There have been an uncharacteristic spate of impasses lately in my practice. Sitting back and examining why, the conclusion might be that one or more of the parties didn't come to the mediation to move ahead to the next stage in their business. They came to it to re-affirm the past, to find a way back to the “good old days” when they didn’t have this problem. And problem-solving processes aren’t the best tools for vindicating past behavior.
Here is where law and problem-solving have different strengths. The law looks backwards. It determines what happened in the past, it determines how folks in the past have dealt with similar events, and it tells the parties who is at fault, by this standard, for what they did in the past and what they have to do to ameliorate that fault.
Problem-solving, by contrast, starts with now and looks ahead. The past is seldom a critical factor, except of course to understand the cause of people’s emotions and indignations. But at its core the process consists of assessing where we are, articulating where we want to go, and figuring out how to get there in the most reasonable way.
That just won’t do for some folks. Especially when it comes to conflict within groups like clubs or churches, one senses an overpowering desire to punish the “bad guy.” “If only So-and-So would leave, everything would be fine.” “If only X would happen, then everything would be the way it used to be.” Sometime public discourse falls into this rut: “If only politician X would stop saying stuff like this, everything would be fine.”
As a facilitator, convincing somebody that their feelings are wrong is a loser’s game. Someone entering a conflict resolution process hoping to get back to the good times presents a real challenge to a facilitator, and the tools that are appropriate to such situations are not (in my experience) varied. I’m sympathetic to folks who want back the comfort that they sense someone else took from them. No one is wrong who subjectively remembers their earlier life as nicer than their present one. And who can deny the desire that rises in all of us, now and then, that the world at large should recognize that someone did them harm?
Genuine resolution of conflict, surely, entails a willingness to step over all of this frustration and resentment, and to fashion and accept a New Day. The organization, the church, the club, the commercial relationship, is dysfunctional now and needs to change in order to regain its creative and productive state. Going back to the way things were is like swimming again in yesterdays’ river — impossible. And for parties who really need that outcome, then conflict resolution processes that don’t include determinative findings and vindication of rights probably just won’t work.