DOI: 10.5553/IJCER/221199652013001002006

International Journal of Conflict Engagement and ResolutionAccess_open


Interview with Bernie Mayer

A Reflective Practitioner

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, "Interview with Bernie Mayer", International Journal of Conflict Engagement and Resolution, 2, (2013):203-208

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      Bernie Mayer is a central figure in conflict engagement. He is a founding partner at one of the pioneering firms in the field, CDR Associates, which became internationally recognized for work in a wide array of conflicts – interpersonal, family, workplace, environmental, governmental and international. A leading practitioner and scholar in the field, Mayer is a prolific author, and teaches at the Werner Institute for Negotiation and Dispute Resolution at Creighton University and Kroc Institute of International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. He has worked across the globe as a mediator, facilitator, teacher, trainer, dispute systems designer and programme administrator.
      In this interview, conducted by IJCER’s Managing Editor, Nofit Amir, Mayer speaks of some central tensions he sees in the field: between optimism and realism, conflict engagement and avoidance, mediation and ally roles. In addition, he urges conflict scholars and practitioners to widen the focus of the field.
      This interview is the first in a series of interviews that will appear in IJCER.

      How did you reach the field of conflict resolution?
      In my deeper background, there were two strands that were important – one was my involvement in social work and child and family therapy: I often worked with kids in placement, and with families that were dysfunctional in some way or another, and a lot of that involved helping people who didn’t deal with conflict very well. And I was also a child of the 1960s, very actively anti-war, and active in the civil rights movement. I was also a union organizer at one point.
      Those always seemed like two separate threads to me – one I did for work and one I did because of my social commitment, you might say. When the mediation/conflict field came along, it seemed like a natural way of bringing some of those things together, and that was very interesting to me. And then when I actually gave it a try, it seemed like a natural fit for my personality. So I gradually gave up my day job and, along with Mary Margaret Golten, Chis Moore and Susan Wildau, started CDR. We rode a crest; it was the beginning of the real rise in that kind of work.

      Did theory help you in any way, or was it not developed enough when you were starting?
      When I started in the late 1970s, we borrowed some theory from international relations, peacemaking, sociology, political science – conflict theory was very underdeveloped. I remember very clearly when the book Getting to Yes came out in 1981. We held that out as one of our conceptual guides – and that seems to still be the major tool that people resort to as their conceptual framework. That shows the need for theory development. Since then there has been some very important development – systems theory, for example, has been useful. Complexity, brain science, quite a bit of development in negotiation and communication theory, and so forth. Of course, even when I started, there were some very important conflict theorists that guided our development – John Burton, Mary Parker Follett, Adam Curle, Lewis Coser and Morton Deutsch, to name a few. Jay Rothman (co-editor of this Journal) and I have both written about the role of identity, which was pretty much skimmed over in the most popular early works in this field (with their emphasis on interests), but which was a central concept for John Burton and many of his associates, along with human needs theory as rooted in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. What I increasingly find exciting and valuable is the ability to apply developmental theory and evolutionary theory to conflict. For example, we know that competition is a major force in evolution, but we also know the same is true for cooperation. Very interesting work has been done about the interplay between competition and cooperation (e.g. the work of Martin Nowak) as absolutely critical to the evolution of humans and other multicellular organisms.

      Do you find that interplay between cooperation and competition in the field?
      As a field, I think we like to say we’re all about promoting cooperation, but I would say we’re also about helping people be competitive when they need to be, but in a constructive way. We often see that people in conflict can’t get what they want through easy cooperation, and then they start bringing out the gunslingers. What we have to do if we really want to promote cooperation is to sometimes help people in cases when they need to compete effectively and constructively. You start out by being nice, cooperative, but you have to be provokable. If you’re not provokable, you can’t be effective. This is clearly outlined in the work of Robert Axelrod. Unions have to learn to be cooperative with management if they want to be relevant, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t also have to develop their ability to compete sometimes, because if they don’t they’ll never be effective. The line between constructive competition and destructive competition is a very thin one.

