On American Arrogance: Styles of Mediation


by Robert Benjamin

December 2007

Robert Benjamin A comment to one of my columns, “War and Negotiation: Lessons From the Europeans” drew the apparent anger and animus of at least one European, Christiana from the Netherlands (12/13/07). I found her response somewhat baffling, but the article apparently touched a nerve that is seldom discussed and worthy of discussion.

There is a certain level of antipathy that borders on hostility on the part of many mediators and conflict management professionals toward American teachers, trainers and writers, not only in Europe, but in other parts of the world as well. Many express resentment against what they view as American Imperialism in the field: the subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, belief conveyed by American presenters that negotiation and mediation was invented at Harvard, Americans hold the copyright, and the only way to do it is the American way. Americans often exhibit a lack of awareness of the many and varied negotiation rituals and mediative approaches that have been part of the history and culture of every society since the beginning of time. In all likelihood, this issue is more pronounced in response to the present day European EU/American USA relations and the geo-political atmosphere.

However, while the issue cultural imperialism that Christiana’s comment raises is clearly valid, her stated ‘amazement by the outright arrogance of Americans....assuming that we (Europeans) borrowed from them (Americans),” must be coming from a place other than what I wrote.

As should be immediately apparent from the title, “Lessons From the Europeans,” the article pays direct homage to European history and culture that I believe has spawned a unique and valuable approach to conflict management. Having observed over many years, from the honor of having been invited to work in Europe and other parts of the world, this article is my meager and pint-sized imitation of de Tocqueville in reverse. My comment is that the European thinking and sensibility about conflict is one that should be more familiar and studied by more American mediators who often appear to be caught in the grips of orthodoxy of styles and models.

I am surprised by Christiana’s comment because I expressly take to task the ‘American hubris,‘ and presumptuousness, probably born of our isolation and cultural myopia, that plagues too many trainers and writers in the conflict management field, to which she appears to be making reference. (see paragraph 4).

At the same time, I don’t entirely mind being accused of arrogance, although I don’t believe it is ‘American’ arrogance. My arrogance, if arrogance it is thought to be, shall continue to be displayed in all of my future rants about the lack of careful thinking many mediators and teachers, perhaps especially the Americans, bring to the field of conflict management. In fact, the intended purpose of the article, published in a predominantly American forum, is to suggest that we have allowed ourselves to become too narrow in our thinking. We appear content to teach pro forma models of mediation without asking people to think about what they are doing or why. We seem to be content to think that it is good enough to justify ourselves that we are ‘just trying to help’ and that mediation is just a form of counseling where the relationship is of primary importance. Or alternatively, that mediation is just about getting the deal done at all costs.

Finally, too many mediators have not taken sufficient time to study the negotiation process. Most professional training programs do not have sufficient time to delve into negotiation. Too many appear content to think of negotiation as merely a rational, interest based, decision making process. Others, as incredible as it may sound, don’t see any connection between negotiation and mediation. However, if mediators are to successfully facilitate and coach parties to negotiate their disputes, they themselves must be proficient negotiators because mediation is nothing but a multiple party hybrid form of negotiation. To be taken seriously and viewed as viable and realistic modes of conflict management in difficult disputes, negotiation and mediation must be studied in depth. A limited or naive understanding of negotiation simply does not do justice to the depth and breadth of one of the oldest and most noble of human rituals. People in every culture throughout history have always negotiated in their own unique way and been aided on occasion by third parties’. It does a disservice to the furtherance of the conflict management field in general and mediation/negotiation in particular that any style or model of practice would be presented or promoted as universally applicable.



to top of page

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. 

