflicts around beliefs that parents are simply “good” or “bad” based on highly complex circumstances.  Estates disputes may escalate due to deeply held beliefs that a sibling always has bad intentions.  Worldview rigidity appears in all types of conflict.

Gordon’s identifies several different ways that worldview may come into play in a dispute.  Recognizing that I do not do justice to Gordon’s complex schema for worldview disputes, two examples of questions that one might draw from his work to address Frasier’s parking lot dispute on a worldview level are:

Can someone “have good intentions and produce a bad result?”  What good intentions might the attendant have?  What values might underlie his position?

“What decisions did you make that had some effect on how the situation played out? … Which ones led to less constructive relations?… What could you have done that would have been better?”

4. Identity (The “Pinocchio Jolt”)

We all tend to understand our identity in absolute terms.  “I am an honest person.”  “I am not a violent person.” ” I am friendly.”  Depending on how closely any particular aspect of our identity connects with our values, we may be incredibly uncomfortable with entertaining thoughts that in a specific situation, our own actions have not been honest, non-violent, friendly, etc. Gordon explains that development towards full self-realization “involves developing a more complex identity.”  Intellectually, we may understand that we exhibit contextual variations in all traits,  however, “in the face of attacks we tend to reject the offending party unless we are able to consider what aspects of his or her derogatory characterization of ourselves might contain some truth.”

When Gordon explained this avenue for growth, I thought of the many, many times I have heard parties assert that they “don’t lie!” Clearly this is an important part of identity for the person who feels the need to assert it over and over in the face of conflicting narratives of the conflict at hand.  And very often, this assertion leads to both parties trying to convince the mediator that they are “truthful” and the other person is a “liar.”  Because this was the example that occurred to me, I thought of Pinocchio as an exemplar:  Pinocchio’s nose is a built-in “jolt” to his sense of identity!  If we think of Pinocchio as believing that he is fundamentally honest, then he would resist a characterization as a liar even knowing that he has fibbed on occasion.  Pinocchio, however, runs up against an immediate reminder that in some situations he just might have been less than perfectly honest.  Admitting to a more complex, contextual identity is a part of Pinocchio’s development, just as it would be part of our own.

Gordon suggests that in times of stubborn impasse, a mediator might ask questions that explore identity explicitly as a means of encouraging a party to consider a more complex view of their identity.  Some examples he suggests are:

” What makes it difficult to think that you were unfair?  …  How possible is it for someone to be partly fair and partly unfair, how about 80% fair?”

“How have you not been true to yourself?”


More information?

This is a quick summary of a very complex theory that Gordon considers a work-in-progress.  As a consequence, it offers just a taste of the ideas that Gordon presented.  Fortunately, Gordon offers 1-day Pro-D courses on his method and will be presenting in Edmonton in September 2011.  Watch for notice of upcoming local presentations or contact Gordon directly at gcwhite@telus.net.



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