Sunday, October 31, 2004

Effective Communication in Dispute Resolution: A Balance of Emotion and Desire for Common Understanding

A paper written for “Introduction to Conflict Resolution and Alternate Dispute Resolution” (Leadership 9610).

Please note: The three figures cited in this paper are not included in this posting.

Communication is a key element in disputes and effective dispute resolution. The transmission of message – or the non or incomplete transmission of message – is involved in every stage of dispute. All human interaction – including disputes – is based on communication. Communication is fundamental in interpersonal relationships, corporate relationships, and community relationships. To successfully communicate, barriers which block effective message transmission must be torn down. Effective communication is also predicated on all parties seeking common understanding and limiting action based on emotion as much as possible. Communication plays a role in both the escalation of conflict and the resolution of conflict. Effective practitioners of conflict resolution understand communication and seek to increase the desire for common understanding and reduce the emotional action of the communication cycle.

Definition of Communication

As Schwarz (1994) puts it, “Essentially communication involves exchanging information in a way that conveys meaning.” (p. 25) Communication requires four components: the sender, the receiver, the medium, and the message. Undergirding this quartet is the need to encode and decode the message. The sender is the person who is sending the message. They create the message, encode the message – perhaps into words – and then convey the message. The receiver is on the receiving end. They must receive the message and decode the message to ascertain the meaning of the message. The medium is what is used to transmit the message. For instance, I am using words, written English, to transmit a message to you, the reader. The medium is the written word. Tonight, when my soon-to-be wife returns from babysitting the neighbor’s child we will use the spoken word as the medium. We’ll also trade messages through non-verbals or body language: a look, a touch, a posture. Spoken words are a medium as are various non-verbals. Other mediums could be art, such as paintings or statues. The message is the fourth component of the quartet. The message is the information which the sender is attempting to transmit.

Covey (1989) suggests there are four forms of communication: writing, reading, speaking, and listening. (p. 237) For him, the action by the sender or the receiver is the form of communication; it takes both appropriate forms to have successful communication.

Figure 1. The Communication Quartet

In order for the sender to successfully communicate with the receiver, the message must be appropriately encoded, sent using the chosen medium, and decoded by the receiver. If, at any point, there’s a breakdown, the communication will not occur. Perhaps a different message will be seemingly received by the receiver (mis-communication) or no message will be received (non-communication). As Carkhuff (1983) notes, decoding the message uses observation that goes beyond the words the sender uses. “We must focus not only upon the words but also upon the tone of voice and the manner of presentation.” (p. 47)

Communication occurs at various levels of human interaction. My focus here is on interpersonal communication – communication (generally face-to-face) between two people or a small group of people. There are, of course, other types of communication including mass communication – communication using messages distributed to many people at one time, such as television and newspapers, in generally a one-way communication mode – and intrapersonal communication, our own self-talk and reflective communication. Bolton (1979) tells us, “Although interpersonal communication is humanity’s greatest accomplishment, the average person does not communicate well.” (p. 4) He goes on to say, “One of the ironies of modern civilization is that, though mechanical means of communication have been developed beyond the wildest flight of imagination, people often find it difficult to communicate face-to-face… we find it difficult to relate to those we love.” (p. 4) For a multitude of reasons, true communication – sending out a real and true message which speaks to our inner self – is most difficult with those who we care about. And, often, even if we send out such a message, it is not received. Barriers to communication seem to abound.

Barriers to communication

Gordon (as cited in Bolton, 1979) developed a “comprehensive list that he calls the ‘dirty dozen’ of communication spoilers.” (p. 15) These barriers to communication can be divided into three major categories: judging, sending solutions, and avoiding the other’s concerns. Rogers (as cited in Bolton, 1979) claimed the major barrier to interpersonal communication is judging – approving or disapproving what the other person says. (p. 17) Carkhuff (1983) places “suspending judgment” as a key in listening. Rees (2001) defines an important characteristic of a facilitative leader as someone who “reserves judgment and keeps and open mind.” (p. 60) Covey (1977), who purports a key habit of effective people is to “seek first to understand, then to be understood), notes “When you understand, you don’t judge. Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler (2002) suggest that effective communication has mutual purpose. They define mutual purpose as “working toward a common outcome in the conversation” and that all participants care about the other’s “goals, interests, and values.” (p. 69) Mutual purpose, as they define it, cannot occur with judgment impeding the communication.

Another prominent barrier to communication doesn’t fit neatly into Gordon’s pantheon. This barrier has to do with a person’s attitude while listening. Bolton (1979) says, “If you are at all typical, listening takes up more of your waking hours than any other activity.” (p. 30) Nichols and Stevens (as cited in Bolton, 1979, p. 30) claim listening occupies 45 percent of our waking time. And yet, as Bolton notes, “few people are good listeners.” (p. 30) Covey (1989) says, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. They’re either speaking or preparing to speak. They’re filtering everything through their own paradigms, reading their autobiography into other people’s lives.” (p. 239) Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler (2002) suggest “At the core of every successful conversation lies the free flow of relevant information.” (p. 20) They call this “filling the pool of shared meaning.” I call it a desire for common understanding. And common understanding cannot happen when the listeners are filtering the message through their own world-view

Conversation – two people talking and listening back and forth – is not necessarily built on a desire for common understanding. Tannen (1995) says, “Conversation is fundamentally ritual in the sense that we speak in ways our culture has conventionalized and expect certain types of responses.” (p. 321) Covey (1989) says, “We’re usually ‘listening’ at one of four levels.” (p. 240) He identifies those four levels as ignoring the other person, pretending to listen to the other person, only selectively listening to the other person, and attending to the other person by focusing on the words and feelings. He claims few of us practice the fifth level – empathic listening, which he defines as “listening with the intent to understand” – not to respond or run the message against our own life script. “Empathic (from empathy) listening gets inside the other person’s frame of reference.” (p. 240) In wearing the other’s shoes – or glasses, perhaps – a listener can begin to come to a common understanding.