      In your book Staying with Conflict, you say that we’re not there just to resolve conflict; we need to help people stay with, or, in the language of this journal, to engage with conflict as well.
      I have urged us not to think only about resolution, as there are so many different elements to conflicts and some of them really are long term. If we’re not willing to help people with those long-term elements, if we’re only there to help people for purposes of resolution, then we’re missing the boat in many cases. My own practice has gravitated to dealing with workplace situations where there are issues that are not going to go away easily, if at all. They’re rooted in structure, they’re relational, value-driven, identity-based. You might be able to arrive at some agreements that help move things forward in these kinds of disputes, but you won’t be able to resolve some of these basic issues. This is very relevant to peacemaking – because if all you deal with in a peacemaking context is what peace accords you can reach – you may really be missing the boat, because there are some conflicts that have gone on for a very long time and require important work that is not about negotiating agreements.
      One of the things that I believe has limited the growth of our field and continues to in some respects – though it’s better than it used to be – is that we are too narrow. We have said that we’re third-party conflict resolvers. That’s a very narrow role in conflict – it’s an important one, but it’s as if somebody in mental health work said my job is simply to do play therapy with kids whose parents are going through divorce. Well, that might be what you choose to practice, but it’s not a field. It’s an expression of a field. I think that’s true of much of what we do. So the two things I’ve really urged for us to take a more expansive view on are – one, a concept of our role as a third party: as important as third party roles are, most of us don’t go initially to third parties in conflict; we go to allies. If you’re in a conflict, the chances of going to a third party, even if you are yourself a third-party professional, are small. We’re more likely to go to friends, or advocates, strategic advisers, coaches. If we don’t see those roles as part of our function, we narrow our capacity to help people in conflict. I used to do a lot of environmental mediation, and at some point it became natural for me to become an adviser to environmental groups and to help them engage more effectively in conflict processes both to get their interests and values addressed and to find ways to work cooperatively, when possible, with other sides. If we want to be able to help on an issue like global climate change, we have to understand that there is a very limited role for third parties, but there are a lot of roles for people who could take part in the different groups and advise them how to reach out and communicate effectively with others.
      The second role I think we need to consider at times is as systems people, who create or manage systems of conflict, like a corporate counsel, a conflict systems designer or a labour relations manager. For instance, in an environmental protection agency, someone has to decide how to handle the issue of a major new waterway and its impact on the environment – will the conflict be handled through a participatory process? Do we take the hard legal route? Do we bring in a mediator? So I encourage us to think of systems and allies, and these are overlapping roles in some sense.

      So you see a variety of roles and ways people in this field can play a part in its future growth and development.
      Yes, the constellation of roles we have to play as a collectivity of individuals – if we really want to deal with conflict broadly – has to include more than third-party roles. You see that happening, by the way, and that is one of the most interesting developments of the field. There’s a considerable growth in the practice of conflict coaching, and there’s also considerable growth of the collaborative practice movement in the family area and to some extent in the civil area. Lawyers get together in practice groups, and they say to clients that they will represent them for the purpose of settlement only. So both sides sign a disqualification agreement. If they go to court, they have to find new lawyers. In that way, litigation isn’t an underlying element in negotiation – at least not in the usual sense – but each collaborative lawyer still represents the interests of the client. There are problems with this kind of approach because the desire to engage in this approach may be more about the lawyers’ desires than the clients,’ but there are people who are trying to walk that line.

      In your book The Dynamics of Conflict you say that “what makes us effective in how we engage in conflict is not a set of processes, methodologies or tactics; it is a way of thinking, a set of values, an array of analytical and interpersonal skills and a clear focus.” What do you mean by a set of values?
      Some may be common to all of us, especially if you’re a mediator – for example, that disputes are best settled by the people in the conflict, the importance of helping people listen to each other, and the intrinsic value of understanding each other, and also an underlying value that for the most part people want to make things better and we often can help. There are more specific values – in divorce or family mediation, for example – that if at all possible, parents should be the decision-makers and not outside authorities. In general, speaking of core values, I’ve often said we have an ethical obligation to be optimistic, though we also have an ethical obligation to be realistic. Our job is to effectively hold the tension between being both optimistic and realistic. I believe that if you want to help people engage conflict effectively, you have to be both things. These values are not just important because they guide our intervention in conflict – they also are conveyed in one way or another to the people we are working with, and this has a tremendous impact on the course of our work.

