Comments: Style Wars And Other Little Hypocrisies

Go to article

Jane Garzilli, Los Angeles CA   06/22/05
See Len Riskin's Poem
Len Riskin actually wrote a gentle, humorous poem about mediator style in response to various colleagues' points of view. See "Mediation Quandaries" in Florida State Law Review, Vol. 24, No. 4, Summer 1997, p. 1007.

Gregorio , Modesto CA     04/14/04
Hi Robert, Your paper has caused me much reflection. You say, "We publicly make supercilious statements like, 'each person has their own style that works for them,' while at the same time feeling in our gut that what we do is right and what they do is…well…not so right. This is the source of our confidence and can be the cause of our downfall. These are the little hypocrisies that are part of being human, but left unchallenged, can fester and infect not only our personal and professional growth, but the health of the field." What you say applies not only to mediation, but to every walk of life. From sports training to mediation, to politics, and as you say, to poetry. I suspect, that the more we care about something, the more your comments are true. We have to care little about something in order to truly believe that "each person can have his own style" and really, really mean it. I like your call for reflection. As we mature we must truly move towards a gratefulness for the contributions of others. Perhaps what you are telling us is that we are all too often moved by arrogance. Ezra Taft Benson said, "The proud make every man their adversary by pitting their intellects, opinions, works, wealth, talents, or any other worldly measuring device against others. In the words of C. S. Lewis: 'Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. … It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition has gone, pride has gone.' (Mere Christianity, New York: Macmillan, 1952, pp. 109-10.) * * * The proud depend upon the world to tell them whether they have value or not. Their self-esteem is determined by where they are judged to be on the ladders of worldly success. They feel worthwhile as individuals if the numbers beneath them in achievement, talent, beauty, or intellect are large enough. Pride is ugly. It says, 'If you succeed, I am a failure.'" I take your article as a call for seeing where other people's work contribute to the field of mediation. And to be slow in discounting such contributions. I have noticed a tendency for many authors to tell us that their approach displaces the work of others. This has made me very uncomfortable. The problem is so universal that there is no need to give examples. This is why I added this note to my own book, Helping Others Resolve Differences: Empowering Stakeholders. "Over the years, there have been many important contributions advanced towards the resolution of conflicts. This book does not purport to displace other writings on the subject, but rather, it introduces a new tool that is likely to change some deep rooted assumptions about mediation and the value of the pre-caucus. Most of all, it seeks to empower those involved in disputes so they can obtain the requisite tools to solve future conflicts without a mediator." Even a few days ago, before I read your article, I was telling someone that we need to get different approaches and views on mediation as part of the training we need to offer. But I know that as you say, each of us is all too ready to go out and defend our approach as somehow better. As we fight such an instinct, we will all benefit. Thanks for your provocative piece. Gregorio Billikopf, University of California, 209 525-6800,,

Robert Benjamin   04/05/04
Thank you for your comment. It is, of course, preferred to hear from people who agree. If I am awkward in my acknowledgement, it is only because I so rarely have the opportunity to respond to favorable reviews. More seriously, in talking about the corporate/business world, your response tweaked another aspect of this discussion that warrants further discussion if the conflict management field is to progress: specifically on the limits and risks of consensus. Conflict mediator's and other conflict management professionals might do well to be mindful of when the pursuit of consensus and collaboration is questionable or even risky. The groupthink phenomenon is a powerful force in all human organizations, be it among those in the corporate for-profit world, and certainly for those of us in a "do-gooder" profession, and for those in the not-for-profit sector. (And, as we know, for politicians in foreign policy deliberations. But that is a whole other column.) I know, as many of you, I love to rant about the many and varied corporate scandals, CEO malfeasances and the obscenity of overcompensation---even for jobs not well done. But, in our own way, we in the conflict management field suborn a similar level of mendacity and likewise easily drawn into tacit support and going along with the group, as are the big corporate guys. In short, hate them as we might, we aren't so different. The idea of getting along, and being viewed by our peers as cooperative and collaborative is particularly seductive for us, perhaps because our core values and articulated professional mission is about settlement and the belief that if we all tried a little harder we could, all get along. Yet, in an article in the New Yorker (March 8, 2004) titled appropriately enough, "Board Stiff", James Surowiecki noted that contrary to popular belief, many corporate directors are not the mere incestuous participants of interlocking directorates we pidgeonhole them as, but strong willed and opinionated, independent agents. "The real problem was not so much who is the boardroom as how they acted once they were there. ... They discouraged debate and disagreement instead of cultivating it." Sound Familiar? A vast amount of research suggests that smart group decisions emerge as much out of disagreement as out of consensus. We can take only the slightest amount of solace from the fact that too many corporate boards do just as we do in the conflict management field: dismiss and avoid dissent as either harmful or superfluous. The same advice, most scarce in corporate board rooms, is noticeably absent in our profession---both in practice and in our professional dealings. There is value in a "good fight." Dissent need not be viewed as synonymous with dissension. In ending, Surowiecki quotes Alfred Sloan, a President of General Motors some fifty years ago in the corporations’ heyday: "... gentleman, we all appear to be in complete agreement, ...I propose we postpone further give ourselves time to develop disagreement." Good advice, especially for those of us who profess dedication to conflict management.

