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The Life-Giving Gift of Acknowledgment (Book Review) Reflections from the field – and why conflict resolution practitioners might benefit from looking over the parapet

by Barbara Wilson
January 2006 image
I begin this review by declaring an interest. I met the author, Professor Michael Hyde at a conference co-sponsored by the Texas Wesleyan University School of Law entitled ‘The Power of Stories: Intersections of Law, Culture, and Literature’ held in Gloucester, England during July 2005. The event was oriented around the 400th anniversary of the story of Dick Whittington and included seminars on topics which proved as fascinating as their titles (for example ‘Did Richard Whittington Even Own a Cat?: The Ethics of Telling Stories to Unwitting Clients’ presented by Steven Johansen, Lewis and Clark Law School).

The conference had almost ended and I was waiting in the lobby for a taxi by the time Professor Hyde and I spoke in depth. As sometimes happens at conferences this informal meeting was for me as rich as and perhaps even more engaging than the scheduled events. It was the first time either of us had met someone from each other’s discipline – he is University Distinguished Professor of Communication Ethics at Wake Forest University, NC and has contributed significantly to the rhetoric of medical ethics and I am a family mediator and professional practice consultant from the south of England. What might have seemed an unlikely conversation in terms of areas of mutual interest rapidly became a dynamic encounter in which I discovered a commonality of beliefs and understanding, despite our being grounded in different disciplines which might usually have no interface. I was left with the challenge of having expanded my personal horizons as well as the satisfaction of having experienced sincere mutuality in our exchange of views. Significantly, our conversation strongly reinforced my existing belief that many of the ethical and other issues with which mediators grapple are in fact common to other professions, a theme to which I will return.

Shrag and Ramsey, authors of the foreword, argue similarly [1], calling for the university of the new millennium to embrace an ‘unprecedented emphasis on the multi-disciplinary character of human knowledge’ and citing the impediment to communication and academic knowledge which arises from hyper-specialisation and leads to self-isolating vocabularies at both inter and intra-disciplinary levels. One only has to think of some of the factions within the mediation field - such as those arising from debates around what mediation is (or is not) - to realise we suffer similarly. Hyde’s work therefore is relevant for our own practice. However, his text embodies a galaxy of applications, from professional and academic disciplines involving human communication to the minutiae of everyday interpersonal exchanges.

‘The Life-Giving Gift of Acknowledgment (hereafter “Acknowledgment” ) is indeed a profound book. It is essentially a philosophical treatise on the phenomenology of acknowledgment, which Hyde sets forth in order to understand its existential nature and function. He addresses what might be argued as one of the most fundamental of human needs - that of being acknowledged - and what this means for both the acknowledged and acknowledging actors. He poses from the outset the question ‘What would life be like if no one acknowledged your existence?’, thereafter expanding his theme to debate what it means to be acknowledged, lack acknowledgment, and what it is to give this life-giving gift to others.

The format of ‘Acknowledgment’ falls broadly into two sections. In the first Hyde sets out the philosophical and theoretical foundations of his argument, developing and illustrating this in the remainder of the book to include detailed analyses of how acknowledgment may be understood in a number of contexts. Examples are drawn from poetry, film, pedagogy, 9/11 and the flying of the Confederate battle flag over the Statehouse in Columbia, South Carolina, to name but a few. The range of ‘Acknowledgment’ is indeed astonishing. Hyde’s scholarship is as broad as it is deep, derived not only from the work of 20th century authors and apologists such as Levinas and Heidegger but also the great rhetorists and philosophers of Western civilisation including Plato and Cicero. In pursuit of his theme Hyde unhesitatingly tackles such sensitive areas as faith and science, weaving together seemingly disparate threads to argue the integrality of his thesis.

Employing the Greek ethos in its original sense (a “dwelling place” ) Hyde explores the parameters of acknowledgment as a distinct construct from that of recognition:

‘(This) ethos of acknowledgment establishes an environment wherein people can take the time to “know together” (con-scientia) some topic of interest and, in the process, perhaps gain a more authentic understanding of those who are willing to contribute to its development. Recognition is only a preliminary step in this process of attuning one’s consciousness toward another and his or her expression of a topic in order to facilitate the development of such existential knowledge and personal understanding. Acknowledgment requires openness to others even if, at times, things become boring or troublesome’[2]

Acknowledgment is thus distinguished from recognition and its relevance to conflict resolution made obvious by this passage. Mediators are of course familiar with both terms and may use them interchangeably. From an etymological perspective there is some overlap in the meaning of these words, although recognition conveys a sense of identifying what has been known before whereas acknowledgment ‘admits as true’ and incorporates within its meaning a sense of obligation towards the other. Most mediators would probably claim they regularly employ ‘acknowledgment’ in dealing with disputants, a concept of course not confined to conflict management but which appears also in the contexts of counselling, therapy, business and international relations. At an interpersonal level it sometimes surfaces in statements made by professionals to clients/colleagues such as ‘I hear what you say’. In practice such employment of ‘acknowledgment’ may be experienced by recipients as trite and meaningless, particularly if it fails to convey genuine appreciation of their personhood, circumstances and feelings. Which of us has not experienced someone saying to us ‘I hear what you say’, only to know immediately that the speaker has little idea of what we actually mean or are experiencing. Such ‘acknowledgment’ may be irrelevant, perhaps even damaging, if essentially unauthentic and not reflecting the existential depth on which Hyde’s treatise insists.

