Atul Gawande is a surgeon who writes and speaks about the limitations and frequent excesses of medical practice in the USA. His most recent book, Being Mortal, explores the over-medicalization of death. He describes how physicians’ single-minded focus on extending life often makes patients’ final days unnecessarily painful and humiliating. And he describes how the philosophies of such approaches as hospice care, on the other hand, can help patients experience their deaths in a far more harmonious way, surrounded by loved ones, with more dignity, and with less pain . These approaches even often extend life longer than would the traditional disease-fighting model. Gawande describes death as a natural part of the process of life, not necessarily something to be fought until the end. He explains how death can be accepted and experienced in a way that is more meaningful for the patient and more healing for their surviving loved ones.
We who help with conflict can learn from Gawande’s insights. In conflict, professionals often believe that containment, suppression and an efficient settlement are needed. That is, they try to make the conflict go away, just as physicians try to make disease go away. But single-minded focus on ending the conflict can have very unpleasant side effects, just like excessive medical treatment can.
For example, a mainstream approach to mediating a business case usually includes the mediator starting the session by saying “we’re here to try to settle this case.” She may then try to keep the parties from engaging directly with each other; and she may seek to narrow the conversation to possible terms of settlement. The closer the parties get to the heart of the matter and the more they express the profundity of their sense of betrayal and their commitment to standing up for themselves, the less comfortable this sort of mediator becomes.
Another approach would be to provide plenty of space for the full breadth of the conflict to emerge and for parties to talk directly to each other, even if that talk includes hostility. This approach allows the conflict to follow a more natural path, a path more consistent with the parties’ values; and it allows the parties to avoid the suffering that comes with more invasive procedures. And it’s even more likely to lead to settlement than the narrowly focused containment approach. Conflict, like death, is not necessarily something to be fought. Acceptance of conflict as part of life can lead to outcomes with more dignity, more connection, and less pain.