Communication, Conflicts and Mediation: A Personal Reflection
Who we are as human beings is in a great way influenced by where or what kind of a social environment, we live in. An important part of our social environment are relationships, the world of human interaction and communication. Relationships between people shape our world for better or for worse. A vital ingredient of this world are also conflicts. They may represent a threat or an opportunity. How we tackle such ‘opportunities’ is very important for the quality of our lifetime spent on this planet. If we look at international relations, based on sovereign nation states and international organizations, we can see resemblances with our own interpersonal structures. In international community conflicts are also an important issue; for example they are a core challenge for United Nations. Conflicts are connected, by their nature, with war and peace, with stability and security. Therefore, conflicts are a crucial part of our broader human existence. Many of us view them as negative and destructive, but what I find interesting is that a conflict can be a problem or a challenge, yet it can also be an opportunity if we make it such. Yes, it sounds idealistic but history and everyday life proves it is or at least can be a reality. At this point the classical Greek view of imagination comes in handy. It is hard to talk about ideas without acknowledging the important role of imagination. So, let us be idealistic and embrace our imagination, without alienating ourselves from reason and reality, in order to explore conflicts and of course what mediation means in this polyphony of human interactivity.
Conflicts, or more precisely not knowing how to address them, can be destructive. On a larger and more devastating scale this was, and still is, seen in the international community. Continent which is historically notorious for its wars, Europe, is a great example and reminder for the whole of humanity that conflicts should be addressed with responsibility and respect. For example, the Thirty Year’s War was an extremely complicated and bloody one. As it is normal for war there was a great number of civilian casualties and destruction of trade, infrastructure and a proliferation of hatred. It had to end, and it did with the negotiations of Westphalia in 1648. I am mentioning this case because most of the negotiations in the mentioned case were bilateral, and the toughest cases were conducted with the help of mediators. The role of mediators in Westphalia was an active one meaning the mediators also had to steer the process of negotiations to promote a favourable milieu and to propose helpful ways out of deadlocks (Meerts 2014). What I am trying to say is that dealing with conflicts and searching ways of better conflict management are not new. This is something human societies have been dealing with from the ‘beginning of society’ itself. In our case the mentioned negotiations (with the help of mediators) resulted in a regime of sovereign (in legal terms equal) states and this regime, at least in part, shaped the world of international relations based on sovereign (modern) states which we know today.
As the war of Spanish Succession raged through Europe, the German emperor said the best way to peace is through war. Of course, as a mediator, I could hardy agree with such a statement, but I understand it. If we want to reframe this statement, we first need to ask ourselves what is behind it. What are the interests and not only the positions of the parties involved? I personally believe that we (unfortunately) need a reminder what a mishandled conflict situation can result in. In international relations war is destructive and in a state of war our basic civilizational values are attacked directly. Human dignity, human rights, personal freedoms, and human life itself are all threatened by a state of war in society. In our interpersonal relations conflicts can escalate and cause great damage not only to the parties involved but also to our broader surroundings. It forces us to invest a great deal of energy and our time (which is limited) and still at the end our victory (if there even is one) is often a Pyrrhic victory. We tend to forget all of this when we are in a heat of the moment or when nations (peoples) are being driven by emotional nationalism. We need to get over ourselves and our sometimes grandiose and narcissistic self-image. We indeed need to lift our veil of ignorance. When we take all of this into consideration it all seems painfully philosophical in contrast to our simplified materialistic world. But is it really? For I believe it to be quite simple. We need to acknowledge our human part in relation to our social part. Emotions, interests, and needs; they are not necessarily bad or even irrational.
The process and the idea behind mediation is one of a wholesome approach in conflict management with trying to achieve an agreement which strives towards the future. Mediation acknowledges the legal background of a conflict without forgetting the emotional (human) aspect, recognizes the interests and needs of the parties involved, and most importantly it can bring parties to see and understand the ‘other’. I believe there is no conflict which cannot be successfully addressed. It has happened to me on several occasions, when I was mediating and concluding my opening statement, that parties (also legal representatives) said something like ‘we will probably never settle’ or ‘I cannot even look at the other person’. As a mediator I hear that the object of the conflict is extremely important for the parties involved but something must have happened that ‘depersonalized’ the other involved party for them. At this time, I am usually certain that we are at a point where we are ‘afraid’ of being humans and we, in order to win, become robots with procedurally led relations. This is not usually addressed in court procedures, but I believe it is a crucial part and for the long-term solution a vital one.