I mentioned earlier the importance to mediators of learning from other disciplines. Hyde makes a compelling case for inter-disciplinary exchanges of information within the academy at large. The theme of interdisciplinary cohesion is not new - in medieval times ‘Renaissance man’ could potentially become an expert in nearly every field, since all knowledge was seen as being equivalent. Fragmentation followed as a result of reductionism and fractionation. [3] In the 19th century William Whewell [4] coined the word ‘consilience’ to describe what he asserted was the phenomena of the induction from one class of facts coinciding with an induction from another, different class. Consilience is now generally perceived as having been achieved in the hard sciences, for example through the exploration of the relationship between biology and psychology or cognitive processes and behavioural neuroscience.

Whewell’s ideas were advanced by Edward Osward Wilson in his 1998 text ‘Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge’. Wilson asserts that the common goal of the sciences, humanities and arts is to give purpose to the understanding that the world is orderly and can be explained by a small number of natural laws – the essence of consilience. Wilson was the subject of much controversy when he proposed the idea of socio-biology, leading to accusations against him of racism which he has always vehemently denied[5] With regard to mediation the tenets of consilience have already entered the conflict resolution discourse, e.g. through the work of Benjamin[6]

Of particular interest to me as a practitioner is Hyde’s handling of a concept he relates to acknowledgment, i.e. that of ‘home’, or more accurately the German heimlich (‘at home’). Its significance for mediation is obvious when he writes of:

…how rhetoric, functioning as a tool of acknowledgment, transforms time and space in order to provide a dwelling place (home) for people to gain some understanding of truth and to cultivate moral thought and action….The more people feel at home with another’s arguments and world-views, the more they are likely to remain open to what the other has to say. Such openness, on the part of both orator and audience, allows for genuine acknowledgment to take place. It may be possible to employ rhetoric simply as a means of manipulation and deceit, but it also offers itself as a tool for collaborative deliberation whereby people are encouraged to take an active role in discovering and remaining open to all that needs to be observed in a given situation if disputable matters are to be resolved in a reasonable and truthful manner’. [7]

‘Acknowledgment’ is not an easy read, especially for those of us not formally grounded in an academic understanding of philosophical thinking. It mentions neither mediation nor mediators, nor does it address conflict resolution practice as such. From the point of view of a European reader the applications within the text are internal in that they reflect North American culture. Nevertheless Hyde’s work is underpinned by the discourses of European philosophy; most importantly, the humanity his work displays is surely common to us all.

Finally, ‘Acknowledgment’ demands our attention because of its relevance for the professional field as well as our own lives. I am left with two thoughts – first, that reviewing this work has been an illuminating and ‘life-giving’ experience; secondly, that meeting with academics and practitioners from outside our usual zone of influence and away from the fortress mentality that sometimes dominates the field may be more helpful than attending yet another workshop dealing with already well-aired issues of mediation practice.

End Notes

1 (p.xi).

2 p.3.

3 Consilience: Case Studies in Complex Adaptive Systems available from: http://www.princeton.edu/~complex/site/background.html

4 Novum Organon Renovatum, London pp 87-88

5Viewable at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Wilson_Wilson

6 See for example Benjamin R Practice Hints: The Conflict Terrain: Analysis and Management Strategies: viewable at http://www.rbenjamin.com/4-1%20Practice%20Hints.pdf

7p.101

Biography


Barbara Wilson, PhD CQSW, MSc, MCFM is an independent family and workplace mediator, and has been in practice since 1990. She mediates in the south of England, including London, and is published in the UK, USA, Denmark and Australia, where she is also Accredited with LEADR. She is a visiting scholar at the Faculty of Law, University of Strathclyde, where she teaches gender issues on the LLM/MSc/PgDip/PgCert Courses in Mediation and Conflict Resolution. She is also a Family Mediation Council Competence Assessor and a Freeman of the Worshipful Company of Arbitrators. Barbara taught on MSc and Graduate Certificate ADR courses previously run by the Institute of Family Therapy (partnered with Birkbeck College, University of London).

She has presented at international conferences and workshops in Australia, Denmark, Eire, New Zealand, Scotland and the US, and co-facilitates an advanced international mediation workshop run annually in Tuscany, Italy with Greg Rooney and Margaret Ross of Adelaide, South Australia. She is also a professional practice consultant (PPC) in private practice, and supports a number of experienced mediators and other professionals working with conflict. Her academic interests include applied ADR theory, ethics, and the development of mediator expertise.  Barbara welcomes contact at info@questmediation.co.uk



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