Another barrier to communication is strong emotion. Often emotion enters into a communication cycle and neither the sender nor the listener is able to focus on message. Paterson et al. (2002) identify six behaviors stemming from emotion. These six behaviors form a continuum from “silence” to “violence.” Withdrawing, avoiding, and masking form silence, while attacking, labeling, and controlling form violence. Olsen and Braithwaite (2004) note clear research shoes violent communication behaviors – such as verbal aggression, anger, patronizing behavior, and destructive forms of relational control – often lead to violent relationships. (p. 271)

Figure 2. Silence/Violence Continuum

Violence can be tamed, however. Utne (2004) suggests, “If you blunder into a delicate communication, request a re-do lest you dig yourself in any deeper… let your hackles down and listen as if for the first time.” (p. 56, emphasis added. True listening can help conquer violence.

These barriers – judging, sending solutions, avoiding other’s concerns, not pursuing common understanding, and strong emotion – all play a part in communication styles.

Communication Styles

A number of researchers and communications experts have identified a number of communication styles. Covey (1989) provides the five levels of listening, a set of communication styles. Tannen (1995)outlines communication styles of men and women. Lulofs and Cahn (2000) list a number of communication options. Davis (2002) outlines communication styles and behaviors that help build bridges between diverse peoples. Kroeger (2002) purports that communication style is linked with personality type and outlines styles and their implications in the work setting.

Another way of looking at communication styles is to first look to the barriers to communication. Judging has to do with putting our own spin on someone else’s message or words. It is an autobiographical response that runs counter to the goal of attaining common understanding. Sending solutions falls into the same trap; when we send solutions, we are providing solutions developed from our own perspective. Again, it runs counter to a establishing a common understanding. When we avoid the other’s concerns, we are also running counter to common understanding, but we usually do it in a way of intolerable emotion, such as provided on the silence/violence continuum.

We can look to communication style as falling along two continuums. The first continuum has to do with the level of emotion in the communication, as exhibited by either the sender or the receiver. On one end of the spectrum is no emotion; on the other end is emotion generally present in the form of violence or silence. The second continuum is the desire for common understanding within the sender or the receiver. This continuum measures “intent” or the inner desire of the person. We can match these two continuums in a 2x2 matrix, and then plot a person’s style on the axis.

Figure 3: Communication Matrix

The ideal communication style lies in the lower right quadrant: low emotion and a high desire for common understanding. The least helpful communication style lies in the upper left quadrant with a low desire for common understanding and high emotion. Interestingly, in this model, both ends of the silence/violence continuum lie together in the same quadrant. Both the extremes of silence and violence are highly emotional behaviors.

The communication matrix can be a useful tool in reviewing communication styles. The emotional continuum determines external behavior, what we see. The other continuum measures something inside the person: it measures intent, desire, and hope. Using the matrix, we can look at behavior and intent; and, by using the matrix we can, perhaps, change behavior and intent – or at least educate communication partners.

Role of communication in conflict escalation

Communication plays a fundamental role in conflict escalation. Wilmot & Hocker (2001) detail destructive conflict spirals, patterns of behaviors in relationships which spiral out-of-control. In each of these destructive spirals, communication between the parties sparks further development. In these spirals, the communication is negative in nature or highly emotional or stems from a misunderstanding. Davis (2002) provides examples of Israeli and Palestinian youth attending camp together in the United States. Through destructive cycles, which are fed by communication between these youth, occasional outbursts create untenable situations. It is communication, not action, which propels the motion of the cycle. Certainly, in their homeland it is action that provides a spiral of destruction; in the woods of Colorado, however, it is not so much action as it is talking about action which sometimes creates these cycles. Emotion, misunderstanding, negativity propel the participants to conflict.

When we apply the communication matrix, we can see that generally, for a destructive spiral to occur, one or both of the participants must be living to the left of the centerline. Whether emotion is high or low, the desire for common understanding is low. Lulofs & Cahn (2000), Wilmot & Hocker (2001), Davis (2002), and Ury (1999), all suggest that strong emotion, in and of itself, does not escalate conflict. Looking at the communication model, the upper right quadrant has high levels of emotion, but also high levels of desire for common understanding. It is possible to have both. In the upper right quadrant of the communication matrix, the participant has strong emotion, but because it is tempered with the desire for common understanding, the emotion is not acted on. In the upper left quadrant, the emotion is acted on in such a way as to withdraw, avoid, or mask, or in such a way to control, label, attack. The emotion is not tempered by a desire for common understanding; as a matter of fact, when we are behaving in the upper left quadrant, our emotion can be fanned out of control like a wild fire on a dry, southern California hillside with the winds kicking off the Pacific.

