From time-to-time difference between individuals or groups distorts into conflict. One way to consider conflict is to think of it as dialogue between beings that has extended beyond what the parties to the dialogue can manage.
There can perhaps be a tendency amongst human beings to assume that we are “all able”, “all able” to manage any communication, thoughts, feelings, that we may meet along the way. And yet as human beings, in the shape of individuals and groups, we are fallible and limited. As we meet others in our day-to-day personal and professional life there will be experiences that are dissonant beyond what we can hold.
Emerging into conflict is emerging into particular patterns of relating. These patterns have their own time and pace. Conflict can be held at a glacial pace, where people are deeply divided, unable and/or unwilling to broach a meeting place. At the same time, conflict can happen at such a speed that dispute seems to arise instantaneously from the fallow ground of calm.
It is this particular aspect of conflict I want to appeal to now. As a mediator working with people in dispute, this sudden escalation in pace is so often apparent in a situation of exacerbated difference. As soon as the pace of exchange reaches a certain point each party to the dispute quickly stops hearing what the other is saying and can tend to defend their line of argument with a fierce determination. As a mediator, I have options, for example to see if the parties themselves can identify the patterns that emerge. I can support the people concerned with this task by intervening and asking well placed questions as to what they notice about their interaction. Or I can possibly name the pattern I observe, for example, “I notice the speed with which you communicate when trying to manage your differences”.
Whatever approach I choose, slowing the communication down is a key part in helping individuals and groups begin to address the dispute they are facing. This may mean clearly intervening, with a “OK, let’s take a break for a minute”, or even a simple “stop”. As a mediator you are there to support both parties and their relationship. When you say “stop”, you are not addressing one or the other, you are addressing the situation, the pattern. You are clearly inserting a wedge into the free-flowing mechanism that underpins the dispute. You are creating space for the people concerned (and you!) to reflect on what is taking place.
This particular type of intervention shines a light on the nuanced practice of mediator presence, including mediator power and control. As a mediator develops his/her skills and experience, consideration of this aspect is often figural. In terms of controlling the pace of the dialogue between parties what you are doing as a mediator is highlighting patterns, and offering the potential for something different, a chance for each party to really hear each other. But for these patterns to be highlighted there needs to be a certain amount of free rein for those in the dispute to follow the course of their natural communication, i.e. intervene to slow it down sure, but do this when you are aware of the speed of exchange being a problem, and when you consider that the parties could also see that it may be one issue that gets in the way of shifting their dispute.
As a mediator we are always working in the moment and with what we see in front of us. We are making an informed decision that a particular intervention may support the parties to see themselves, each other, and the relationship, in a slightly different light. Our work with the pace of the exchange between those bringing their differences is one such example of this.
Go and experiment, bring yourself to the relationship in front of you. Don’t be afraid to lend a hand when the people who have so bravely brought themselves to mediation are struggling with the patterns that underpin the distress of exacerbated difference. If of course you are managing a dispute glacial in nature, well, something different may be required! Whichever way it is though, love the privilege of the work you have – when someone opts for mediation, they are choosing to try and achieve something better.
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash