Something Spooky About Conflict

Today many people are dressing up in pretend costumes to get a scare. 

Well, my friends, I am here to tell you there is no need to be afraid of a pretend boogeyman. 

The Boogeyman is real. And he is sitting at the mediation table. 

To be more specific, he is sitting in the minds of our clients at the mediation table. 

Let me explain. When every one of our clients was young they heard a story that roughly involved three characters: 

  • Child (Victim, Damsel, etc.)
  • Hero (Superhero, Savior, etc.)
  • Boogeyman (Bad guy, Villain, etc.)

These three characters form a triangle of roles: 

Note that the triangle falls apart if anyone of these roles is removed.

The Child is dependent on the Boogeyman to feel like there is conflict and on the Hero to be saved from conflict.

The Hero is dependent on the Child to feel like he/she has someone to save and for the Boogeyman to feel like he/she has a purpose.

The Boogeyman is dependent on the Hero to feel like he/she can continue to get away with the conflictual behavior, and dependent on the Child to know that there is someone to take their anger.

Let’s remember that when people enter conflict they often revert, withdraw, hide in their former selves–the self where things were safer and less complex. The self that was tucked in at night to simple bedtime stories. The self that got to be the Child or the Hero. 

When people are sitting at the mediation table it means they are often seeing themselves in one of these roles: Child, Hero, or Boogeyman. And their role only makes sense if they see the other person in the conflict as the Child, Hero, or Boogeyman. 

Often, people see themselves as the Child, they see the other as the Boogeyman, and they see the mediator as the Hero. 

Why is this great? 

It reinforces the client’s expectations, which feels warm and fuzzy.

Why is this not great?

If the client sees themselves as the Child, they feel helpless. Which means they are taking little to no responsibility for their part in the conflict. They are also seeing the other as the Boogeyman, which means they are not willing to see the other as a complex person who might have perfectly rationale reasons for their role in the conflict. And they are also seeing the mediator as the Hero, meaning they are placing the responsibility on the mediator instead of on themselves to resolve the conflict.

So what must a mediator do to begin the conflict resolution process? Slay the Boogeyman, of course!

The mediator must work with clients to take responsibility for their own part of the conflict, begin to understand the other person involved, and take ownership for resolving the conflict. This can be done through reframing and reality testing, and might need to be done in caucus.

Helping the client to give up their role as a Child, or a Hero, or even as a Boogeyman makes them see themselves differently: as a Mature Adult.

The costume for a Mature Adult is not fun, or skimpy, or scary. But it does have some nifty accessories: perspective, long-term satisfaction, strengthened relationships, goal-setting, and peace. 

And who knows? Maybe the Mature Adult gets a slingshot to slay their own Boogeyman sometimes 🙂


(Thank you to Dr. Lesley Cook, Child Psychologist, and Kenneth Cloke, Conflict Author and Guru, for their original thoughts on Prince/Princess/Dragon and Victim/Parent/Antagonist triangles.)


Clare Fowler

Clare Fowler is Executive Vice-President and Managing Editor at  Clare received her Master's of Dispute Resolution from the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution at the Pepperdine University School of Law and her Doctorate in Organizational Leadership, focused on reducing workplace conflicts, from Pepperdine University School of Education. Clare also coordinated… MORE >

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