Role of communication in conflict resolution

Lulofs & Cahn (2000) describe a process model of communication that suggests five distinct phases. These phases are: (a) prelude to conflict, (b) a triggering event, (c) the initiation phase, (d) the differentiation phase, and (e) the resolution phase. (p. 87) The prelude to conflict is just that: the prelude. In this phase, conflict can potentially exist because of the participants and their relationships or some environmental factor. The triggering event is generally some sort of communication; I would suggest that actions serve here as communication. If I slap you, I am using my hand and the action of the slap as the medium in delivering a message; in order for you to receive the message, you would need to decode to translate. In this sense, the action is a mode of communication. The initiation phase starts when at least one of the participants realizes there’s a conflict as initiated by a triggering event: no triggering event, no conflict. Likewise, when the parties have no realization of a triggering event, there’s no conflict. It is possible for the conflict to proceed to no further stage if the participants move to avoidance. In the differentiation phase, the participants begin to share their differences, positions, and needs. The final stage is resolution. Lulofs & Cahn suggest “Resolution is a probable outcome when the conflict can be resolved to the satisfaction of all concerned; management is more likely when only one or neither party can be satisfied.” (p. 96)

What is the role of communication in these phases? Clearly, we can see that communication can trigger the conflict. Likewise, communication in the differentiation stage can help de-escalate conflict and begin to bring the conflict to resolution. Davis (2002) tells a number of stories from the camp in the mountains outside Denver with the Israeli and Palestinian youth. In each story, it is positive communication – sometimes laced with emotion – coupled with a strong desire to really understand the other person that creates situations where the conflict is resolved. As Davis notes, “When two people come to the table with authenticity and kindness – and a deep willingness to listen to each other – neither comes out of the interaction unchanged.” (p. 201) She goes on to say, “But when adversaries enter into a dialogue with a basic respect for differing points of view and ground rules that make conversation possible, alliances can be built even across the most intransigent lines.” (p. 201) Covey (1989) suggests one of those ground rules that makes conversation possible. Covey would have us present the other person’s ideas and position as well as they can, or better. He suggests we do not need to agree with it; we merely need to understand it. This is at the root of his fifth habit, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

Covey’s ground rule is truly only effective when the participants both desire a common understanding. Certainly, if one participant desires common understanding, and the other does not, it is possible that the first’s actions will bring about a change in the second person. In this case there is still some effectiveness.

Role of communication in interpersonal relationships

Communication is a fundamental building block in interpersonal relationships. As Davis (2002) notes, “Estrangements often start because we lack the communication skills to prevent them: we don’t know how to apologize, listen, or cool off and talk again tomorrow.” (p. 14) For her, communication skills are paramount in developing, and holding on to, deep relationships between people. Beyond the skills, however, is the attitude. The communication matrix places the horizontal axis with “desire.” It is the individual’s desire to find common understanding. Covey (1989) says, “But you can always seek first to understand. That’s something that’s within your control.” (p. 257) He goes on to suggest, “To touch the soul of another human being is to walk on holy ground. . . . The next time you communicate with anyone, you can put aside your own autobiography and genuinely seek to understand.” (p. 258)

Using the communication matrix, we see the goal is certainly to stay to the right of the matrix. When we do not intend to seek common understanding, we do not increase the pool of knowledge, nor do we seek first to understand. Living to the left of the matrix only increases the likelihood of destructive conflict cycles and a life in conflict. And, when we act in the upper left quadrant, our actions are highlighted by the extremes of silence and violence. We find ourselves withdrawing or attacking; both have no place in conflict resolution. By withdrawing, we only create stronger emotion within ourselves that festers and spirals out of control. By attacking, even if it is only a verbal attack, we increase the likelihood of physical violence. (Olsen & Braithwaite, 2004).

Communication as a tool for personal growth and conflict resolution

Understanding the role of communication in conflict escalation, conflict resolution, and interpersonal relationships can provide a person with an opportunity for personal growth: “I can do better.” Using the communications matrix as a tool for understanding, we see the relationship between emotion – in the communication content, message, or medium – and desire for common understanding. When a person has a desire for common understanding – as demonstrated by the stories told by Davis (2002), Covey (1989, 1997), and Bolton (1977) – tremendous things can happen in the relationship between the participants. Minimizing action based on emotion – the silence and violence behaviors – and increasing the desire for common understanding, can allow growth in each participant and in the relationship as a whole.


References

Bolton, R. (1979). People Skills: How to assert yourself, listen to others, and resolve conflicts. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Carkhuff, R. R. (1983). The Art of Helping. Amherst, MA: Human Resource Development Press Inc.

Covey, S. R. (1989). The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the character ethic. New York: Free Press/Simon & Schuster.

Covey, S. R. (1997). The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families. New York: Golden Books.

Davis, L. (2002). I Thought We’d Never Speak Again: The road from estrangement to reconciliation. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Kroeger, O., Thuesen, J. M., and Rutledge, H. (2002). Type Talk at Work: How the 16 personality types determine your success on the job. New York: Dell Publishing/Random House, Inc.

Lulofs, R. S. and Cahn, D. D. (2000). Conflict: From theory to action. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Olson, L. N. and Braithwaite, D. O. (2004). If You Hit Me Again, I’ll Hit You Back: Conflict management strategies of individuals experiencing aggression during conflicts. Communication Studies, 55(2), 271-285.

Patterson, K., Grenny, J., McMillan, R., and Swtizler, A. (2002). Crucial Conversations: Tools for talking when stakes are high. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Rees, F. (2001). How to Lead Work Teams: Facilitation skills (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer.

Schwarz, R. M. (1994). The Skilled Facilitator: Practical wisdom for developing effective groups. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Tannen, D. (1995). The Power of Talk: Who gets heard and why. In Lewicki, R.J., Saunders, D. M., Minton, J.W., & Barry, B. (2003). Negotiation: Readings, exercises, and cases (4th ed). Boston: McGraw Hill Irwin.

Ury, W. L. (1999). Getting to Peace: Transforming conflict at home, at work, and in the world. New York: Viking/Penguin Putnam Inc.

Utne, N. (2004). The ABCs of Intimacy: A toolkit for getting closer. Utne, November-December 2004, 56.

