Style Wars And Other Little Hypocrisies


by Robert Benjamin

March 2004

Robert Benjamin At first glance, writing poetry would appear to be the most pacific forms of human activity. Of the aesthetic arts, the precise design of word arrangement seems the most removed and unaffected by crass commercialism and least contaminated by the impurities of practical business necessity. Thus, poets, one would think, can generally escape the crazy-making pursuit of power and prestige since only a handful of people read poetry anyway, let alone buy books and few poets are naïve enough to expect to get rich in their chosen art form. Of course, the practice of poetry is not conflict free; there is the intra-psychic conflicts that sting the poets’ genius and have tortured the souls of many of the greats like Yeats, Dickinson, Plath or Cummings---but nothing visibly apparent. Anyway, their anguish as human beings did little but add to the mystique of the enterprise.

For one accustomed to this elegant view of poetry as a private moment to see into the heart of our human endeavors, imagine the jarring dislocation of the modern concoction of the ‘poetry slam’. All decorum is abandoned in a flagrant, violent contest of wits between competing poets. Their words and phrases are hurled at one another like trained fighting dogs. Dickinson’s reflective tone in her poem: “Much madness is divinest sense…To a discerning eye; Much sense the starkest madness.”, are supplanted in a slam contest by the unedited raw passion of shrill, screamed lines, such as, “…his eyes still open… attacked each other….in a head cracked open…on the jagged, protruding edges of a concrete sidewalk…that long ago ceased to lead anywhere…”

Although perhaps not yet welcomed or invited into established poetry society, there is little doubt that these poets of the ‘poetry slam’ ilk have shaken things up. Whether carefully constructed façade, or desired perception, the notion of poetry as a peaceful, contemplative pursuit has been shaken if not shattered. Perhaps, for the better. Perhaps poetry had been for too long straight jacketed by tradition and with these slams has regained a sense of relevance, vitality and visibility.

Curiously, not unlike poetry, those of us in the field of mediation and conflict management have perhaps constructed a façade and allowed the perception that our work is about the cooperative, trusting, reasoned and thoughtful pursuit of the peaceful resolution of conflict. While not wholly inaccurate, there is an implicit suggestion that to consider mediation, all parties must be trusting, cooperative and reasonable. Mediators have been sidelined and perhaps marginalized themselves from dealing with the raw, angry passions of serious conflicts. We frequently talk about the kinds of cases that are not susceptible to mediation; matters where there is family violence or child abuse, ‘school bullies’, and all manner of perceived ‘power imbalances’. We have severely limited our available market and undermined our relevance in the societal discussions of how we manage conflicts and violence.

More troubling is that we as professional mediators have come to believe our own hype to such a degree that we take every opportunity to suppress and cover-up our own conflicts. Mediators appear to be notoriously bad at dealing with own personal and professional disputes. One would think that the same honed practice skills made available to clients could be easily be applied to the deft handling of our own issues and differences. But not so. We have few open and visible forums for the discussion of difficult issues. Conflict mediators seem to prefer to engage in passive-aggressive ‘cold wars’, that go on in the corners, the hallways outside the conference sessions, and just under the surface of many important discussions, but unacknowledged openly.

There are a number of examples. There are the jealousies between sections and practice contexts. There remain antagonisms between mediators of varying professions of origin; many mediators who are attorneys have concocted an approach that looks more like a settlement conference and challenge the expertise of those who are not attorneys to practice. Collaborative law looks very much like an effort by attorneys to co-opt the practice skills of mediation and hold disputes within the legal frame. Certainly the battle between evaluative and facilitative approaches to mediation continue to seethe under the surface but are seldom discussed openly. And then there are the ‘transformative’ mediators who have all but created their own organization to distinguish themselves from other mediators.

Our failure to openly grapple with professional conflicts encourages groups to fractionate themselves into insular colonies and in some instances, coalesce into cult-like groupings. Consider how mediators who have adopted the ‘transformative’ model have moved in the past 5 years or so from a valid criticism of the field as being too preoccupied with outcome, to a distinct and separate sect that seeks to stamp it’s brand name on how mediation is done, and to challenge the competence, if not outright preclude from practice under their banner, mediators who do not adhere solely to the ‘empowerment and recognition’ model. They did not seek intellectual scrutiny or discourse, and in fact, cried foul when criticism was raised, and the rest of us acquiesced. The practice of ‘collaborative law’ is being offered the same free pass and exception from close scrutiny.

We need to create a version of the ‘poetry slam’ for the mediation and conflict management field. There needs to be a means to deal with the raw passions of difficult discussions that need to be held within our profession. The intellectual life and professional vitality of our field hangs in the balance. There should be no objection to differences in approach to practice, there should be louder objection that we are so preoccupied with keeping the peace that we fail to hold ourselves to a standard of intellectual rigor and bring these important discussions out of the shadows and subject points of view to scrutiny, engage in dialogues, and yes, sometimes even heated argument.