      Your background and work have been interdisciplinary – social work, psychotherapy, and now you’re teaching conflict resolution in a law faculty. You’ve been involved in many different kinds of mediation as well – is that a reflection of the field, is it a field in itself, or an amalgam of disciplines?
      Well yes, both! That’s one of those questions that periodically comes up at conferences – are we a field or a combination of disciplines….When I started out in social work, we used to ask the same question. I would like to think that we do draw on a lot of fields, but hopefully, there’s some added value in the way in which we bring them together. That added value is what makes us as conflict engagement specialists different from being sociologists, or lawyers, or psychologists who mediate. And I think there is a particular value in thinking of ourselves as focused on conflict instead of focused on communication, decision-making, or interpersonal relations. And that is because of the critical role of competition and cooperation in just about everything we do.
      I think we bring together the insights and experiences of different fields to look particularly at the contradictory forces in our lives as individuals, groups, and societies. We look at how we can help people embrace both sides: cooperation and competition, and optimism and realism that we talked about – that is where I think there’s an added value of focusing on conflict as an intellectual framework and a practice framing. That is where I think we as a field create a synergy beyond the disciplines. But any field that isn’t to some an extent an amalgam is probably pretty ossified. Theoretical physics includes physics, mathematics and chemistry. In a biography of Albert Einstein that I recently read, they related that he constantly struggled with math, which he did not think he was very good at.
      I guess that shows you that even supposedly discrete scientific disciplines are amalgams of many fields. I think increasingly if you’re an economist, a psychologist, a sociologist, you had better be drawing on other fields or you’re not going to be very effective. I think that’s true for us too.

      What is common between the different types of mediations that you’ve conducted – international, domestic, organizational?
      In each of them one has to struggle with ways to establish systems of communication. Each requires that one deal with issues of power, there are cultural variables in each of them, and there has to be some way of getting beyond the superficial story of the conflict and looking at the deeper narratives and issues. Almost all of them deal with identity issues and structural issues, and in all of them you have to have a systems viewpoint to understand what’s going on.
      Whether it’s a conflict between the Sunnis and Shiites or between divorcing parents, you need to understand the larger systemic context, and we have tools to do that. There are certain commonalities in the negotiation process. I’m not saying that if you’re good at one, you’ll necessarily be good at the other. I really do think they often take different skill sets. When we first started our mediation business back in the 1970s, there had been no previously well-established commercial firms in most of these fields, so we took on a broad variety of cases, family and environmental and organizational and public policy, etc., and so I began to think about the commonalities – what can I learn from my work in interpersonal conflict that is applicable to a different type of conflict. Those things I was able to identify as being applicable to both seemed to me like valuable concepts to develop.

      How has your view of conflict changed over time?
      I think I have less of a black-and-white view. Maybe that’s just a developmental thing – it’s hard for me to think in terms of good guys and bad guys. I find myself irritatingly trying to figure out the viewpoint of people with whom I disagree. Something that happens sometimes in a conversation with my wife is that she might say, “How can someone possibly think that?” And then I just start trying to explain that, and you know it can be irritating sometimes (laughing). However as I’ve gotten even older, I am more willing to say again, enough of looking at both sides’ point of view, sometimes you just have to go for it without doing that. I often challenge my students to try to explain all conflicts with which they’re dealing without resorting to saying that someone is stupid, evil or crazy. Those are three crutches that don’t explain a lot. It’s not that I don’t believe people aren’t sometimes stupid, evil or crazy. Whether it’s a very hostile divorce or a host of other things, you’ve got to get deeper.
      The other view, though, is expressed in Staying with Conflict. I’ve really come to believe that some conflicts need to go on. And that as big a problem as destructive conflict is, trying to settle things prematurely or superficially can be an even bigger problem. So I’ve come to view conflict avoidance as a huge issue, and I believe conflict avoidance is not just about pretending there is no conflict. In the U.S. the fundamental issue that constantly presents itself over our whole history is race. We often avoid raising race issues by trying to work out very narrow agreements that bypass underlying racial tensions. We have to learn to deal with the deeper issue and not just its superficial manifestation. But when we try to talk about race in the middle of a conflict, we risk increasing the tension level considerably. Our job isn’t to avoid this challenge, but to be wise and effective when encountering it. Sometimes we need to take on the underlying issue, sometimes it’s important to recognize that it’s not the time or place to do so.

      So it’s sometimes right to avoid a conflict?
      Absolutely, for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is sometimes it’s unsafe. But overall, we still probably avoid more than we should.

      That sounds like you’re challenging a basic tendency of the field, that we should engage conflict.
      You can’t have one without the other, engaging versus avoiding is one of the fundamental contradictions that we work on. We can’t know how to constructively engage conflict if we don’t also think about when it’s appropriate and necessary to avoid it – and it’s not for us to, as conflict professionals, tell people involved in a situation that they have to engage it. For example, we know that quite a few women who have raised the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace – even when they’ve been found to be completely correct and there’s been punitive or corrective action – are out of the workplace in six months. So it’s not for us to say what is the right thing to do, but we can help people understand when, why and how they are avoiding, what it might look like not to avoid and what might be some of the safer ways of engaging an issue.

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