Wilmot, W. W. & Joyce, J. L. (2001). Interpersonal Conflict (6th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

A Case Study for Mediation and Negotiation Strategies: The Case of the Fired Network Administrator

A paper written for “Mediation and Negotiation Strategies” (Leadership 9620).

Please note: the following case study is based on actual, current, informal EEO complaint. All identifying details have been changed.

Imagine, for an instant, you are a civil servant working for the Coast Guard. As a program analyst, you’re responsible for helping your command determine where to put resources in order to accomplish priority missions. You’re also an Equal Employment Opportunity and Civil Rights counselor. You haven’t had any EEO cases in a while; things have been fairly quiet on that front. The fact that things have been quiet is, on the one hand, good, since no cases means no allegations of discrimination. On the other hand, it’s a bummer since you enjoy the EEO work more than the program analyst. Today is a Monday morning in late September; sunlight streams through the slats of the blinds covering your window at work; the blinds hide the view of the parking garage across the street. The phone rings; you answer. The caller is Mr. Jimmy Farns from Coast Guard Headquarters. He wants you to help out with a complaint of discrimination. You accept, and over the next several weeks you meet one-on-one with the complainant to conduct the initial counseling session and you conduct an informal fact-finding.


The Players within the Conflict

The complainant is Bobby Merrill, a 40-something man who suffers from clinical depression. Thunder Under Group LLC (TUG) employed Mr. Merrill as a network administrator on a contract for the Coast Guard’s Aviation Repair and Supply Center (ARSC) in Elizabeth City, NC. In October 2003, the Coast Guard terminated the contract with TUG; TUG fired Mr. Merrill when the contract ended. Mr. Merrill had worked for TUG for 10 months and had received one evaluation during that period which indicated his performance was satisfactory. Mr. Merrill asserts TUG terminated his employment because of his disability. He further asserts that members of the Coast Guard told TUG to fire him, and he says that in return for following that request, TUG received an additional contract in a quid quo pro relationship.

The Coast Guard, of course, follows the federal government guidelines and has a policy of non-discrimination. According to the Federal Sector Equal Employment Opportunity Rule (1999), protected persons under this policy may not be discriminated against due to “race, color, religion, sex, national origin, sexual orientation, age (forty years or older), disability, or reprisal for past EEO activity.”

During the course of the initial fact finding, you discover there are three key players aside from Mr. Merrill. Belinda Gloom is the regional manager for TUG. She is responsible for a number of contracts TUG has with the federal government and is the person who actually fired Mr. Merrill. Steve Wynwood is the Coast Guard employee responsible for the performance of the contract which TUG held. Ed Tate works for the Government Services Administration (GSA) and serves as the Contracting Officer’s Technical Representative (COTR). The GSA was the actual contracting organization; TUG had a contract with GSA to provide certain services, and the Coast Guard exercised a task order to have TUG perform work at the Elizabeth City facility, the Aviation Repair and Supply Center.

As Mr. Wynwood described the relationship, the Coast Guard was merely concerned with the performance of the contractor with regard to the specifications spelled out in the task order and contract. How that work was completed was up to the contractor; whom the contractor employed didn’t matter, so long as the work was completed as specified in the contract. Coast Guard representatives forwarded perceived problems in the performance of the contract to the GSA; GSA then forwarded that information to GSA. Mr. Tate of GSA and Ms. Gloom of TUG supported this description of the relationship between the Coast Guard, GSA, and TUG.


The Current State of Affairs

Mr. Merrill has been unemployed since late October 2003. On the day the contract between the Coast Guard and TUG was terminated, Mr. Merrill was escorted from the facility; he has not returned since. He later heard that his picture had been posted at the security office with a notation he was not allowed access to the facility. Mr. Merrill is still depressed and exhibits characteristics of someone who is clinically depressed. When you meet with him in early October 2004 for the initial counseling session at his house, he is late. You arrive at 1100 sharp and are met at the door by his elderly mother. He has just gotten into the shower. As you wait at the kitchen table for him, you can hear the shower running. He arrives in the kitchen nearly twenty minutes after you arrive.

Thunder Under Group LLC no longer holds the network contract for the Coast Guard’s ARSC. They do, however, hold two contracts: one is for data entry and the other is for work in the warehouse. One of these contracts was let shortly after Mr. Merrill was fired, but you have yet to get any additional information. Belinda Gloom has indicated TUG has no plans to hire Mr. Merrill back.


Needs and Wants

In the initial counseling interview, Mr. Merrill shares with you what it would take to “be made whole.” He does not want his job back, rather he wants to be remunerated for lost wages and benefits from the date of his firing until he is able to secure a position providing the same level of income he had with TUG. He also would like some punitive damages levied on TUG and the Coast Guard, but he’s less certain as to what form that would actually take. Both of these desires are clearly content goals. During this initial counseling interview, you also determine other, unstated, goals and desires. Mr. Merrill has a goal of being respected as a network administrator; he sees himself as a “techie” and placed great value on his one, and only, performance evaluation from TUG. He wants to be treated with respect by TUG and the Coast Guard during the course of the resolution of this process. Finally, he’s willing to move away from the informal venues provided by the EEO process. His original complaint was lodged with the State of North Carolina’s EEO Department; they passed the buck to the Federal EEO Office who then forwarded his complaint to the Coast Guard. Mr. Merrill has reached a “boiling point” and has begun looking for legal representation. The underlying interests, you suspect are two-fold: Mr. Merrill wants to be able to cover his debts incurred during his period of unemployment, he wants to beat his depression, and he wants to be seen by others as a professional.

Thunder Under Group wants to put this behind them. Ms. Gloom believes she and the company acted in good faith; they lost the contract and when contracts are lost, employees lose their jobs. As disappointing as this is, it is, in her view, the real world. The Coast Guard and GSA are about in the same place. Both the Coast Guard and GSA were focused on the performance of the contract; they claim that TUG was unable to perform the contract to the levels required by the contract.