I have already addressed one important part of mediation process and this are the parties involved (including the mediator). Not only parties who are directly involved in an interpersonal or international conflict need to be addressed, but also the interests of attorneys and us the mediators. Of course, a professional mediator is ideally a neutral one; it is true, mediators are skilled, professional and respected individuals but they also have a stake in a mediation. They dedicate a huge amount of energy and time so that the parties would be able to achieve a solution which would enable them to move along in their lives and continue living without the burden of one conflict situation. Why do we need to take this in consideration? Well, I believe it is not opposed to the principle of neutrality, but it is a necessary way of approaching mediation from a mediator’s point of view. I believe a mediator can only betruly neutral if he or she is aware of their own interest in it. If we are aware of our ‘human part’ we can control it and we are more capable of addressing the situation. Attorneys also need to be considered. They can be an asset to the process of mediation and not necessarily a threat. When preparing for a mediation and considering parties it is advisable to know as much as possible about them; who may be an influential person and can influence, (eventhough such parties are formally not a party in mediation) the process. A mediator should be a great listener and an even better observer. She or he also should be able to analyse all of the gained information and they also have to know how to apply it in order to achieve a desirable result of a mediation process.
Another important part of mediation, which I have also briefly already addressed, is the context or the environment of a certain conflict. It is important for a mediator, besides studying the conflict itself, to also be aware of the surrounding environment in which the conflict is taking place or the ones a certain conflict can influence. For example, in an international conflict which is being mediated, it is important to understand the cultural background of the conflict itself and the people involved. What is also crucial is the location and the room where such mediation is taking place. For an interpersonal conflict one also needs to take into account the surroundings of a conflict. For example, if a dispute is taking place in a rural area, between neighbours, it may be important to take into account the reputation of the parties and how the agreement will look on the outside, meaning will they be recognised as losers or winners or maybe both as rational individuals. What is also unique in a mediation process and relates to actors and conflict environment is the fact that parties are not forced into such a process. For mediation to begin it needs the consent of both (or all) parties. This is more important that it may look. What it means is that deep down inside parties in conflict, even though they maybe hate each other, are willing to sit down and try to achieve an agreement via a professional rather than face each other in a court battle where they will give their sovereignty over their own conflict to lawyers and the decision power to a judge.
Courts and legal systems are of course extremely important for a nation state or a society to function. For example, one of the constitutional functions of the judiciary is to provide for the resolution of legal disputes, but it can also be very time and money consuming when addressing individual-civil disputes. It can drain the energy out of people. And what is most important it takes into consideration only the legal facts which are very limiting and in consequence the (legal) decision is not always a settling one. Mediation addresses all the above and what should also be mentioned is that resolving a conflict via court proceedings or mediation are not mutually excluding. Therefore, if one decides to settle a dispute using mediation, this does not mean it will not be possible, if the mediation were to prove ‘unsuccessful’, to use other legal means to achieve a solution. Mediation on the other hand is not a ’loose’ process. It is a structured way of addressing a conflict where parties are protected by the professionality of the mediator and principles which apply to the mediation process. It is a process which offers different parts of a conflict to be addressed and offers predictability and safety for the involved parties. It is great how humanity has already developed many ways of conflict management; we just need to start using them and learn from past experiences.
Mediation in a broader sense is more than ‘just’ a conflict management tool; it is, for me, a way to achieve a state of peace – peace not meaning absence of war or conflict but peace where conflict is present and even welcome. It is a change in peace and conflict narrative where both are treated as antimonies. For me as a mediator conflict is necessary for peace. We need conflict so we can betterourselves, so we can advance and develop. If we all were to agree on everything, we would not need discussion, debate, constructive criticism etc. Conflict can be a good thing and a great opportunity. It is and will always bea part of our world. We need to tap into the opportunities a conflict situation provides us. This is where mediation can play a vital role. If I look at the Galtung’s ABC triangle of conflict, as a mediator, I see opportunities and not only obstacles. A stands for attitudes (assumptions) and tells us about a person’s position, feelings she or he have invested in a conflict. From this we can see how an individual sees his or her surroundings it is something which shapes our ‘point of view’. For example, what motivates someone to work on her or his marriage instead of just ‘giving up’? Maybe it is consistent with their values or even religious beliefs or maybe they just believe in working for a relationship.
