I like to ask new graduate students why they want to study conflict resolution. I ask on the first day of class and they usually stare back at me pleasantly, though I know in their heads they are thinking things like, “Is this professor daft?” and “Is this a trick question?” and “Can I get away with saying ‘duh!’ to my teacher?” Eventually, they respond with poetic statements that contain words and phrases like Ghandi, world peace, Dalai Lama, happy families, and healthier workplaces.
Then I like to ask, “What do you think people in conflict want?” This one perks them up because it feels like an easier question. “To resolve it,” they tell me, or, “To manage it successfully.” Or, if they’re already a bit versed in the jargon of the conflict resolution field, they might like to show off and say, “To engage conflict better.”
Then, just when they’ve decided that maybe grad school isn’t going to be hard after all, I like to say, “Ok, those are the predictable answers. Now tell me why you’re really here.” I’d like to say I ask this with gentleness and love, but really, the truth is that I want to jolt them out of their triteness. I want for them to discover early what it took me far too long to understand and admit.
It’s a good thing my conflict work has taught me to be comfortable with silence, because sometimes the ensuing silence is lengthy. Eventually, a brave soul will begin the truth-telling and others follow quickly, as though finally relieved to be able to say it out loud: I am here because I’m afraid of conflict and I figure studying to be a mediator will teach me how not to be. I am here because I’m the queen of conflict and want to live my life with a little more grace. I am here because conflict has torn my family apart and I want to understand what happened. I am here because my ex-husband and I used a mediator for our divorce and I want to be the kind of miracle-worker that person was. I am here because I feel the need to balance out the universe a bit after years as a litigator.
“Now take yourself out of the helper’s chair, for a moment,” I continue. “What do you most want when you’re stuck in conflict?” Finally, all the jargon falls away and meaningful goals emerge: To be proud of how I’m behaving. To keep my wits about me. Not to be taken advantage of. To know how to get unstuck. Not to cause damage. To walk away with peace of mind. To be able to move on. To be free of it.
This is why I love my work: The best conflict resolution is about freedom. Freedom from a conflict — I can’t think of anything I’d rather wake up each morning and help people achieve.