Comments: The Mediator as Moralist Bully

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Robert Benjamin   05/16/05

Thanks for your kind comment. With your permission, I would like to post your response on-line along with my reaction.

"You have picked up on my primary concerns about the trend in the conflict management field to analyze, label and then decide if a particular kind of conflict is appropriate for mediation. It is exactly my point that "bullying," like it or not, is and has always been present in schools, the workplace, politics and every other human endeavor. That is not to excuse or justify what is often dysfunctional behavior, but rather to acknowledge that the linear thinking that allows some to believe that the "bully" and "victim" are easily identified is both naive and problematic. From a systemic perspective, it is almost always a more complex dynamic. In fact, some contend that in some circumstances, bullying is a constructive and necessary strategy to obtain a result, kickstart a bogged down situation, or as a response in a crisis.

I would offer that not only is mediation suitable in managing many, if not most, situations where the behavior of one person is viewed as oppressive or inappropriate by another, but is one of the most effective and viable approaches to managing such conflicts. With regard to "power and control" issues, they are all too often distilled down to judgments about who has the power and who does not. Most of the time, the understanding of power and control in a conflict must be understoon in a dynamic context and shifts over time and around the issues in question. The power dimension is typically only one aspect of a conflict that is often given too much weight and importance. As I suggested in "Strategies For Managing Impasse" (2004), sometimes mediators' become so pre-occupied with what appears to be a power balance issue, they lose sight of what else may be happening between the parties, which can induce or exacerbate an impasse.

Hope this helps.

Robert Benjamin

Niamh    05/16/05
Hi Robert, Great article. It couldnt have come at a better time as I am doing a MA in UCD (with Delma Sweeny). For my thesis I am looking at the role of mediation in workplace bullying disputes. While much has been written about both subjects very little seems to link the two. I am particularly interested in issues of power and also if anybody has explored whether mediation is suitable for these types of disputes. I would love to read anything you might have done on this area or even any thoughts you may have. I really enjoyed your presentation at the MII Conference and hope you will visit again in the future. kind regards, Niamh Cunningham

Suzanne    05/12/05
Just wanted to thank you for your 'raw' honesty.... so many of us in this field have been touched by conflict and violence and it is SO important to find forgiveness within ourselves and through reflection we need to acknowledge how much of us comes into the mediation 'room' when working with others in conflict. The comments in your article is at the 'heart' of mediation. Honesty with self breeds empathy....Thank you again and Take Care. Cheers, :)

Diane Levin   05/12/05
Robert, great article--very stimulating and provocative. I salute your ability to challenge the status quo. We need more iconoclasts and original thinkers in this field. Your articles are a breath of fresh air for mediators like me. P.S. I used to beat the crap out of my younger brother, too.

Tom Stringer, Santa Monica CA   05/11/05
Having attended one of Robert's seminars, I would like to say that I, for one, had not detected a former bully at work. But I must say that this article impresses me for the author's ability to see himself in his youth. I confronted my own older brother recently about his tendency to bully us younger ones as kids, and he had no idea what I was talking about, no consciousness of himself in that role. I backed off, and resumed my family role as the bystander. Robert's mention of religious texts and the moral judgments they carry brings to mind a recent movie, Kingdom of Heaven, in which we finally have a popular culture hero, an agnostic Crusader, whose climactic act is to negotiate a peace agreement rather than to fight a battle to a violent conclusion. The negotiator as hero! Interestingly, the critics seem unwilling to accept such a hero--too passive, they say--and while foreign audiences have turned out in a big way for it, American audiences have been smaller than expected. Still, it's satisfying to see the narrow-minded characters who think in terms of labels being relegated to the supporting roles. Many thanks for your reminders about the importance of certain qualities in a mediator.

Maxine Baker-Jackson   04/30/05
I have just read the article "Bully" in the current Family Mediator Newsletter and appreciate the thought that you have given to a very sensitive area for me- "making judgements", the need to label in order to perform the "professional magic". In the beginning of my career as a neutral/impartial intervenor( some twenty-seven years ago), the cognitive dissonance that I experienced during the process and the feedback from the parties encouraged me do post- analyses of the interaction during the process. It became apparent to me that in my attempt to be non-judgmental the mind was automatically cataloging certain behaviors, and on occasion , in a response it was obvious that the response was influenced from this "cataloging." My professional education- nursing, social wrok ,and law had contributed to this need to judge- "to diagnose" , then react. In my self searching, it was obvious that I needed to do some cleaning, clearing, and retraining. Finally , I stumbled on "Joy's Way" , A Map for the Tranformational Journey, by W. Brugh Joy, M.D. What captured my mind and soul immediately was : " A beginner's mind is that unencumbered, open, allowing, alert, receptive states of consciousness that experiences any and all things with freshness usually directed only to the totally new. If, for example, an experience is one that a person has had before all memory that is remotely associated with it is held in check and not allowed to color the present moment's savoring and exploration of action, feeling or thought. The moment's interaction is allowed to sparkle in its originality and multifaceted aspects.' In order to maintain the beginner's mind to experience the freshness of the moment, I exercise the three injunctions that Dr. Joy suggests : "Make no comparisons", "Make no judgments", and "Delete your need to understand"( this last injunction does not ask one to delete understanding, it warns against hanging on to the need to understand. Today, I feel comfortable as an intervenor knowing that I continue to work at being available in the moment to truly grasp what is being communicated. Again, THANKS, for the stimulation.