“Awareness is like the glow of a coal which comes from its own combustion” (Perls, Hefferline, Goodman, 1951: 75)
Writing about mediation, dialogue, and the practice of conflict transformation, is one way by which I reflect on and develop my practice. It has been a few months since I last wrote and I’ve missed that space to grapple with and shape my thinking. The last article I wrote was an explanation of how looking at conflict resolution through a field theory lens can help change things for the better.
What I named in that article and would like to focus on now, is a mediation participant’s “awareness”. In using the word awareness, I include a person’s understanding of their feelings, values, motivations (including hopes, desires, dreads), habitual patterns of thinking and behaviour when in different situations. I propose that the more aware we are of these aspects of ourselves, the more choices we have when in challenging situations, including professional relationships in the workplace.
More often than not, conflict is stressful, sometimes distressing, and usually involves people feeling stuck. Despite this, I believe that growth and change begin with the people involved and therefore will say in the introduction to a mediation that the process is self-determining. As mediator, I see my job as helping participants to reflect in ways they haven’t done previously, to consider what it is they want and need, to help them structure how they may individually and collectively get there. My tools of trade in delivering this may include, carefully crafted questions, observations, experiments.
In applying these tools, my aim is to support each person in the conflict situation to increase their awareness. As I work on this with a mediation participant in both private and joint session, there can often be new insight as to both how their own life experiences, and those of the other, are co-contributing to difficulties in relationship. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with our own or others life experiences, but it is more to point out that when we become more aware of who and how we are, we have greater capacity to grow and change. My reflection is that increased awareness can bring both a greater sense of responsibility, and also a greater sense of choice. What choice brings is the potential for something different, which may include people or groups in dispute making different decisions and shifting patterns of behaviour.
Let me elaborate a little more on the tools of trade. When I say carefully crafted questions, I think of mediator curiosity, demonstrated by systematic compassionate enquiry into the participants experience of being in this conflict, which may include an exploration of her feelings, beliefs, values, views, and environmental field factors. Further techniques which may support increased awareness include a mediator potentially sharing personal observations in a joint session of what she may see in front of her, and checking out whether these observations have any meaning for the participants. What is shared here is observations, NOT interpretations, e.g. what I notice Dean is that you have moved your chair back, and Rose I notice that you don’t seem to have made any eye contact with Dean? What’s happening for each of you?
What a professional working in conflict transformation can do is lay the ground for those in conflict to see what they couldn’t see previously, to understand and make sense of what had seemed confused. I would contend that awareness is a deeply personal process, and at the same time one that is fed and watered by relationship. Without relationship, awareness withers and dies. As a mediator, you bring a different type of relationship to the conflict that has significant potential to facilitate new awareness for those involved.
I have described awareness as a process. I would propose that when we are at our healthiest, we are ever developing new understanding of our somatic and cognitive experience in relation to the world around us. As a specialist in the resolution of inter-personal conflict, I see myself as oiling the process whereby those in conflict increase their understanding of their feelings, responses, views, and general habits related to the conflict they are in. I aim to encourage self-reflection, rather than blame of the other.
In arguing for a focus on the process of awareness building, I also wish to add a note concerning the limits of each and all of our capacity for awareness at any given moment. If we all had a full capacity for full awareness at any given moment, then, well firstly I imagine we might all be living in some state of barely concealed terror. We each adapt to the world in the way we do for all sorts of reasons, perhaps, for example, to protect ourselves from our own experience of its cold hard stare.
In working with people in conflict, at some stage in a mediation there may be resistance or difference. I believe it is important to respect this, both in deference to the person, persons, and relationships rights to self-determination, and therefore also in deference to the related inability of the mediator to determine what the outcomes should be for the parties concerned.
I have found this to be frustrating at times as a mediator, but “if only X, Y, both X and Y, could see…”. This reveals my underlying motivation to help the people in front of me, and an associated benevolent arrogance that I can make “this” better and that I know best what they need. This latter dynamic is the path that many mediators find their way along as they move towards truly effective propagators of relational growth. A topic for a different article perhaps.
What I have tried to outline here is one potential approach to working with those in conflict. The approach of increasing awareness. One approach of many different approaches.
go-dialogue is constantly striving to develop the very best contemporary thinking and practice in the resolution of inter-personal conflict.
Perls, F., Hefferline, R., Goodman, P. (2009|1951) Gestalt Therapy, Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality. London: Souvenir Press
An article by Nick Adlington