Many of us adopt a style or approach to mediation quite by chance, doing what’s familiar or following the lead of a particular ideology or trainer. From there flows the tendency to demonize other styles or worse, engage in personal attacks. I remain unclear why mediators, who arguably, should understand the dynamics of conflict, are so willing to escalate the conflict. (In formerly serving on the Ethics Committees of the Academy of Family Mediators and the Society of Professionals in Dispute Resolution, I was fascinated with the number of mediators, when given the opportunity in the grievance process, who were unwilling to mediate.) Of course, we are human and subject to the same foibles as others, but our training appears to offer little protection.

I openly admit this is a biased, opinionated column that need not be read, or hopefully read and strongly agreed or disagreed with. My stated intention is to encourage discussion. I have, however, been troubled by the number of letters to me personally and to the editor that have been personal attacks. That is curious. If we do our work well as mediators, we ask clients hard questions, why won’t we ask them of ourselves? I have concerns about lawyers who appear to want to legalize mediation beyond recognition, mediators more intent on being spiritual guides than engaged third parties, and mediators so preoccupied with party self determination that they offer little useful leadership. Along with others, those discussions are likely to be difficult but necessary, but with our skills should be manageable without personal attack.

Mediators---those folks that purport to help other people manage conflict---like to present themselves as open minded, tolerant and thoughtful people. Prospective mediators come to trainings armed with a career counselor’s recommendation, often bolstered by the results of their Meyers-Briggs test, that certifies they are caring human beings and good listeners. Not wholly a lie, but not the truth either----just like any myth, a story we need to tell ourselves and believe to make sense of our world. Scratch any mediator, and just under the surface you will find an ego-centric, voyeuristic, and competitive human being, who wants their style and approach to be vindicated and acknowledged as the best. We publicly make supercilious statements like, “each person has their own style that works for them”, while at the same time feeling in our gut that what we do is right and what they do is…well…not so right. This is the source of our confidence and can be the cause of our downfall. These are the little hypocrisies that are part of being human, but left unchallenged, can fester and infect not only our personal and professional growth, but the health of the field. I propose a ‘mediation slam’. It is time to catch up with the poets.



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Biography




Robert Benjamin, M.S.W., J.D., has been a practicing mediator since 1979, working in most dispute contexts including: business/civil, family/divorce, employment, and health care.  A lawyer and social worker by training, he practiced law for over 25 years and now  teaches and presents professional negotiation, mediation, and conflict management seminars and training courses nationally and internationally.  He is a standing Adjunct Professor at  the Straus Institute for Conflict Resolution of the Pepperdine University School of Law, at Southern Methodist University’s Program on Conflict Resolution and in several other schools and universities.   He is a past President of the Academy of Family Mediators, a Practitioner Member of the Association for Conflict Resolution, and the American Bar Association’s Section on Dispute Resolution.    He is the author of numerous book contributions and articles, including “The Mediator As Trickster,”  “Guerilla Negotiation,” and “The Beauty of Conflict,” and is a Senior Editor and regular columnist for Mediate.com. 

