Thursday, May 29, 2008

Conflict Between Conflict Pros

Paradoxically, there's nothing quite as ornery and contentious and divisive as a convention of peacemakers. When I was on the board of the Southern Calfornia Mediation Association, we hired a management consultant to help us assess and re-draft the organization's goals and mission statement, and he confided that it was one of the most difficult organizations with which he had ever worked.

I was reminded of this when (in the comments section of Vickie Pynchon's excellent blog) an Atlanta mediator objected to my mediation-themed reality TV show, on the shaky grounds that mediators should be resolving conflict, not promoting it. Huh? Isn't that the whole point of the show -- to demonstrate a superior method of resolving conflict (in contrast to the myriad Judge shows)? Wouldn't this raise the public's awareness of the mere existence of mediation, and drive clients to our Atlanta friend's doorstep?

Tellingly, he accused me of artificially fanning the flames of dispute for the benefit of ratings, by provoking name-calling... and then proceeded to call me a "conniving producer."

Here's how I responded:

I must object to your notion that mediators should "avoid conflict and confrontation."
You must be joking! Conflict and confrontation is at the heart of what we do. Avoid it? Hardly!

We must confront it head on. Not to argue semantics, but conflict and confrontation, in and of themselves, are not bad things at all. They are the essence of life. We can't always agree with each other, nor should we! It's how we RESOLVE conflict that matters. Mediation is an ideal way to do that. My purpose is to educate Americans so that they don't resort to the two most common ways of resolving dispute -- litigation and violence.

Look at it another way -- conflict and confrontation are inevitable. All those Judge Judy cases are going to happen, no matter what. BUT what if America saw ANOTHER way of resolving those cases? So that the next time they got into a confrontation themselves, they didn't reflexively call a lawyer or a cop, or threaten violence, and instead phoned a mediator?

All we're trying to do is educate people to the existence of mediation, and make them aware that they can get their issues settled more quickly, less expensively, and with far less anguish than heartache than if they explore the traditional venues.

I should think that a practicing mediator would welcome such a daily public service announcement with open arms!

As for our show, all we're doing is portraying mediations as they really happen. And, yes, if people are in mediation, I think we can safely assume that there's a conflict involved. And, yes, sometimes the parties get confrontational. That's the nature of the beast.

But a good mediator facilitates constructive communication and gently guides them away from finger-pointing and name-calling, and toward forward-looking collaborative solutions to their problems.

What exactly is the harm in that?

I question the temperament and judgment of a mediator who labels new ideas "ridiculous" before he even tries to understand them! Hopefully now you can assess this new TV show with an open mind.

I'll leave you with this quote, from my very first blog post: "Fighting is a necessary and useful component of real life; differences of opinion are a good thing. So the primary goal of this blog is to teach a new generation how to engage in battle constructively, not destructively. In short, how to fight nicely."

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