B stands for behaviour and if we look through the mediator’s eyes this becomes a source of information. Especially when the ‘opposite’ party presents his or hers position we are interested also in which way the other party will react. We, as mediators, can combine the information gained from attitudes with information gained from the behaviour or reaction caused by the other party’s statement. Will they deny it and oppose it? And how will they oppose it? Will they be angry and frustrated or will they just ignore and dismiss everything the other party just said etc.? Galtung claims that a full manifestation of conflict is possible when A, B and C (contradiction) are present. I chose Galtung’s ABC conflict model because it depicts a development of a conflict quite clearly. We can also reframe all the ingredients of the triangleas opportunities. Different parts of a conflict provide us with much needed information. One ‘just’ needs to listen and try to understand. When people are personally invested in a conflict (which is almost always) it is hard to look at the situation from afar. Mediator can provide such a view and help us to seeit for ourselves. This is why a mediator besides being a good (great) listener and observer also has to be a good communicator. This means one should adjust his or her ways of communicating according to the situation and at the same time upholding high standards and principles.
In interpersonal relations and in international relations we address conflict differently. One may simply avoid or deny a conflict but that is not productive because a conflict does not just simply vanish. As I have stated before, conflict has its purpose and it is hard to dismiss that purpose. The consequence is often frustration of involved parties and damaged or broken communication. We miss a great opportunity to use that energy which is set loose by a conflict (I lose-You lose). Another way people often deal with aconflict is adjustment. But adjustment is a way of avoidance where we avoid dealing with conflict as a whole and adjust our interests in order to satisfy the other party’s interests. It may, in short-term, ‘resolve’ a conflict but in long-term it may build up frustrations which fuel a future conflict and this brings us back to square one (I lose-You win). The opposite of adjustment is fighting or conquering. It is a state of mind which promotes only our victory. If we are not able to reach a victory the only option acceptable for us is the other party’s defeat (I win-You lose). The popular outcome of negotiations is compromise. It is a much better result than the previous mentioned possibilities, but it is also limited (I win some-You win some). In my opinion the best way of addressing and resolving or managing a conflict is collaboration where both parties search for a solution which is ‘perfect’ forboth parties (I win-You win). The last-mentioned outcome is also one of the goals of mediation.
Mediation can adjust to the nature of a conflict which can even better the possible outcome. If I return to the general level where I started and point out again that our (social) world is based on human interactivity. Of course, it seems logical and obvious but in reality we often forget this and push what is most ‘natural’ aside. What I mean by this, regarding conflict, is that even if we have a complex international conflict with abstract foreign policies and other large interests, people and everyday life are most effected. In conflict relations it is important to always keep in mind that we are dealing with another human being even though it can be extremely hard sometimes, especially in international conflicts where people assume a role and often identify with it. Mediation is not only another way of conflict resolution. It is a civilizational step for human society in addressing a crucial part of human relations – conflicts. It allows us to address the human side of the conflict as well as the normative (legal or political) one. It deals with acknowledging the other side in the dispute. This is, for me at least, a crucial step in managing or resolving a conflict. Another important thing to be aware of, I believe, is that we are not the first nor last humans to walk this earth. There are thousands of years of human experience, wisdom, philosophies in the ‘east’ and‘west’. We can tap into this well of wisdom and knowledge and apply it in the present and for the future.
In a world of technology, globalization (internationalization) and normative organisation of human life we tend to forget and ignore that what makes us human in the first place: emotions, communication, all the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ things. We are quick to hide behind social constructs and legal norms in order to avoid the ‘scary’ (social, psychological, emotional, cultural) part of being human. Societies consist of relations between people and peoples. If I use the concept of the ‘other’ we can see how important it is that we acknowledge the humanity and dignity of another human being. It is not ‘just’ a philosophical concept, it had and still has ‘real’ world consequences: for example, colonialism, slavery and international war crimes, just to name a few.
In my masters research, which focused on universality and relativism regarding human rights, I have found that humanity can and does exist as a society and it is based on its diversity and cultural, historical wealth. Culture and diversity are not opposite to human dignity and the other way around. It is important to know that diversity does not threaten us, it makes our world interesting and wise. But in order to reach this understanding we need to learn, teach, be self-critical, acknowledge our human essence. This, in my opinion, is the road to peace. Allow me to reiterate that peace is not just the absence of conflict, it is a way of living, a way of organizing a society. It may sound idealistic but without an ideal world there would not be a real world in good or bad. The Greeks knew that without imagination (phantasia) there is no wisdom (knowledge). Peace is an acknowledgement of the human. A vital part in achieving peace is reserved for mediation. I view conflicts as a challenge and without challenge there is no progress, if I borrow words from Arnold Toynbee (1966). Mediation addresses this challenge and its result is notjust conflict resolution it can also result in peace.
Meerts, W. Paul. (2014). Diplomatic Negotiation: Essence and Evolution. Den Haag: Clingendael Institute.
Toynbee, Arnold. (1966). Change and Habit: The Challenge of Our Time. Oxford: Oxford University Press.