Conflict Resolution 3: Is it Resolvable?

12653654_xxlWhen a conflict resolution works it’s a great thing. However, the reason I started out the leadership series by talking about unsolvable conflicts, and in specific, talking about intractably bad leaders who are egomaniacs, jerks, or who have major untreated mental illnesses…is because with anyone in these categories, it doesn’t matter if you are a master at conflict resolution. Nothing is going to heal that conflict. Nothing is going to change someone who isn’t aware and willing to change.

Love, Listening, and Boundaries
There is a power–an extreme power–in listening. In letting someone talk about why they are upset, in hearing them. Sometimes someone who seems like an intractably bad KnowItAll  can come to understand what they did and do, reflect on their behavior, and work to be better.

Some people have literally never had anyone just listen to them. Compassion and love and support can also heal some of those old wounds that lead to behavior. Another toolset that I’m less familiar with, but that I know has had a tremendous positive impact, is the form of the Restorative Justice circle.

Pagan author Crystal Blanton facilitates these when she teaches at festivals, and she uses them in her workplace. You might do a little digging around in your area via Google to see if there are any ways to experience or learn how to facilitate Restorative Justice circles. One of the hallmarks of an “RJ” circle is listening. The idea is to pass the  talking stick/stone/object around and get people to talk, and, to get people to listen.

There is a tremendous power in being heard when you’ve never felt like anyone listened to you or cared what you thought. Sometimes that’s all that someone wants in a conflict–to feel that their voice is heard.

There’s a tremendous power in hearing the pain of the other party. When people yell at each other over a computer screen, or through a third party who’s been triangled into the drama, they aren’t always hearing and sitting with and feeling compassion for what the other party is going through.

If you can actually get people to sit together and speak their pain and be vulnerable, that’s half the work right there, and sometimes just the act of them speaking and listening unravels the conflict.

However, it’s a knife’s edge of balance. I want to listen to what someone’s going through. And I want to give someone the time and space to heal and to do better, but I also need to understand when I’m spinning my wheels with someone and just giving them more opportunities to hurt me and my group. After repeated work with someone showing them compassion and giving them opportunities to make a different choice, sometimes it is time to hold a boundary. Sometimes, the answer is, “No, you can’t be a part of this group/event/community any longer.”

I do wish this historically worked better in the Pagan community. I’ve agreed numerous times to be a mediator for several disputes, and I’ve very, very rarely been taken up on the offer.

As I mentioned in Conflict Resolution Part 1, typically there’s one party interested in mediation, and the other party refuses. To recap, most of the time when someone refuses mediation, that’s a big red flag for me. If they aren’t willing to sit down at the table and talk things out, then there’s probably no resolving the conflict anyways.

The exception to this is if someone has been abused, for instance, and the abuser is trying to use mediation as a method to re-engage the cycle of abuse with their victim. If someone has been abused and refuses mediation because they have cut their abuser out of their life, that’s a different situation.

In almost any other case, the “I’m not speaking to you” tactic is unfortunately a death knell to the possibility of any future healing. No conversations can happen, no agreements can be made, no needs can be explored. At that point there is just stewing and no way to resolve the tension.

It festers like a big boil under the skin with no way to lance it.

Sometimes I have been taken up on my offer to mediate, but sometimes the end result isn’t what the parties had in mind. Sometimes the end result is, “Yup, you guys are really a terrible mix, personality wise, and you probably shouldn’t work together.” What people want is the perfect, pretty result, and that isn’t always possible. Sometimes the result is that some folks are just a bad combination, and the pressure cooker of working together to plan rituals or events or put out a newsletter is going to continually cause a conflict.

But I Heard Mediation Doesn’t Work
The only thing that’s worse than someone refusing mediation, though, is unskillful mediation. There’s a number of situations I’ve heard of where someone was used as a mediator who wasn’t at all skilled, or who was clearly biased, and that situation managed to cause a further rift. What makes this one worse is that then everyone sees that “Oh, mediation didn’t work,” and then they don’t want to employ mediation in the future.

Or, someone who didn’t like the outcome of the mediation, will talk about how mediation is biased. When, it wasn’t biased, it just didn’t go their way.

Like with many things, the story of bad mediations gets more elaborate with every telling. The game of “telephone” can create quite an epic rumor of how terrible mediations are. Not every regional community has had something like this happen, but in some regions, because of past drama, mediation is not even seen as an option.

Trash Talking the Mediator
A bad scenario is when one gets so upset that they begin to trash talk the mediator. And yes, this does happen. The idea of mediation is that the mediator is an outside party without a “dog in the game,” so to speak. In the Pagan community, I often clarify that I am not a true mediator, because we have too much “It’s a small world” syndrome, but that I will try to come in as unbiased as I can. And there’s a benefit to having a mediator who at least understands the local politics without an hours-long history lesson.

However, the disadvantage is that if one of the parties involved gets disgruntled enough–or, if they were genuinely unstable to begin with–they may try personal attacks against the mediator. At that point it usually becomes pretty clear how the original conflict exploded in the first place, but it can cause entirely new rifts. This is why I’ve heard a number of Pagan elders say, “No way am I getting in the middle of that.” Because, they know that one of the “end games” is to try and draw in the mediator.

Too Much of a Soft Touch
Another mediation failure is when the mediator doesn’t ask the hard questions. I know of one mediation where the mediator basically seemed to just listen to the two parties talk to each other.

One party felt aggrieved and took the lead, cowing the second person into apologizing, when the situation was actually far more complicated. The aggressive person used the mediator to make the second person look like the aggressor. It’s grade-A manipulative and abusive behavior, and a mediation is supposed to provide a safe space.

While it’s true that a mediator is in general supposed to help the parties in conflict solve their own problems, there’s also a point where a mediator needs to step in and ensure a safe space for both parties. I’d offer that it’s really tricky some times to suss out abusive and manipulative behavior, particularly with people who play the victim in other to manipulate others. This is why it’s important to gather data ahead of time from multiple different perspectives.

You want to give people space to work out their problems, but you don’t want to let one party steamroll the other. A lot of mediators express that they are afraid to be perceived as taking sides, but bad behavior needs to be called out in a mediation session or you’ve just lost all your safety agreements.

In Part 4, we’ll look at some actual mediation and arbitration processes.

Meanwhile, here’s a short article on projection (ie, projecting our inner landscape onto exterior people/events) from an excellent weekly facilitation newsletter I subscribe to.

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