Book Review – Evolution of a Field: Personal Histories in Conflict Resolution

I know we’ve only just begun 2021, but so far my favorite mediation book I've read this year is Evolution of a Field: Personal Histories in Conflict Resolution edited by Howard Gadlin and Nancy Welsh. It collects personal histories from 23 experienced dispute resolvers, chronicling the paths they took to arrive at their work managing conflict. 

The book is filled with insightful observations not only about alternative dispute resolution (ADR) skills, but also about why we are drawn to the work of conflict resolution. These insights are shared through personal stories drawn from the lives of the authors — their upbringing, their colleagues, their mentors, and their struggles. The stories are engaging, personal, and honest. Reading the voices of each of the contributors, so clear on the page, reminded me how inspired I am by my colleagues — while at the same time sparking a sense of gratitude within me that I have been lucky enough to be a part of this field.  I’m quite sure other readers will feel the same way.

Now full disclosure: I am, in fact, an author of one of the chapters in the book. It probably goes without saying that I don’t get the same spark reading my own story as much as the stories of others.  I was pleased to have been asked to participate, but after reading the other chapters, I wish I had been even more reflective and courageous in my chapter… but in my defense, I didn’t realize how high the bar would be!

In my first draft of the chapter I chronicled my professional steps, along with some lessons learned from the work that I had done in ODR over the past 20 years.  I didn’t really know what to include, so it came off kind of like a Career Day presentation to aspiring mediators. A few weeks after I submitted it, Howard and Nancy returned my draft to me with a daunting list of deep, thoughtful questions: why did you take this particular step? Why did you make this decision? What motivated you to go this way? It urged me to look harder into my own psychology and personality and consider why I was drawn to this particular community and this type of practice. 

Now that I have the book in my hands I can see that many of the other authors in this volume were similarly urged by Howard and Nancy to think more deeply about the why behind their stories. Each chapter is so beautifully written it's clear that the authors are all people who can write well, but it takes a good editor to urge an author to get at personal motivations and to address the underlying questions in one's own life story. Many of the authors talk about their family histories, their heartbreaks, and their failures along the way. This isn’t just a book of people reeling off their accomplishments and burnishing their legacies; it’s filled with honest self reflection and hard won wisdom.

I wish when I was beginning my journey into the conflict resolution field I had a book like this. For people who hunger for a career in conflict resolution having these personal histories documented, along with serendipitous moments and lucky coincidences, gives a sense of how many different entry points there are into this work, and how we can all walk different paths up the same mountain.

Many of my heroes in ADR are included (just look at the list of chapters below), colleagues for more than 20+ years, but this book gave me many new insights about friends I thought I already knew well.  We don’t always discuss our family histories and our past disappointments with our colleagues and friends — the conversation at conferences is usually lighter and more in the moment.  It is an act of courage to really put yourself on the page, but the authors’ honesty in this volume has given the field an incredible gift.  I have found myself re-reading several chapters to glean more insights and inspiration.

I think this book is a real jewel, and I am confident I will return to it again and again over the years.  Kudos to Nancy and Howard for all their hard work, and also many thanks to DRI Press at Mitchell Hamline Law School for publishing it and sharing the chapters online to maximize accessibility.  I love having a paper copy where I can take notes in the margins, but if you want the maximum number of readers these days the best way to distribute is online.

Just click on any of the chapters below to open the full text in PDF.

“Discovering our field in our stories” by Howard Gadlin and Nancy A, Welsh

Section 1: Conflict Resolution as a Noble Craft to End Discord

Section 2: Conflict Resolution as a Forum for Voice and Connection

Section 3: Conflict Resolution as a Creative Exercise

Section 4: Conflict Resolution as a Bridge to a Socially Just, Democratic, and Inclusive Community

About the Editors

Note: the editors also include alternative frames for how the different contributions could be grouped along ADR Processes, Career Development, Culture, Gateways to the Field, Generations, and Institutional Context.

                        author

Colin Rule

Colin Rule is CEO of Resourceful Internet Solutions, Inc. ("RIS"), home of Mediate.com, MediateUniversity.com, Arbitrate.com, CaseloadManager.com and a number of additional leading online dispute resolution initiatives.  From 2017 to 2020, Colin was Vice President for Online Dispute Resolution at Tyler Technologies. Tyler acquired Modria.com, an ODR provider that Colin co-founded,… MORE >

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