Consolidating Our Collective Wisdom
Best Counsel and Advice to the Next Generation
October 8-11, 2006 at Keystone, Colorado
On October 8-11, 2006 The Keystone Center and Mediate.com jointly convened and hosted a meeting of 106 senior mediators and facilitators, primarily from the United States but with good representation from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, England, and Ireland. Nearly all of those attending had twenty or more years of experience as conflict resolvers and many had additional qualifications as leading thinkers, writers, teachers, and researchers. This brief summary is a synthesis of that meeting and seeks to report on both the substance and process of the gathering. We desire to leave behind a trail for others to follow as discussions on the topics and issues raised inevitably continue into the future.
The statement is not meant to be exhaustive but instead supplements the actual rolling record of the meeting which is located at Attachment 1. A list of those who attended is appended at Attachment 2. Attachment 3 contains the more frequently weighted and discussed propositions. Additional comments from attendees can be found at Attachment 4.
The purpose of the meeting was to “(1) take stock of where the field has come over the past three decades; (2) assess the current landscape and field’s current strengths and weaknesses; and (3) prepare a statement of best counsel and guidance to the next generation of policy-making and policy-influencing practitioners.” Given the short time frame of the meeting, the number of people involved, and a format that emphasized developing “propositions” to guide the future, there was more emphasis on counsel for the next generation than on taking stock or discussing and analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of the field. That task remains for others to do at another time. Still, much of the discussion was informed by a widely shared feeling that, despite considerable growth and institutionalization of the field, mediators and facilitators are not important players in the most pressing and significant issues the world faces today.
In addition to resource materials and “propositions” submitted before and during the meeting, three substantive presentations were made. One focused on the question of whether we are or are not a distinct and unified profession, field, discipline, and calling. The second focused on various social, legal, political, and technological “mega-trends” that may influence or shape conflict resolution efforts in the coming decade. The third focused on the importance of cross cultural perspectives in our dispute resolution work. The agenda and various written and film products on these and related subjects can be found at www.mediate.com/keystone.
The conference ranged across important questions of different sorts and sizes. Many were of an internal nature centering on matters of standards, certification, the growth or failure to grow of various sectors, and the rise, fall, and need for popular support and funding. Others looked outward and focused on why leaders in the political world have not adopted the philosophies and techniques of conflict resolution and how we can, collectively, have greater voice in national and international disputes.
To help organize and discuss the many different ideas and proposals that surfaced, conference organizers utilized an electronic “preferencing” system to help sort and weigh various propositions. A summary of higher-scoring consolidated propositions is found at Attachment 3 and many more ideas can be found embedded in the rolling record (Attachment 1). Readers of this report are encouraged to review both the attachments and the visual and written materials at www.mediate.com/keystone.
Substantive Advice – Ten Challenges for the Next Generation
In general, next generation mediators and facilitators are urged to focus their attention on the following:
1. Stop Dithering and Get Organized (Or Not).
The last two decades have been a time of experimentation, development, and in certain areas, progressive institutionalization. The current community of senior conflict resolvers, however, has not organized itself as a coherent profession, field, movement, or discipline. The next generation must move beyond the seemingly endless introspective definitional debates and either accept as fact that we are not a unified profession or get on with the hard political tasks of organizing it.
2. Put the House in Order.
There is growing concern that none of the existing umbrella organizations have fully lived up to their potential to bring together and unify the various strands and application areas of mediation. Sectored interests in family mediation, court mediation, environmental mediation, and community mediation continue to be strong but effective bridges across these application areas have not yet been built. ACR may still have great potential as a consolidated home for the different strands and applications of conflict resolution but it will need fresh thinking, fresh energy, and fresh strategies.
3. Influence the World.
Although much has been accomplished over the last three decades, those with seniority in the field have been much too tentative and introspective. To have greater impact, the next generation must look for new ways to engage the popular and political cultures and the private, public, and civic sector clients we work with. One formal output towards this end was the following statement which was affirmed with the signatures of most of those who attended:
Given that the world is confronted with real and perceived threats from several international arenas we, the undersigned, urge that citizens of our nations insist their elected and appointed government officials immediately engage in honest, direct and unconditional negotiations with all authorities and powers who can resolve these pending crises in ways that are equitable and practical for all concerned without sacrifice to national sovereignty or security. As citizens of the world and as professional negotiators and mediators we urge that proven conflict resolution processes be employed now.
In addition to maximizing the use of effective negotiation and mediation, the above statement signals both the birth of a nascent International Coalition of Concerned Mediators and the beginning of a more organized effort at bringing civility into our national and international negotiation and conflict resolution discussions. The need to convert real and potential conflicts into mutually productive negotiations grows increasingly urgent.
4. Step up the Quest to Diversify.
The makeup of the community of conflict resolvers is still overwhelmingly white. Good efforts to diversify the field and populate it in ways that look more like our societies have been made but much more needs to be done. Diversity continues to be a major challenge that will face the next generation.
