Wednesday, January 13, 2016

In This Corner: The Conflict Paradox

IN THIS CORNER: The Conflict Paradox
By Lynne Kinnucan  
With his newest book, The Conflict Paradox, Dr. Bernie Mayer joins the likes of Aristotle, Voltaire, Chesterton and Escher in their fascination with paradox: the contradiction that is not.

The Conflict Paradox is a book infinitely rich in its variety, worth reading again and again as the reader’s understanding grows and reshapes itself in interaction with it.  However, it is a disaster if you are the sort of person who underlines the important parts of a work. My own copy looks like it went through the printer backwards and forwards.

Dr. Mayer’s goal in writing the book was to “challenge the fundamental way we think about conflict itself.” And he has done it.  Focusing on the “polarized, bifurcated view we take of conflict,” he notes that the more aggressive the conflict, the more we are apt to regress to primitive, oppositional thinking, and from there to greater conflict. With a deeper understanding, we can see that the assumed polarizations are not only part of each other but, in fact, need each other to be complete (think DNA strands). 

 The book is structured around the seven core dilemmas posed in any conflict:

1.     Competition and cooperation

2.     Optimism and realism

3.     Avoidance and engagement

4.     Principle and compromise

5.     Emotions and logic

6.     Neutrality and advocacy

7.     Community and autonomy

 The element of bifurcation is present through all of these polarizations. But, distinct and inseparable from each other, these opposite stances are each part of and essential to the “larger truth” of any conflict, says Mayer.  They are at their best when used as guideposts to understanding the deeper meaning of that conflict. For example, emotions and logic. In everyday communication, we have become used to the phrases “You’re too emotional” or “Stop trying to be so logical.” (To intensify matters, logic is often assumed to be more mature than emotion).

Yet emotion needs the grounding force of logic to “do its most important work”, and logic needs emotion to avoid getting beached in illogical conclusions. About optimism and realism he writes: optimism needs some basis in realism, and realism is most valuable when it offers hope.

A conflict intervenor may be tempted to encourage the thinking-oriented person to feel more, and to tamp down the emotions of the “feeling” person. Dr. Mayer suggests an integrated approach, one that holds both in a place of understanding, exploration, safety, and full expression.

In his section on emotions and logic, he provides examples of the actual wording an intervenor might use to help parties achieve the understanding:

“Every time one of you talks about feelings, the other responds about what makes logical sense. I am guessing this has crossed you up before.”

                                                 Or, to a group,

“Your team [one side] is upset and wants to say so in no  uncertain terms, while your group [the other] is  focused on why you did what you did and would like this to be acknowledged.”

The Conflict Paradox is invaluable not only for its sea-change premise (do not make resolution of the conflict your primary goal) but for Dr. Mayer’s offerings that surround it.

Take the apparent conflict between autonomy and community, for example: the challenge of being true to one’s source and yet open to change. How does an individual maintain his personal integrity and still merge with the differing values of his community? Or, as Henry II said, in another context, to Thomas Becket, “How do you combine the two: honor and collaboration?”

Dr. Mayer looks at the “dynamic tension between community (interdependence with others in our lives) and autonomy (independence) that infuses our thinking and action throughout conflict,” and then the problems and incentives that are jointly present.  And he explores reasons for example, why parties might take a no-prisoners stand on a principle: doing so might make them feel powerful, or the principle might be of critical importance in their lives.  But while sticking to this principle may enhance one’s power over someone else, this very stance may undercut their ability to make a connection with them. Paradoxically, the use of power can render us powerless.

To break the deadlock of polarized reactions, Mayer re-emphasizes the effectiveness of walking people through the thinking that underlies their decisions, especially in holding true to their beliefs while taking significant steps toward greater understanding within the dispute. A few of his suggestions:

·        Ask them to revisit how a decision reflects their values, goals, hopes and fears

·        Give the parties permission to stay in conflict

·        Break seemingly big decisions into small steps on the premise that small changes may pose less of a challenge to a disputant’s self-image

·        Help people develop a rich vision of what big changes would look like.

The Conflict Paradox gives us theory, examples, reflections, strategies and techniques. Mayer argues pros and cons, inserts philosophy, and offers personal anecdotes that bring home the everyday real life impact of a confrontation. He explores the use of timing and language in such strategies as observation, sequence and iteration, narratives, venting, following, and others. And he binds it all to a structure that is both grounding and evocative.


But, as he takes us through steps to guide people from an oppositional to an integrative understanding, he offers a caveat to adopting his belief: don’t follow his suggestions to the letter, because situations are fluid and flexible. In one part of the conflict, an element suggested in the book might help facilitate the dialogue; in another, it may be an obstruction. It is here that the intervenor’s – and the parties’ – mindset about and understanding of conflict is so important, here that we can exercise the choice to see conflict as a union of opposites, the embracing of which leads to understanding. Resolution may follow, and if it does, it will be more empowered and genuine.

We have been taught a very basic language, says Mayer, one that promotes conflict dichotomies. Our task is to find ways to love ourselves and others beyond this dichotomy, to know that opposites, in fact, belong to each other. “It can be a long and taxing work, but in the end, embracing the dilemma is the most genuine path to constructive engagement.”         

Bernie Mayer, Ph.D., Professor of Dispute Resolution, The Werner Institute, Creighton University, is a leader in the field of conflict resolution. Bernie has worked in child welfare, mental health, substance abuse treatment, and psychotherapy. As a founding partner of CDR Associates, Bernie has provided conflict intervention for families, communities, universities, corporations, and governmental agencies throughout North America and internationally for over 35 years. Bernie’s latest book is The Conflict Paradox, Seven Dilemmas at the Core of Disputes,. Earlier books include: The Dynamics of Conflict, Beyond Neutrality, and Staying With Conflict.