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Website: www.rbenjamin.com

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 Jane Garzilli,   Los Angeles CA    06/22/05 
 See Len Riskin's Poem 
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Len Riskin actually wrote a gentle, humorous poem about mediator style in response to various colleagues' points of view. See "Mediation Quandaries" in Florida State Law Review, Vol. 24, No. 4, Summer 1997, p. 1007.
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 Gregorio ,   Modesto CA  gebillikopf@ucdavis.edu      04/14/04 
 Arrogance 
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Hi Robert, Your paper has caused me much reflection. You say, "We publicly make supercilious statements like, 'each person has their own style that works for them,' while at the same time feeling in our gut that what we do is right and what they do is…well…not so right. This is the source of our confidence and can be the cause of our downfall. These are the little hypocrisies that are part of being human, but left unchallenged, can fester and infect not only our personal and professional growth, but the health of the field." What you say applies not only to mediation, but to every walk of life. From sports training to mediation, to politics, and as you say, to poetry. I suspect, that the more we care about something, the more your comments are true. We have to care little about something in order to truly believe that "each person can have his own style" and really, really mean it. I like your call for reflection. As we mature we must truly move towards a gratefulness for the contributions of others. Perhaps what you are telling us is that we are all too often moved by arrogance. Ezra Taft Benson said, "The proud make every man their adversary by pitting their intellects, opinions, works, wealth, talents, or any other worldly measuring device against others. In the words of C. S. Lewis: 'Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. … It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition has gone, pride has gone.' (Mere Christianity, New York: Macmillan, 1952, pp. 109-10.) * * * The proud depend upon the world to tell them whether they have value or not. Their self-esteem is determined by where they are judged to be on the ladders of worldly success. They feel worthwhile as individuals if the numbers beneath them in achievement, talent, beauty, or intellect are large enough. Pride is ugly. It says, 'If you succeed, I am a failure.'" I take your article as a call for seeing where other people's work contribute to the field of mediation. And to be slow in discounting such contributions. I have noticed a tendency for many authors to tell us that their approach displaces the work of others. This has made me very uncomfortable. The problem is so universal that there is no need to give examples. This is why I added this note to my own book, Helping Others Resolve Differences: Empowering Stakeholders. "Over the years, there have been many important contributions advanced towards the resolution of conflicts. This book does not purport to displace other writings on the subject, but rather, it introduces a new tool that is likely to change some deep rooted assumptions about mediation and the value of the pre-caucus. Most of all, it seeks to empower those involved in disputes so they can obtain the requisite tools to solve future conflicts without a mediator." Even a few days ago, before I read your article, I was telling someone that we need to get different approaches and views on mediation as part of the training we need to offer. But I know that as you say, each of us is all too ready to go out and defend our approach as somehow better. As we fight such an instinct, we will all benefit. Thanks for your provocative piece. Gregorio Billikopf, University of California, 209 525-6800, gebillikopf@ucdavis.edu, http://www.cnr.berkeley.edu/ucce50/ag-labor/
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 Robert Benjamin       04/05/04 
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Thank you for your comment. It is, of course, preferred to hear from people who agree. If I am awkward in my acknowledgement, it is only because I so rarely have the opportunity to respond to favorable reviews. More seriously, in talking about the corporate/business world, your response tweaked another aspect of this discussion that warrants further discussion if the conflict management field is to progress: specifically on the limits and risks of consensus. Conflict mediator's and other conflict management professionals might do well to be mindful of when the pursuit of consensus and collaboration is questionable or even risky. The groupthink phenomenon is a powerful force in all human organizations, be it among those in the corporate for-profit world, and certainly for those of us in a "do-gooder" profession, and for those in the not-for-profit sector. (And, as we know, for politicians in foreign policy deliberations. But that is a whole other column.) I know, as many of you, I love to rant about the many and varied corporate scandals, CEO malfeasances and the obscenity of overcompensation---even for jobs not well done. But, in our own way, we in the conflict management field suborn a similar level of mendacity and likewise easily drawn into tacit support and going along with the group, as are the big corporate guys. In short, hate them as we might, we aren't so different. The idea of getting along, and being viewed by our peers as cooperative and collaborative is particularly seductive for us, perhaps because our core values and articulated professional mission is about settlement and the belief that if we all tried a little harder we could, all get along. Yet, in an article in the New Yorker (March 8, 2004) titled appropriately enough, "Board Stiff", James Surowiecki noted that contrary to popular belief, many corporate directors are not the mere incestuous participants of interlocking directorates we pidgeonhole them as, but strong willed and opinionated, independent agents. "The real problem was not so much who is the boardroom as how they acted once they were there. ... They discouraged debate and disagreement instead of cultivating it." Sound Familiar? A vast amount of research suggests that smart group decisions emerge as much out of disagreement as out of consensus. We can take only the slightest amount of solace from the fact that too many corporate boards do just as we do in the conflict management field: dismiss and avoid dissent as either harmful or superfluous. The same advice, most scarce in corporate board rooms, is noticeably absent in our profession---both in practice and in our professional dealings. There is value in a "good fight." Dissent need not be viewed as synonymous with dissension. In ending, Surowiecki quotes Alfred Sloan, a President of General Motors some fifty years ago in the corporations’ heyday: "... gentleman, we all appear to be in complete agreement, ...I propose we postpone further discussion...to give ourselves time to develop disagreement." Good advice, especially for those of us who profess dedication to conflict management.
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 S Hughes       04/03/04 
 Mediation Slam 
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The business necessity and crass commercialism you speak of regarding poetry is perhaps a window into the attitude of too many in the field of mediation. I believe this perspective is grounded in the well cultivated arrogance of the overly-educated and intellectualized by too many professionals and educators driving the ADR movement. With all due respect for education in many areas, be it the law, human resources, psychology, business, etc. the formally educated mind is only a part of what makes a good mediator. Because the modern practice of mediation is still in its adolescence, like the adolescent demanding independence with oftentimes extreme behavior, so the movers and shakers of mediation spar and manuever for their position in the field, all declaring their way to be best and only, hoping secondarily (or perhaps primarily) that being seen as the great leaders will also provide the wealth and recognition equal to their egos, or in mediation terms, acknowledge their core value. This is in no way a criticism of the many truly sincere, caring, talented and successful people in all areas of practice. It just seems that teaching and selling is where its at, and we are a field of a few well paid “professionals” and “educators.”
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 Cookie Sutkowski,   Chesterton In    03/24/04 
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Robert, As you know, people do what is familiar and comfortable until they have some reason to jolt them out of their self designed conventional frame of reference. Seems to me that as the more common definitions of mediator (not mediation) lends itself to conflict as attached to outcome and "management" does not enter the picture in the short run. I work in a "dead" health care system that claims to give life when it(the health care system) no longer exists in the traditional purview that is sold to consumers. If the style becomes a part of the practioners persona, the debate will not come out of the closets and hallways until a couple of people are willing to risk questioning who they are without the mask of style. I think it is like the old elephant in the living room story.
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