5. Reaffirm the Fundamentals of Mediation.
Although the many practices of mediation seem fragmented from each other and overly self-absorbed on the role of the mediator, an affirmation of certain fundamentals continues to be important. Definitions and philosophies of mediation will always vary whenever and wherever training and institutionalization take place. Nonetheless, at least five principles seem critical. First, mediation is a voluntary and supplementary process and should not be used to substitute for or jeopardize participation in other due process procedures. Second, it should continue to remain a confidential process and efforts to undermine this should be resisted. Third, participation in mediation should be “eyes open” and premised on informed consent. Fourth, specific mediators should not be forced on the parties. Parties must retain a free choice of neutrals (who have adequately revealed any conflicts of interest. Fifth, parties with standing or interest should have full and equal access to a mediation forum to help resolve matters to the highest satisfaction and full self-determination of their own negotiated outcomes.
6. Expand the Intellectual Boundaries of Mediation.
Much of the writing and research about mediation is repetitious, unoriginal, and self-perpetuating in its thinking. It may also be much too focused on the role and stance of the mediator and insufficient in its attention on the parties. The theory and practice of mediation draws from interdisciplinary sources as diverse as economics, psychology, law, business, anthropology, and international relations. As mediation evolves to its next stage, it may best be informed by frontier fields such as neuro-biology, behavioral economics, and advanced systems theory no less than the older wisdoms of ancient philosophers ranging from Socrates, Mohammed, and the Buddha.
7. Utilize New Technologies.
New cyber and cellular technologies offer extraordinary opportunities to assist people in resolving conflicts. Recognizing that technologies can be adapted and used in many ways, mediators and facilitators who do not stay abreast of such developments may find themselves increasingly marginalized and irrelevant. Experimentation and use of these technologies should be encouraged.
8. Encourage Practical Research.
Similar to the greater bulk of the writing that has taken place in the last twenty years, much of the research in the mediation arena has been conventional and unconvincing to decision-makers who control funding and influence the supply and demand of mediated conflict resolution. A new generation of research is needed to more definitively understand its impacts, how and when various forms of mediation are and are not effective, and how various dispute resolution processes can best be effectively and efficiently used towards different ends.
9. Emphasize Cultural Competencies.
Our societies are diverse, multi-ethnic, and cross-cultural and likely to become more so. This requires better understandings of cultural factors and the dynamics that pertain to communication, negotiation, and resolution.
10. Use Our Own Procedures.
As mediators struggle to start or accelerate practices, disputes are inevitable. The acid test of our collective belief in mediation is whether we use it ourselves when personal or professional conflicts arise. If we do not set the example and demonstrate its utility, we should have no expectation that others will find the value we are convinced lies in it.
Comments on the Process
Retrospectively, this seems for many to have been a personally gratifying but overly ambitious and optimistic undertaking. Although there was agreement about at least one problem to be solved – the inability to scale our work up and effectively apply solid negotiation processes to pressing national and international issues – this did not easily translate into consensus about the direction in which we should point the next generation of leaders. Nor did it lend itself to a focused and disciplined process for the discussion. Given that those attending were a collection of people skilled at understanding group dynamics, working with disagreement and facilitating discussion, many were surprised and dismayed that the discussions were often chaotic and unproductive. Perhaps it had to be so. High aspirations, a bold and ambitious agenda, and the excitement of coming to a gathering of “like-minded” people almost guaranteed that the meeting would somehow disappoint. The ten pieces of substantive advice do not really break new ground and could have been written before the meeting.
Still, in many ways the meeting reflected the state of the field today – inspirational, fragmented, confused, passionately idealistic, self-absorbed, overly “mediator-centric,” eager to have an aggregated and collective impact yet lacking in a clear vision or practical strategy for accomplishing that. The conference seemed to mirror the state of things in 2006: a vast reservoir of collective practical experience, lofty ambitions, and the continuing need to meet together, tell stories, engage the questions of the moment, and simply learn from each other. In this way, above all, the meeting was encouraging, reaffirming, and successful for many.
There were also important lessons to be learned about process and format. Ironically, we as process specialists did not apply to ourselves the advice we give to others. We know full well that intelligence, commitment and good intentions do not automatically lead to productive discourse. Had we structured a facilitated process for an analogous group in another field, no doubt we would have composed a more rigorous and tightly-integrated format.
One innovative feature of the meeting was a bold attempt to take advantage of technology to gather proposals, incorporate comments, and structure group discussions. That technology did not properly integrate into the purpose of the meeting. Instead of serving the discussion process, it wound up driving and constraining it. Sometimes the computer based “proposition” format reduced matters that required more extensive and nuanced discussion to linear formulations. At other times the “preferencing” mechanism seemed to urge the group to reach conclusions before discussion had even occurred.
Another problematic feature of the format was the failure to integrate the panel presentations, which were consistently stimulating, into any follow-up discussions among the conference participants. The presentations were provocative and thoughtful but did not connect to the rest of the meeting process or to its final outputs. In addition, electronic preferencing was of course limited to the propositions submitted both before and during the meeting. These turned out to be wildly disparate in subject matter, clarity, relevance, detail, and type. Finally, the group was simply too large and time too brief for the more intimate discussions that are needed to be effective or conclusive on complex subjects.
Submitted on Behalf of the Conference by Its Organizers, Peter S. Adler, President, The Keystone Center; Robert Benjamin, Mediator and Trainer; and James Melamed, CEO, Mediate.com; with great gratitude to Bobbi McAdoo and Howard Gadlin for their assistance in drafting.
November 23, 2006