Posts tagged ‘adult development theory’

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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