S Hughes   04/03/04
Mediation Slam
The business necessity and crass commercialism you speak of regarding poetry is perhaps a window into the attitude of too many in the field of mediation. I believe this perspective is grounded in the well cultivated arrogance of the overly-educated and intellectualized by too many professionals and educators driving the ADR movement. With all due respect for education in many areas, be it the law, human resources, psychology, business, etc. the formally educated mind is only a part of what makes a good mediator. Because the modern practice of mediation is still in its adolescence, like the adolescent demanding independence with oftentimes extreme behavior, so the movers and shakers of mediation spar and manuever for their position in the field, all declaring their way to be best and only, hoping secondarily (or perhaps primarily) that being seen as the great leaders will also provide the wealth and recognition equal to their egos, or in mediation terms, acknowledge their core value. This is in no way a criticism of the many truly sincere, caring, talented and successful people in all areas of practice. It just seems that teaching and selling is where its at, and we are a field of a few well paid “professionals” and “educators.”

Cookie Sutkowski, Chesterton In   03/24/04
Robert, As you know, people do what is familiar and comfortable until they have some reason to jolt them out of their self designed conventional frame of reference. Seems to me that as the more common definitions of mediator (not mediation) lends itself to conflict as attached to outcome and "management" does not enter the picture in the short run. I work in a "dead" health care system that claims to give life when it(the health care system) no longer exists in the traditional purview that is sold to consumers. If the style becomes a part of the practioners persona, the debate will not come out of the closets and hallways until a couple of people are willing to risk questioning who they are without the mask of style. I think it is like the old elephant in the living room story.

Terry   S. Terry Lee, J.D.     03/19/04
Great article. Thoughtful and thought provoking. It inspired this doggerel, which I dashed off after contemplating your article. Please don't measure me against your icons, Yeats, Dickinson, etc.

If mediators were more like poets,
occasionally engaging in slam.
Perhaps we'd have fewer "know-its,"
Or at least know who gives a damn.

We manage the conflicts of clients',
while stuffing our own chronic doubt.
Some preaching in surly defiance,
while seeking professional clout.

My style reflects my adherence,
to the goal of achieving detente'.
The cardinal rule holding deference:
is "nobody gets all they want."

louann , Oakland CA   03/17/04
Wow - this was an interesting piece. Here are a few responses. I am not sure what a mediator slam might look like...having an arts background however, I have thought many times about how classical musicians often disparage jazz musicians and vice versa, may often look down at the crass commercialism (from their perspective) of pop and rock artists, etc... As part of the transformative practitioner group you mention, I have had many conversations about ways mediators and conflict specialists might talk about the divisions, competitiveness, and even "ownership" of the field. One of the questions that often comes up for people who have had or believe they have less power, or are a marginalized group, is who gets to name things...and something about transformative practitioners naming their work, just in itself, seems to rankle many others. It is good to see you naming also the movement by attorneys into mediation, and what that might mean over time. I have wondered for years why we call mediation a 'field' at all - given the multiplicity of disciplines from which the work has evolved - given the lack of a deep field of study that provides a shared frame of reference. This does result in an openness as we all influence practice in both similar and contradictory ways - and it also may feed the tendency for practitioners to feel more prone to fight for their own form of practice. I personally don't see myself, as a transformative mediator, as part of a "separate sect that seeks to stamp it's brand name on how mediation is done" - but perspective is in the eye of the beholder, no? I do, however, welcome the dialogue, and along with you, Mr. Benjamin, have wondered for years why so many mediators avoid using mediation themselves - I would suggest, from a transformative orientation, that this is about a shared susceptibility to disempowerment when we feel threatened, or insecure, or unsure of our own control. Just as the personal attacks and avoidance among mediators to deal with hard, conflict-laden questions, I would suggest, is also based upon these same impulses to protect oneself, to become defensive, and to experience a disconnect with a perspective that strongly challenges one's own. Thanks for stepping forward.

Jocie Wurzburg, memphis tn     03/17/04
benjamin article
Well stated, as usual, Robert. I am one of those guilty of thinking my style of mediation is more "valid" than procedures being called styles of mediation, when they are really ENE or Settlement Conferences masquerading as mediation. Do it, if you must, just don't call it mediation. Especially upsetting to me is the current practice of judges mediating cases assigned to their collegues for ajudication. I feel competent to perform various styles of mediation; the trick is to know when to do what. I think the consumers need to know what they are buying.

Robert  Creo, Pittsburgh PA     03/17/04
Style Wars
Congratulations Bob again for your great insights and forceful words. The trend to create a mediation orthodoxy by regulation or suppression of diversity gives me great discomfort. Mediation is an alternative process of alternative and diverse voices. Long live the heretics.

L    03/15/04
I am so glad to see this article! Of all professions, it is the 'do-gooder' professions which most often least question themselves. I have never understood this. I know and understand cut-throat competition of private enterprize. It's part of the package. But when this same attitude rules in churches, psychological, social worker associations and professions and NO ONE dares bring it to the surface, all the 'doing good' becomes a hollow facade most groups can not tolerate for long without it exploding. Thank you for attempting to surface the conflict here! It is time.