This is a book review by David Hubbard of the book "The Guide to Reflective Practice in Conflict Resolution" by Michael D. Lang, published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2019 as one of the Association for Conflict Resolution’s (ACR) Practitioner’s Guides Series
By exposing the reader to various models, methods, examples, and by exploring the enriching benefits of reflective practice, Lang’s guide can help any practitioner, no matter where they are in their development as a conflict engagement professional, become more. More curious, more competent, more confident, more effective, more resourceful, and more self-aware by engaging in reflective practice to learn at a more personalized level through the personal insights one gleans from reflections on experiences in mediation to enhance one’s abilities and skills.
The Guide reminds us there is no one size fits all, no single path, no one model or style of practice that is ideal for all practitioners. With over thirty years of experience as educator, practitioner, researcher, and author, Lang’s writing flows with clarity, confidence, conviction, and keen insights about how anyone might achieve excellence. By becoming a reflective practitioner, the reader will learn why reflection before and during mediation is so important. Lang points out the many benefits of reflective practice, and various ways one can engage in reflective practice by essentially learning from experience to become more competent.
Lang writes that, as coaches, facilitators, and mediators, the nature of our confidential work tends to keep us isolated in a bubble. Our work is typically observed by only the participants and their representatives. We generally work solo, operating in a vacuum with no one observing our efforts to provide us with useful feedback and insights to deepen our learning from the specific experience for future use. Conferences, seminars, trainings, and workshops allow us to build bigger and better tool boxes but with limited opportunities to practice effective and thoughtful application of the new knowledge, skills, strategies, and techniques.
As professionals, we risk having our successes stifle our curiosity and indirectly cause us to develop blind spots, assume, and get into a practice rut because we have done something in a particular way repeatedly in the past with successful results. Do we really know what works and why? When one of our tried and true moves does not work in the heat of a difficult mediation, who do we blame? As conflict engagement professionals we can experience routine as tunnel vision. “Reflective practice provides a means for exiting the tunnel and taking a fresh look at our experiences,” writes Lang. When we have a commitment to learning, an attitude of curiosity and a desire for self-improvement everyone benefits.
The Guide is like a seed packet you can open, plant, tend, and then thoroughly enjoy the results. Lang offers seeds of wisdom with clear, precise, insightful writing and truly enjoyable storytelling. Every chapter in The Guide is full of detailed and thoughtful comparisons, examples, exercises, experiments, inspiring ideas, methods, models, questions, quotes, and, of course, motivational reflections.
From the very beginning I was inspired and found the reflection exercises useful.
“Exercise 1.5 Preparing for Mindfulness:
When beginning a new conflict resolution intervention, and as you organize and present your introductory comments, remind yourself to pay attention to discovering “new things.”
What you notice may be about yourself and the way you deliver your introduction. What do you notice about the language you use, your pace, and the tone of your voice?
Pay attention to the participants’ responses to your comments. Are their reactions predictable? Take notice of anything unexpected or new from them. Do they respond to specific ideas or language?
And pay attention to your reactions to their behaviors. Are they influencing you, and if so, in what ways? Are you willing to alter your comments in response to what you are thinking and feeling or in response to the parties’ actions, comments, and questions?”
As I read this exercise, I noticed I was a little uneasy about a court-ordered mediation the next morning with a couple who had been labeled by the court, their attorneys, and previous mediators as intractable high conflict frequent flyers. A recently appointed guardian ad litem for the children affirmed this and I was appointed to mediate a new parenting plan. So I reflected on my own introduction. I was concerned that, in spite of having taught hundreds of law, graduate, and undergraduate mediation students for over a decade, about the great importance of the mediator’s introduction, mine was falling short of artistry and had grown stale. I often delivered the introduction on auto-pilot as I unconsciously checked off the required elements off my invisible checklist while the parties’ eyes glazed over.
Thanks to inspiration from Chapter 1 and Exercise 1.5, the next morning I experimented with my introduction. The result was a pace and tone that helped me create greater rapport with the parents as I was genuinely curious and committed to learn about them and their conflict. I was more attentive, respectful and checked in more frequently with the parents, aware of the uniqueness of their situation of which they were the experts. From my reflective mindset I was a better listener, observed more, was more resilient, I valued ambiguity, and resisted certainty. The insights I gained from being more reflective and hence more present helped me to help them.
The mediation resulted in a shift for the parents as they felt empowered, heard, and understood. They moved from the bitter fighting (their pattern for years) to focusing on their children’s best interests. In a problem solving manner they crafted a complete and detailed parenting plan. While I cannot take the credit for their success, my reflections before and during the mediation helped. Lang’s guide has further inspired me to start reflective journaling again, hold a reflective practice workshop, and start a reflective practice group with our local panel of mediators which may expand to a separate state-wide reflective debrief group.
If you want to stay on your A game, improve it, or develop one, The Guide to Reflective Practice in Conflict Resolution can be an incredible resource and inspiration. It’s notable that The Guide comes nearly 20 years after Lang’s co-authorship with Alison Taylor of The Making of a Mediator: Developing Artistry in Practice, which was the first book to specifically inspire mediators about reflective practice. The Guide is evidence of Lang’s lifelong commitment, dedication, expertise, insight, knowledge, leadership, passion, research, skills, thinking, and writing about reflective practice and the benefits of reflection that can elevate a mediators’ practice if committed to continuous learning as one strives for artistry.
Here is what some leading professional mediators and educators have written about The Guide:
“Michael Lang‘s reflective practice guide is a gift to current and future practitioners, from students tonight offices to the most experienced experts. Rather than a prescription for a specific practice model, it is a delightful and accessible reference, full of examples from actual cases as well as exercises designed to help people continuously become more affective throughout their careers."
- John Lande
“A Guide to Reflective Practice in Conflict Resolution is an outstanding contribution to the conflict management field. With Michael’s creative insights, practical case examples, and innovative techniques, he inspires practitioners to examine and understand what guides the strategic and tactical choices we make in our work. This book is a must-read for practitioners who strive to bring their professional best to their work and for educators and trainers who strive to inspire learners to do so."
- Cinnie Noble
“Grab this wise and wonderful book plus five mediator friends and form your own reflective practitioner group. Lang‘s book asks just the right questions to start you on your journey. You’ll never regret it."
- Ava J. Abramowitz