Saturday, September 1

Spirituality in Mediation

Colin Rule has given us something to think about in his August post Finding the roots of cooperation in game theory.

He argues that there are a whole bunch of drivers motivating people to cooperate when in conflict, including economic and biological.

And whilst it is not his central premise, he bravely takes a swipe at our kissing cousins at the therapeutic end of the scale when he says;

"I think the missing link in conflict resolution is game theory. There are legions of practitioners who will talk about the spiritual side of peacemaking, or how mediation is more art than science, or about the links between mediation and meditation. I try to remain open to those conversations, but I think they alienate more people than they attract to the field..."

And it's this aspect of his post that caught my eye, probably because of my own proclivity.

But is it just me or are others slightly apologetic when, at gatherings of mediators, we are not the softly spoken ones with the 70's vibe and wardrobe to match, instead muttering something about being problem solving mediators earning a living deep inside the canyons of our own local sin city?

Like in this article by David Hoffman Confessions of a Problem Solving Mediator where he makes a gracious attempt to put the case on our behalf.

Or for another view, this recent article by Eileen Barker What The Bleep Does Spirituality Have To Do With Conflict Resolution?

For those of us who practice in the hardnosed world of lawyers, court systems, corporations, government entities, and the like, spirituality might seem like an odd topic. What does spirituality have to do with mediation or conflict resolution?"


michael said...

There are two concepts people confuse, including most game theorists:

1. Cooridination, a conflict which require only that some people cooridinate their activities, but not that they care about promoting each other's utility.

2. Cooperation, a conflict which requires more than cooridination. We have to actively care about each other's utility and promote it.

There are a lot more of the first type of conflicts than the second. Arguably no fuzzy warm feelings are needed to solve the first class of problems.

Geoff Sharp said...

Michael, these are very interesting comments. Could you expand?... and I will post it. If it's easier email me something and I will put it up. My email is

Dina Lynch, said...

Geoff, it's not just you. I feel it, too.

When I talk about bringing business systems and standards to mediation to drive profit, the reactions I receive range from polite disdain to outright hostility. And, this from folks who swear they are committed to open communication and hearing all perspectives. Is being practical wrong?

We cannot expect mediation to evolve into a viable, sustainable profession for the many unless a few of us begin to cooperate and coordinate our work and practices--riffing on the ideas Colin and Michael started.

It seems to me that we squander our time and energy, which can be better spent, when we fight amongst ourselves over how we approach our talents.

Needs more thought...thanks for calling me and others to awareness about it.


Diane Levin said...

Geoff, you've put your finger on one of those denominational differences (if I may use a word in keeping with a discussion on spirituality's role in mediation practice) that divides the mediation community.

As an atheist, I personally have little use for or interest in getting in touch with the so-called spiritual aspect of conflict.

In the article you cite, Eileen Barker tries to make the case that spirituality is critical to our effectiveness as practitioners. She begins by raising an important question:

"In commercial mediations, for example, parties frequently achieve settlement of the lawsuit, but leave the mediation with lasting enmity toward the opposing party and often, considerable hostility toward the legal system as well. Is this the best we can do? Sometimes it is. However, we owe it to our profession, our clients and ourselves, to be willing at least to grapple with the harder issues and, when possible, provide options for better outcomes."

She's absolutely right. We can undoubtedly do better. When key interests are left unresolved and value remains behind on the mediation table, or parties have been bullied by mediators into accepting a resolution that meets no one's best interests--we can most certainly do much, much better.

So far so good. Barker has more to say:

"As conflict resolution professionals, we are uniquely required to engage with parties and attorneys on multiple levels, including the intellectual, psychological, and emotional. We often encounter intense states of defensiveness, posturing, denial, confusion, anger, fear, frustration, disappointment and on and on. Our effectiveness depends, in large measure, on our ability to understand and navigate the human psyche, in all of its realms. Along the way, we learn to bring our hearts into our work, not just our heads."

Again, she's right here, although I'm not sure I'd say that it's my heart that I'm using. I'd use a different anatomical metaphor--I'd be inclined to say it's my gut instincts as a professional--which I view as very much a part of the workings of my mind--the locus of which is indeed my head.

Personally speaking, I need and my clients want real-world tools for practice that will enable disputants to address core interests and create realistic, workable solutions. The sciences--sociology, psychology, and other fields--hold answers for understanding and explaining human behavior in conflict and negotiation. There's plenty in the earthly toolbox that mediators like me can utilize.

But then Barker says this:

"Beyond this, lies the next frontier, the spiritual aspect of conflict and conflict resolution. When we speak of the potential for true resolution of conflict and making peace, we are called upon to move to a level of awareness that transcends the intellect, the psyche, and even the emotions."

Now she's lost me--and I my patience. It's at this point that I say, "Says who?" Why does it logically follow that spirituality constitutes the "next frontier"? One could just as easily--and more credibly--make the case that the next frontier in conflict resolution should be cognitive psychology. This reminds me of the argument that I've heard conservatives make that belief in God is essential to being a moral person. Does the fact that a spiritual element is missing from my own practice make me less effective as a mediator?

Thanks for thinking out loud about this, Geoff. Like Colin I too want to remain open to these conversations, but they leave me feeling isolated within my own community.

Great post.

eileen barker said...

i appreciate the various views expressed in these posts. in my view, there is no one right way to approach conflict resolution. what is important, is that we each draw from our own respective wells, be they game theory, cognitive psychology, spiritually or whatever else we find meaningful and useful. hopefully,within this immense field, we can learn to respect a wide range of approaches without alienating or excluding colleagues who choose different ones.