What is the best alternative to a negotiated agreement? On the one hand, it appears that a resolution is not possible at the informal stage. The Coast Guard asserts Mr. Merrill was not a Coast Guard employee and is, actually, not able to assert discrimination by the Coast Guard. TUG asserts his employment was terminated with the loss of the contract with the Coast Guard; the work dried up, in essence. At this point, the best alternative to a negotiated agreement (BATNA) is to allow Mr. Merrill to file a formal EEO complaint. A second component to this BATNA would be to provide Mr. Merrill with all documents relating to the contract, the termination of the contract, additional contracts awarded to TUG, and the posting of his picture at the security post at the entrance to the ARSC facility.
Commitments and Communication of the Parties

Mr. Merrill is committed to see this issue through. He was fired nearly a year ago and has been working through state and federal bureaucracies in order to have his complaint heard. He is nearly unwilling to continue down the informal route, and he is currently looking for legal representation. The Coast Guard is willing, at this point, to engage Mr. Merrill, although they may not actually accept the formal complaint. Some members of the Coast Guard are unwilling to provide Mr. Merrill with information or documentation, following a cultural imperative that transparency is not always what is best for the agency. They are, however, willing to speak to you and provide you with various documents.

Mr. Merrill is unwilling to speak directly to any member of the Coast Guard, TUG, or the GSA. All communications, except for meeting for the informal counseling session, have been by mail or e-mail.


Next Steps

You have the basic facts. The question is now, “Now what?” How did this conflict occur? How could it have been prevented? What can all the players do in the future to ensure something like this doesn’t happen again? What options exist within this conflict? What would you recommend as an intervention strategy at this point? How do you think this will get resolved? What will be the outcome? These, and other questions, ought to be the focus in an analysis and synthesis of this case study.


Reference

Federal Sector Equal Employment Opportunity, 29 C.F.R. 1614 (1999). Retrieved October 23, 2004, from http://www.eeoc.gov/federal/1614-final.html

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Literature Review for Mediation and Negotiation Strategies

A paper written for “Mediation and Negotiation Strategies” (Leadership 9610) .

In nearly every aspect of human endeavor, mediation and negotiation skills are necessary. Perhaps a person living alone on a deserted island would have no need for these skills, but the rest of us do. No matter what we do and no matter our lot in life, we interact with those around us. Because we interact with people, mediation and negotiation skills are necessary.

This first source sheds light on the role of the mediator and the mediation process. Threets (2003) outlines a program of peer-based mediation in a secondary school which made a marked difference for 20 targeted students. These 20 targeted students had been identified as the school’s top disruptive offenders during the previous year. At this secondary school, a peer-mediation program was implemented using trained peers, students who had been identified by classmates as students who other students went to when they needed help. (p 75) The chosen peer mediators were provided two days of training which included an overview of conflict, the role of the mediator, and listening skills. Additional training and coaching continued during the remainder of the school year.

Students were either self-referred to the peer mediation program or referred by a teacher or administrator. The mediation sessions included two co-mediators and the disputants. The process used was a formal, structured process which included six stages. As Threets outlines them (p 48), the stages are:
Stage I: Mediators define the mediation process and lay cooperative groundwork.
Stage II: Mediators ask the disputants to agree to the rules.
Stage III: Disputants explain the problem and share their feelings.
Stage IV: Disputants recognize each other’s needs.
Stage V: Disputants find a fair solution to the problem.
Stage VI: Mediators write up the agreement and the disputants sign.
Over the course of the eight month program, referrals to the principal’s office for disruptive behavior for 20 targeted students decreased, missed days – and reports to the counselor’s office – due to disruptive behavior for these same students was reduced.

This second source puts perspective on the transformative potential of mediation. Shepherd (2003) discusses a “peace education training” program implemented at an urban, secondary, public school in Tampa, FL. In this program, 9th grade teachers were provided training through the Peace Education Foundation; this training included mediation and conflict resolution. The program attempted to not only impact teacher behaviors in specific times – such as when two students were in conflict – but transform the teachers during the entire teaching day so that they were more responsive and in tune with their students. The program sought to create teacher behaviors which were peace, rather than conflict, inducing.

While this study is merely a small study in a single school, the results show the possible potential in the lives of both students and teachers. The goal of the program “was to empower teachers with the skills and strategies that would create a safe, nurturing, and orderly learning environment in order to decrease classroom disruptions. (p 60) Following the training, participating teachers used conflict resolution skills to “reduce classroom disruptions by 56%” and were able to impact other classrooms by coaching teacher peers. Students recognized a difference, too, indicating a preference for participant’s classroom settings (p 60) and indicating more of a sense of “getting along” with other students than their peers who were not in classrooms impacted by the study.

The third source presents some unique perspectives on the concepts and theories of mediation and negotiation. Gabel (2003) asserts the practice of mediation and psychotherapy are related at their core. The field of mediation, Gabel tells us, is grounded in the law while psychotherapy is grounded in medicine. Because the foundations of these two practices come from diverse sources, major differences exist, such as in outcomes, processes, and terminology. According to Gabel, both mediation and psychotherapy involve an outside third party helping change the status quo.

