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Conflict Resolution is an ancient tradition A first exposure to our field is often sibling rivalry and the parental response to it. Some of us may recall reading the Bible story of King Solomon's solution to two women claiming motherhood of the same child. To this day he is synonymous with wisdom in resolving intractable conflicts. Conflict resolution is not something we recently created.
Many cultures have a tradition of taking conflicts to the elders, religious leaders, respected community members, or other wise men and women who earn that prestige on the basis of their personal qualities and position in the community. Those esteemed people act in the role according to their instinct and ability. Their cultures survive the lack of credentials for the role.
The conflicts of today may seem more complex and wicked. Some are. However, it is still the respect for and trust in the conflict resolver that should inspire people to bring their conflicts to her or him. To think about measuring the performance of elders, who have the role because of tradition and respect, puts a different perspective on the debate. Too often the standards are academic and the qualities of trust and respect, which are hard to measure, drop off the list.
Standardizing the process
Since the mainstream acceptance of conflict resolution is what we wanted, what are some of the issues generating anxiety? Some are straight forward, such as, is conflict resolution a profession? What does competence mean? What is an appropriate model of intervention? What body, if any, should have responsibility for monitoring the field? What level of training entitles someone to practice? Should there be controls over what each process can be called? Who now speaks for the peace and conflict "movement"?
While these are interesting and important questions, which conflict resolution process are we asking the questions about? We do have a conflict resolution continuum and we know that many models are available. We understand that the list is not exhaustive, and some models were unheard of a decade ago. With the questions answered and processes standardized, are we stifling the creativity that gives conflict resolution its value? Let’s explore the discourses around credentialing.
Conflict Resolution is Interdisciplinary and Inclusive by nature
The discourse of standardization suggests that there is a best practice and the principles can be quantified. There is no one profession that can say it owns conflict resolution, or can claim that theirs is a more correct model. Mediation, for example, has historic roots in labour, civil rights, family, community justice, courts, game theory, cooperative problem solving, organizational development, communications, industrial relations, and more recently, complexity science, to name only a few. Whatever the original discipline of conflict resolvers, they bring the sum total of their learning and experience to their conflict interventions. There is room for innovation and evolution in the conflict resolution universe. We should be encouraging more people from different disciplines to find new applications of the models and to bring their many skills to us.
If there had been credentialing bodies in the 1930s when mediation began to flourish, it is unlikely that innovations we today believe are good mediation practice would ever have found their way into our repertoires. Exclusionary requirements, such as needing the certification of one discipline or another, or some over-riding body, are contra-intuitive to the flexible, evolutionary nature of conflict resolution.
Education of users is the best protection
One of the more prevalent discourses for credentials is the need to protect consumers by telling them that a conflict resolver has met minimum standards. However, in reality, this would be neither protection nor a standard of excellence. Once the certificate is awarded, the certificate holder is still working behind closed doors within the bounds of confidentiality. The service user still has no way of knowing if s/he received a competent service unless he/she is informed.
The best protection, for users and providers alike, is to educate everyone about what good practice looks like. If parties want a transformative mediation and get a head-banging evaluator, they should understand that it is the style of that intervenor and the model s/he uses - not mediation in general - that is different than their expectations. If users know the differences, they can obtain what they need in the way of service.
The alternative is to keep conflict resolution as mysterious and labyrinthine as the law, so that only practitioners understand it and problems must be turned over to the practitioner for resolution. This is contrary to the stated claims of conflict resolvers that conflict resolution processes are empowering to the disputants and gives them control over the outcome. We cannot have it both ways. We either keep the knowledge and control or we share it widely. In short, we have to walk our own talk.
If we truly believe that conflict resolution is empowering and returns control to the parties involved with the conflict, we should not be the ones drawing lines around where that empowerment and control ends for them and begins for us.
Conflict Resolution is a life skill
Another discourse is that conflict resolution requires hours of training and practice for proficiency. Hopefully, that is true. However, it also not true. What we do is largely common sense and everyone should have access to the knowledge behind it. Credentialing can turn a life skill into an esoteric ritual that only the ordained can practice.
Our goal should be to have every school child trained in and understand the theory and practice of good interpersonal relationships. There should not be any mystery about conflict resolution that demands that only professionals are licensed to practice. If we are to successfully transform the future into a peaceful place to live, a first step is to give everyone the required skills, not hoard them for a privileged few who qualify. The proliferation of conflict resolution training courses is a start. Let us not set roadblocks in the path by letting people take the course, then making them qualify to apply the knowledge.
