The term ‘constructive ambiguity’ is often attributed to Henry Kissinger and is a negotiating tactic used to cover up areas of disagreement or to save face of those taking part in negotiations. By using deliberately vague language around areas of contention, constructive ambiguity allows diametrically opposed parties to a dispute to interpret an agreement or a position in different ways. Sticking points are ‘fudged’ and the parties save face and move on to less difficult issues. It is a technique most often seen in the context of international affairs, but can the same tactic be used in the less exalted surrounds of a neighbour – neighbour dispute? And if it can, is its use an example of good practice or superficiality in mediation?
If constructive ambiguity is to be used successfully, it must be deployed in the right context. The first characteristic of neighbour disputes that often makes them just such a suitable context is the focus of the conflict. So much of the heat in these cases arises from recriminations about past actions, rather than disagreement about the way forward. Claim and counter claim about the past actions of the other party can see all hope of resolving the dispute disappear almost before the mediator walks through the door. Yet if the parties can reach some sort of shared understanding about past events, the agreement about future relationships and connections often proves relatively easy to deal with. While constructive ambiguity does not develop those shared understandings, it does provide a route around the blockage caused by disagreement about past events.
The second characteristic which may make neighbour disputes suitable is the process involved. Many of those involved in a dispute with a neighbour simply refuse to meet with the other party, opting instead for a shuttle mediation process. Some mediators may feel that this type of mediation is no substitute for the real thing, believing that parties must be in the same room for a proper process to take place. Whatever the merits of that particular argument, shuttle mediation undoubtedly allows the mediator a bit more scope. Since he or she is the vehicle for communication between the parties, there is the opportunity to reframe difficult issues or positions. This is old hat for mediators. Reframing, or ‘laundering’ language, is what we do, after all. Constructive ambiguity goes further than reframing, however, and in so doing may nibble at the edges of what is acceptable for some practitioners. We shall now look at a fictional case study of how constructive ambiguity works in practice.
Alice and Joe
Alice vehemently denies her elderly neighbour Joe’s accusation that she hosts regular late night parties which keep him awake into the early hours of the morning. She points out that she is a hard working, single mother who has neither the opportunity nor the inclination to ‘party’. She concedes that, every two or three weeks, she’ll invite family members round on a Saturday evening for something to eat and a few drinks, but these gatherings are quiet affairs which finish, in her view, at a reasonable time. Exasperated, she may state that while she is not out to annoy her neighbours, she is entitled to live her life.
How does the mediator pass this rebuttal back to the complainant? The unabridged, verbatim version would surely fuel the flames of the dispute. Joe would hear Alice’s denial as an accusation that he is lying, an accusation made more serious by being told to the mediator with all the attendant loss of face that this involves. It would confirm in his mind that Alice is someone of low moral character beside whom no decent person should have to live. Using constructive ambiguity, the mediator could couch the denial in the following terms: ‘Your neighbour agrees that she has a few people round on a regular basis, but she stresses that she doesn’t want to make your life difficult.’ Joe can interpret this as confirmation that ‘parties’ are, indeed taking place, which he will feel vindicates him in the mediator’s eyes. He may also hear the second part of the statement as an invitation from Alice to tell her how she can improve the situation for him. This could be enough to move the discussion on to substantive issues and off the negative ‘oh yes you did oh no I didn’t’ cycle.
Alice, in turn, accuses Joe of using abusive and threatening language towards her on the occasion she asked him to move his car, which was blocking her own vehicle. The mediator can ask Joe to give his view of the ‘incident’ over car parking. Joe may recall that Alice approached him aggressively – as always - and that an exchange of views followed in which he personally remained calm in the face of intense provocation. He may concede that he did eventually tell Alice to ‘go to hell’, something he regrets, but this only happened after he had listened to her verbal tirade for a full five minutes without losing his cool. When the mediator recounts this to the young woman, it may be construed as follows: ‘Joe agrees that there was a bit of an altercation and that he said some things he regrets.’ Again, Alice may see this as some form of validation for her own perspective. It may be enough to allow her, having had her version of events confirmed, to offer in return some acknowledgement of her own part in the row.
The Need for Validation
The use of constructive ambiguity taps in to a fundamental need in people to have the ‘truth’ or validity of their story recognised and acknowledged by others. Evolutionary psychologist Robert Wright identifies this need in his book ‘The Moral Animal’. He writes of what he terms the evolution of the grievance – not just the sense of having been wronged, but the urge to publicly articulate it and to have the validity of our grievance acknowledged. He attributes it to the fact that we are social beings whose interactions are based on an evolved system of reciprocal altruism. In such a system, reputation is everything: in evolutionary terms, it pays if we are seen to be a ‘good guy’, a trusted person who can be relied on to return a favour or to do a good turn.
Whether they agree with the evolutionary angle or not, mediators know this from their own experience. Almost on a daily basis, we are asked by someone who has just recounted their story, ‘Do you think that’s fair? Could you live with it?’ These questions are a request for validation, an assurance from the mediator that the disputant is a reasonable person trying to deal with an unreasonable situation. Mediation theorists have noted, in more academic terms, this same characteristic of conflict situations. In ‘Beyond Neutrality: Confronting the Crisis in Conflict Resolution’, Bernard Mayer lists six needs that he believes people in conflict have and which generally go unmet in conflict resolution processes. These include vindication and validation. The former he defines as the sense that the outcome somehow furthers the person’s belief that they were in the right. The latter he sees as the need to have feelings and point of view supported. Mayer highlights the fact that these needs are seldom met in any conflict resolution process, but that at least the traditional forms such as legal action do not exclude the possibility. Mediation, on the other hand, encourages parties to let go of the desire for ‘victory’ almost as a precondition for entry to the process.
Limitations of Constructive Ambiguity
There are limits to the use of constructive ambiguity in neighbour – neighbour conflicts. Where one or both parties are seeking total vindication as opposed to a way of stepping back from the conflict, they are unlikely to be satisfied with the kind of ambiguous language I have used in the case study. Nor should ambiguity be used to gloss over key issues, to paper over the cracks in a deep – rooted conflict, or to suggest that there is an agreement on issues when this is clearly not the case. Those who believe, moreover, that mediation is about the transformation of people or relationships will see constructive ambiguity as a sleight–of–hand tactic which does nothing to address the real problems at the heart of the dispute.
It should be remembered, first of all, that not everyone involved in a neighbour dispute wants a close relationship with their neighbour: they may simply want the television turned down a notch or two, the dogs to stop barking, or the young footballers outside their front door moved further down the street. Secondly, the use of constructive ambiguity does not preclude change in the future. What it stops is the destructive cycle of recriminations about the past. By allowing both parties to feel a measure of vindication and validation, constructive ambiguity shunts the mediation process on to a new track. Rather than being defined and confined by what has happened in the past, the parties can focus on what needs to be done to improve the situation. They save face and move on.
Wright, R. The Moral Animal (Abacus, 1996)
Mayer, B. Beyond Neutrality: Confronting the Crisis in Conflict Resolution (Jossey – Bass, 2004)