Gabel outlines a continuum of mediation practices ranging from transformative, where the goal is to empower the participants to not only find a solution between them but to make themselves better human beings, to an evaluative or problem solving approach at the other end of the spectrum (p 318). On this side, the energy is focused on fixing the presenting issue. Gabel’s view of psychotherapy is, perhaps, more layered. While he doesn’t provide for a true dichotomy or linear progression, he does cite differences in types of psychotherapy. Brief, supportive, psycho-educational, and/or time-sensitive psychotherapy all focus on clarifying and resolving problematic issues in the present, rather than focusing on some hidden, underlying cause or conflict. These styles differ from psychoanalysis which do, of course, involve looking for the hidden meanings and focusing not only on the present situation but the entire history of the individual. Group, family, and couples therapies focus much energy on the relationships between the participants; these forms might look remarkably similar to certain forms of mediation.

Gabel’s insight helps put a different perspective on mediation. The similarities he draws between certain types of psychotherapy and mediation, and in the roles the third party – the therapist or the mediator – plays help in broadening our perspective on the fields.

These three sources provide a beginning examination into the mediator, the mediation process, the potential of mediation, and the concepts and theories behind mediation.


References

Gabel, S. (2003). Mediation and psychotherapy: Two sides of the same coin? Negotiation Journal, October 2003, 19(4), 315-328.

Shepherd, O. B. (2003). Ninth-grade teachers’ attempts to reduce classroom disruptions with conflict resolution and peace education training. Unpublished doctoral applied dissertation, Nova Southeastern University.

Threets, A. (2003). Improving student behavior and decreasing the rate of violence-based suspension through the use of peer mediation. Unpublished doctoral applied dissertation, Nova Southeastern University.

Avoiding and Accommodating: Now the Instrument Shows a Truth

A paper written for “Introduction to Conflict Resolution and Alternate Dispute Resolution” (Leadership 9610).

According to the Thomas-Killman Conflict Mode Questionnaire (Bluffton University, n.d.), my primary conflict mode is “avoiding” and my secondary mode is accommodating. No surprise here, as these results jive with my earlier self-assessment. Frankly, however, it is not a happy picture. In my role as a performance excellence consultant for the Coast Guard, I am expected to help people collaborate to attain increased levels of performance. In my collateral duty role as a counselor in the Equal Employment Opportunity and Civil Rights programs, I am also expected to help people collaborate, or, if we can’t get there, to compromise. And, I’m fairly successful. It seems this professional need is not matched by my personal preferences.

Last year, while developing a four-hour block of instruction for the Coast Guard Auxiliary on managing conflict, I took the Thomas-Killman Conflict Mode Questionnaire. I was unable recently to find those results, but I remember them not being as bleak as this go-round. What I mean by this is I remember collaboration placing either as my secondary or primary preferred mode, a result which is more in keeping with my self image. But then, perhaps true reflection is necessary at times. For the sake of introspection and growth, I will take the results from this latest completion of the instrument as valid: avoiding and accommodating come out head and shoulders above the other three modes.

According to Lulofs and Cahn (2000, p. 101), “Avoidance is a preference for not addressing a conflict at all. People who avoid conflict may understand intuitively that confronting others might bring about better results, but they are not sufficiently concerned about getting those results to risk doing the conflict.” They also state that this mode’s objective is lose-lose. When using this mode, the person demonstrates a low concern for self and a low concern for the other party. (p. 101-103)

A neighbor to avoidance, “accommodation is a preference for smoothing over conflicts, obliging others, and not making waves because one has a high concern for others and a low concern for results. Those using this approach prefer to maintain the illusion of harmony.” (Lulofs and Cahn, 2000, p 101). This style has a paradigm of lose-win (as in “I lose, you win”).

For me, to hear my preferred methods of dealing with conflict stated in this way, I shudder. I shudder for a couple of reasons. First, I like to think that I have more concern for my own self than none at all. Second, I really like the idea of collaboration, or as Stephen Covey puts it, finding the third alternative. Third, I see myself (or at least I want to be) a straight shooter; avoidance and accommodation don’t fit the model of a straight shooter. Having stated these three reasons, I do acknowledge that with many things, I don’t live up to my ideal. This evening, my fiancĂ© reminded me of a few.

When I found out I was to be a father for a third time, I was stunned, to say the least. I knew it to be true, but I went into denial for months. Until now, I’ve looked at this time as denial; Jenny reframed it as avoidance. I only told three people during the first trimester: my priest, my attorney, and one dear friend from college. In the second trimester, I told a few other people, including my two older sons and my parents. It wasn’t until Elliot arrived that most people at work even knew I was a father-to-be. Avoidance. Certainly, beginning to confront the issue and work through things would have brought about better results in my own life situation. I know this now, and I knew it then. But still, I didn’t do it.

Do I compromise? Compromise allows for the workable rather than the optimal solutions; it is a style of give and take where no party gets everything they want. (Lulofs and Cahn, 2000, p 102). I find myself compromising in certain situations, giving up something in order to gain something else. This weekend, Jenny wanted to go out to dinner; I didn’t think I had the time or the money for something fancy. We compromised: we didn’t go to dinner last night, but rather went tonight. And, we went to a fancy restaurant at the local Renaissance Hotel, and we used a gift card my colleagues had given me a couple weeks ago for hosting our annual conference. I spent time I didn’t think I had, but I didn’t have to spend money I didn’t think I had. And, most importantly – since I’m putting my concern for her on a high level – Jenny got to go out to a candlelight dinner. With a compromise on her part: Elliot came along, as we couldn’t find a sitter.

I suggested in my first paper that I was avoiding conflict by getting married. As I’ve thought about this over the last couple of weeks, I’d like to change my tune. Perhaps saying “yes” is avoiding some issues, but it is also an opportunity for collaboration, for creating something that is better than either Jenny or I can imagine at present. This is my new hope and my new vision. But the fact remains, as outlined in examples from the first paper, I do, indeed, avoid conflict.