Conflict Resolution personalities
The discourse about testing as a guarantee of quality assumes that the right things are being tested. Taking a generic 40-hour training course, practicing the requisite number of hours and passing a test may entitle someone to a credential. It does not guarantee that they will be even a barely adequate conflict resolver. One size never did fit all.
Recently, about a dozen very experienced conflict resolvers created a list of the qualities that make for an excellent conflict resolution personality. These included such attributes as clear thinking, calm, appropriate risk taking, wisdom and a sense of humour. Those don’t appear in four-step models that are the basis of mediation training.
Conflict resolution models abound and so do personal styles. A good blend of conflict resolution model and personal style may create an excellent conflict resolver. Someone with a good conflict resolution personality may use an intuitive, unregulated model all their own and be excellent at intervening successfully in conflicts. Someone else, with good technical skill in the four-step model, may have a completely inappropriate personality for resolving conflict. Credentialing is not designed to or capable of assessing that.
No matter how critical some may be of another intervenor's personal style, there will be a client and a conflict for which that style may be suitable. If the teacher, religious leader and community elder have conflict resolution personalities, they should be a part of the conflict resolution universe, without having to apply to yet another discipline for permission to do their jobs.
Whose interests are being served?
The discourse of providing a public service by pre-screening competence is high-minded and noble. Is it real? Where is the push for credentials coming from? My clients don’t ask if I have a certificate of competence from any organization. Nor would a certificate to practice offer them protection if I have an off day during the intervention I do for them.
Since we are skilled at getting to interests, the question might be asked: Who would benefit from an embedded system of credentials?
Frankly, it seems to be the certificate granting agencies that stand to gain the most. They write the rules, collect our fees to apply to get the letters after our names, administer the test for a (large) fee, and then charge ongoing amounts for keeping the certification current. It is an administrative empire being built on the backs of people doing work that they have been doing for years without the piece of paper. The value added to the practice, the client or the practitioner by this new bureaucracy is quite negligible.
Where is the research?
The discourse of ‘everyone knows that some practitioners are incompetent’ suggests that someone has done some data collection and found incompetence everywhere. If credentialing is the answer, what was the question? Is there research showing that a large swath of incompetent conflict resolvers are out there giving bad process and harming clients, the administration of justice and the general reputation of the field?
We certainly hear anecdotally about some conflict resolvers we would not want to recommend because we disagree with their style. Do we have any statistics about how prevalent or frequent this is, to justify a new category of jobs called conflict resolution regulators? Is the push to credential warranted, self-protectionist, empire-building, good risk management or an institutional money grab from conflict resolvers, or some other entity altogether? It would be helpful to know what harm is being addressed to better understand if credentials are the mitigation for that harm.
Perhaps we should be listing the main characteristics of each of the processes along the continuum. We could list the models of each of those processes and the best practices of each of the models, followed by the qualities of an excellent conflict resolution professional for each of the models. Only after that should we even consider such mundane criteria as the number of hours of course work required. As each innovation, evolution and mutation of a process arises in response to need, we could share the new knowledge by expanding the attributes continuum.
We should be emphasizing the best practices inherent in the many rich conflict resolution models, the need for depth of knowledge of the theory, core values, principles and the requirement for a conflict resolution personality that is appropriate to the models a person intends to practice. The micro-skills of each particular model are the easiest issue. Yet it is towards those minimum standards of the micro-skills that the bulk of the energy in the debate about standards and credentials is directed.
Professionalization under the guise of public protection seems to really be protection for the self-interest of the practitioner. It will keep the untrained - by our definition - out of the practice thus excluding the elders, the community workers, the intuitive naturals, those with stature in their cultures and others who have been doing the work for years without recognition or credit for the value of the work they are doing. It will marginalize those who cannot pay the thousands of dollars to be steeped in our standard model that barely recognizes the voices of the other gender, cultures, races, classes, experiences or locations. Those who are 'othered' by the standard model of practice, which will be enshrined in the push for standards and credentials, are the very people who would gain the most from processes that champion empowerment, recognition and control over the conflict in the hands of the disputants.
L. Deborah Sword has been a conflict manager, trainer, writer and speaker since 1991. Her other musings about conflict analysis, management and resolution appear on her website: conflictcompetence.com
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