Email Author
Website: www.rbenjamin.com

Additional articles by Robert Benjamin



Comments



-- --
 Tony ,   Port Clinton oh    08/04/09 
 American Arrogance 
--
-- -- --
Right On www.myspace.com/americanarrogance
-- -- --
--
 
--
--
--

-- --
 Andrew ,   Belfast NI    12/28/07 
 European Mediation 
--
-- -- --
George Bernard Shaw observed that the UK & the USA were 'two nations divided by a common language'. Adding to that the rich & diverse language, culture and experience of European peoples might give some background to this discussion. Mediators in Northern Ireland owe much to American support in financing and assisting the development of models of practice in a society deeply and violently divided. Some international practitioners (from America and elsewhere) came to Belfast offering gifts of knowledge and insight which were received with great thanks, and through time enculturated to fit the local needs. They left us with a refined sense of their own practice, evolved through the experience of working with those who had no choice but to use thier emerging capacity to build peace and stability. However others came with predetermined 'solutions to our problems' which invariably were not. If Christiana's response to Robert Benjamin may be a reaction to such previous clumsy approaches I have sympathy, but I encourage further American mediators to come to Europe now with a spirit of learning and engagement. In particular- and with a blatant marketing approach learnt from much more competant American practitioners- I invite North American mediators to come to the European Mediation Conference opening in Belfast, Northern Ireland on the 10th anniversary of the internationally mediated Good Friday Agreement. An opportunity for good dialogue, face to face between practitioners about the growth of thier capabilities and the role of mediation in building peace internationally. www.mediationconference.eu
-- -- --
--
 
--
--
--

-- --
 Darrell Puls,   Kennewick WA  dpuls@charter.net      12/20/07 
--
-- -- --
I tend to agree with Robert (whom I have met and whom I like) that American mediators and negotiators as a whole tend to think we invented both processes. Europeans tend to have much greater exposure to each other in their various countries and cultures than they do with Americans, and vice versa, for the simple reason that they are much closer together - having 3000 miles of ocean between us tends to isolate both Americans and Europeans from each other. However, this discussion is much larger than America and Europe. I did some study in South Africa and saw a new world of processes derived from both the European and indigenous cultures that were sometimes intermixed to maximize the strong points of both. I have friends who studied conflict resolution in a dozen African nations and were humbled by what they learned. There is no one best way to mediate or negotiate (I've been doing both for a living for almost 32 years) and we must always be open to different ideas and styles in humility and grace, not arrogance and single-mindedness. I too would welcome an article from Christiana.
-- -- --
--
 
--
--
--

-- --
 lorin  ,   Omaha Ne    12/20/07 
 Unitended American Arrogance 
--
-- -- --
Having read both the original article by Mr. Benjamin and the comment of Christina, I must agree with her. Her amazement did come directly from what Mr. Benjamin wrote. His statement that "they may have taken a few hints early on" is an arrogant conclusion without attribution that their negotiation/mediation roots don't predate our own which I believe they do. Further, by attempting to use the Freud analogy he appears to claim that Europeans are lifting the American work product without taking all the developmental trappings. I am sure it wasn't his intent to offend, but it is clearly stated as she noted.
-- -- --
--
 
--
--
--

-- --
 Jim Lingl,   Camarillo CA  venturamediation@aol.com      12/19/07 
 American Arrogance 
--
-- -- --
While Mr. Benjamin didn't post enough of the e-mail from Christiana to be able to tell what she was really upset about, it may not have been about the article - or American mediation styles - at all. During my last two trips to Europe, and during meetings with conflict resolution professional in Italy and Germany, it was easy to sense just beneath the surface a generalized dislike for the arrogance of our government. That discomfort with 'the American way' of doing things spills over in little ways, like criticism of cars and clothes and monetary policy and, no doubt, about our way of approaching mediation. Mr. Benjamin, it wasn't personal. If Christiana met you personally she would probably like you. But don't expect her to like the way our government has been acting like a schoolyard bully for the last 7 years or so. So don't be surprised that Europeans will take shots at us where they can. Maybe Christiana would like to write her own article, and explain the European perspective on our conflict resolution processes.
-- -- --
--
 
--
--
--

The views expressed by authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Resourceful Internet Solutions, Inc., Mediate.com or of reviewing editors.




SMU Dispute Resolution Program

Copyright 1996-2014 © Resourceful Internet Solutions, Inc. All rights reserved.