I least prefer competing as a conflict mode. On the Thomas-Killman instrument, I answered only question with a preference to competing. I’m reminded of a time years ago when I took a job as a car salesman. I’d been at the dealership for three days, learning the product lines and watching other sales people work, when I was called into the sales’ manager’s office. “Peter,” said Barry, “we’re going to have to let you go.” I was stunned; I had a family to feed and house; I asked why. “Well,” he said, “we’re afraid you’re going to be too honest with the customers.” Clearly, here was a business that was into the competing paradigm, and the management saw I wasn’t going to fit in. “Aggression. Win-Lose. Selfish and argumentative.” (Lulofs and Cahn, 2000, p 101). These are not generally words which describe me, my view on life, or my behavior.

As I noted earlier, win-win is an ideal I strive for. Or, perhaps more accurately, it is an ideal I would like to strive for. I teach “think win-win” in my work. And, I’d like to think that I do get the win-win, often. As I look at my actions, however, the win-win comes only after a huge delay. My first tactic is to avoid. Once I’m finished avoiding, I can move to win-win. For some reason, I’m more apt to avoid in my personal life than in my work life. At work, I seem to focus on the outcomes. This isn’t to say that relationships are not important – I’d argue that relationships in my work is the most important thing – but that I don’t avoid or acquiesce as much as I do in my personal life.

Relationships are important to me. This does, I believe, drive my behavior in conflict situations. This is perhaps why I often put other’s needs before my own: I’m trying – even in an unhealthy way – to maximize the relationship. The more important the relationship is to me, the more apt I am to avoid or accommodate. Through avoiding or accommodating, I am “saving” the relationship. Or, perhaps more likely, by avoiding, I am putting off dealing with the difficult questions or issues. When I put off preparing for a new child or getting married or even paying the bills, I am putting off possible bad or difficult or troubling times. I create the illusion of status quo, of an even-keeled life.

In my earlier paper, I noted that “getting along” is one of my key desires. This stems, in part, from roles I learned early in childhood. I’d marry this desire with the desire of a calm and even-keeled life. Some people thrive on discord and confusion; my brother, a recent organizer of a “peace rally,” is one such person. (Stinson, n.d.) A former attorney and unwilling to let anything go, he thrives on conflict and chaos. While he creates a life of confusion and stress, I seek a life of quietness, sameness, and routine. This desire for an even-keel helps drive how I approach conflict. If I avoid or accommodate, then the perception of an even-keel exists. If I don’t deal with the conflict, then in a perverted way, that conflict doesn’t exist. The same is true with getting along: by avoiding, I am encouraging the perception of “getting along.”

For more than six months, my first wife and I lived in the same house, but didn’t really live as wife and husband. In March, she’d asked me to move out. I would not until we had a signed agreement. At the time, I thought I was trying to create a win-win for both of us; looking at the situation now, I can see there were elements of avoidance at play. By not moving, by having weeks go by where we didn’t talk about the agreement, by maintaining the appearance of a family, we were both avoiding. We maintained an illusion of harmony which was punctuated by flare-ups which demonstrated the truth.

As I look at the Thomas-Killman results and review my analysis, I’m struck by what I want to do over the next several months. If I am to focus on dispute resolution and conflict management, then I want to refocus my efforts to not only understand where I am, but to move my preferences. I’m not sure if these preferences are “hard wired,” but I would guess that like personality type preferences, non-preferred modes can be used. As an INFP, I can certainly “sense,” it’s just not my first and preferred way of taking in information. Perhaps this conflict modes are similar. I can learn to move to collaboration, and perhaps compromise, in appropriate situations. I can stop and make a conscious decision on my behavior based on choice: I can choose the mode I’m going to respond to a given conflict.




References

Bluffton University. (n.d.). Thomas-Killman Conflict Mode Questionnaire. Retrieved October 4, 2004, from http://www.bluffton.edu/courses/bcomp/301sup/thomas.htm.

Covey, S. R. (1997). The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families. New York: Golden Books.

Lulofs, R. S., & Cahn, D. D. (2000). Conflict: From Theory to Action. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Stinson, P. M., Sr. (n.d.). Valley Forge Rally for Social Justice. Retrieved October 9, 2004, from http://www.stinsongroup.com.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Conflict Management and Avoidance: Natural Relatives in my Life

A paper written for “Introduction to Conflict Resolution and Alternate Dispute Resolution” (Leadership 9610) .

In my life, I’ve had a few incidents of conflict which have been “defining” moments. These bits of conflict shed light on my own style of conflict management. They span more than twenty years, from my days in high school to the last several months. These examples show some consistency in behavior; I’m not sure they show personal growth. In short, these examples show that in my personal life I generally avoid conflict; in my professional life, I generally take on conflict, particularly when some important value is at stake.

I went away to boarding school for high school. My father, a minister, strongly felt I should attend a church-related school. I chose to head off to the farmland of western Maryland and attend a school headed by a friend of my father’s. Senior year I was a prefect; unlike most of my fellow prefects who led dormitory halls of underclassman, I landed the only senior floor on campus. The chaplain and a first-year teacher were the dorm masters. Sometime in mid-winter, I heard that the chaplain was drinking with one of my hall mates. I went to Father D. and told him what I’d heard; he told me he’d been having a rough year (his mother was dying of cancer) and it wouldn’t happen again. Late one night on the last week of school, I happened to his apartment and discovered him inebriated, along with each of my hall mates, my friends.

Four years later I was a resident coordinator at college. Responsible for two dormitories and a dozen resident advisors, I also had my own floor, which I advised. One chilly winter during fraternity rush season, the brothers of one of the rowdier fraternities barged on the floor, yelling and screaming, to hoist away two new pledges. When I told them their antics were inappropriate for the residence halls, and that they had to leave the dormitory, voices were raised. Security, summoned by one of my peers, soon got the situation under control, but all was not well. The next night, at an all-campus get-together, one of the fraternity brothers assaulted me and spit in my face.

Much more recently, following 9/11 I was serving on active duty with the Coast Guard as a duty officer in the Atlantic Area Command Center. At one point, we had a long and drawn out search and rescue case; our role was to plan the searches and serve in a command capacity. The case drew substantial media attention, and in my role I briefed members of the press. I was asked questions in which the truthful answer did not show the Service in the best light; my seniors were attempting to bury the issue and stonewall. While I wasn’t ordered to say or not say anything specific, I knew which way my superiors wanted me to go.

And, even more recently, last year I found myself, a divorced father with two near-teenage sons, dating a woman who was pregnant with my child. We had been on the verge of ending our relationship when she found out she was pregnant. For her, adoption and abortion were not an option, and I couldn’t see myself starting the fatherhood journey all over again.

Each of these incidents presented conflict in various degrees. In the first case with the drinking hall master, my conflict was with the teacher and with my hall mates. He, of course, didn’t want word of his transgression to go any further; my classmates didn’t either as they liked their drinking buddy. The incident with the fraternity brothers also involved various aspects of community: my fraternity hall mates, the other folks on the residence hall, the outside brothers, and the student affairs administration. The incident involving the press and the search & rescue case put my own desires for transparency in government against the wishes and views of my superiors. And, in the final example, the my pregnant girl friend and I were in conflict: what sort of a life did we want to create?

The conclusion of the tales shed some light on my style of conflict management. With the drinking faculty member, I went to the headmaster the next morning and told him what I’d seen. The upshot was the chaplain was asked to resign, and my peers wrecked my room, destroying my belongings and covering everything in curry powder. The fraternity brother who assaulted me was brought before the dean of students and given a sentence that was primarily constructive in nature; the entire fraternity was also given a “community service” task as a teaching point. With the Coast Guard media issue, I ended up telling all to the press, even though some thought it showed the Coast Guard in a poor light. I was reprimanded for “speaking out of bounds” and received a performance evaluation that will likely end my twenty-four year career as a reservist. And, with the unexpected baby, Elliot was born in late April, his mother moved in with me (at my suggestion) and we are to be married at the end of the month. In some respects, the impending marriage is avoidance on my part: conflicting sets of values within my own heart continue to battle out the details. I have clearly decided, however, this is my life, the life I have chosen to live.

How do I deal with conflict? As the examples show, I sometimes take conflict head on, particularly when there is an issue of “right” and community involved. If I think I’m in right in one of these types of situations, I’m apt to plow forward, consequences be damned. With other, more personal conflicts, I am apt to move to avoidance. While my impending marriage is good, avoidance plays a part however: Jenny asked me; Jenny set the date; I’m along for the ride. This isn’t to say that we’re not friends, that we don’t have much in common, that we aren’t loving; but, in large measure, I’ve avoided all conflict with her by accepting the proposal.

I do compromise on solutions, but I’ll not compromise on firm values. Years ago I took Stephen Covey’s “Seven Habits” course. Two things with regard to conflict stood out for me in that learning: first, that I should create a hierarchy of my values. For instance, for me community based on shared values is more important than allegiance to an individual; another might be that transparency in decision-making is more important (when not related to issues which are classified) and trumps orders from a superior. The second concept that stood out for me was the notion of the “third alternative.” Covey suggests that compromise is not the highest possible solution for people in conflict for in compromise each party must give up something. The highest possible solution is finding a “third alternative,” something which neither party thought of before which is better than any proposed solution or any compromised solution. The third alternative breaks new ground. I try to find the third alternative. When I can’t, I’ll compromise, so long as I don’t violate a firm value.

By nature, I’m not a competitive person. When I coached high school varsity coach, I wasn’t one of those all-for-the-win coaches. We’d play teams where the coach would encourage the players to run up the score; if we were on top in a lopsided win, I’d tell my players not to score. I would demand, however, that they play the best they could, get every ground ball, make every pass, and put every shot on target. I demanded they be competitive with themselves. And this is what I demand of myself. I am competitive against my own self, but not with other people. I don’t have to ensure the other person loses in order to win; I don’t even need to always get my own way. I believe in the “abundance mentality;” there’s enough to go around, and we’ll each get our own. This belief limits, I believe, my competitive nature, even in conflict.

I’d like to think I’m pretty much the same person with different people. Actually, this is one of the things that “miffs” senior members of the Coast Guard; I don’t sugar coat what I say, and I always “speak truth to power.” I’m just as civil to the admiral as I am to the janitor. Having said that, there are certain times when my ire gets raised to the point when I do become short, curt, and loud. As I think about this, usually these situations involve some sort of service faux pas I’m experiencing. Perhaps this is because I can’t walk away.

In my personal life, and with my professional colleagues, it is important to me that we all “get along.” I was reminded of this recently when my former spouse, the mother of my two eldest sons, came by to pick up one son. While here, she told us she and her husband would, as invited, be coming to the wedding. It’s important to me that she and Jenny get along; it’s important that I get along with her husband; it’s important that my eldest sons get along with Jenny. And the list goes on. This notion of “getting along” plays a huge role in my relationships when it comes to conflict. I am willing to subordinate my own desires for the goal of everyone “getting along.”

As a broad overview, there we are. I take conflict head on or avoid conflict. And, I’m not sure I deal with conflict all that differently today than I did many years ago. This is food for thought for me as I continue to learn more about conflict resolution; I don’t want to be stuck in the same place forever.