Bernie Mayer has been encouraging us to stay with conflict (Staying with Conflict, 2008). I recall a mediation experience from five years ago that enriched my understanding of what it means to stay with conflict, and how staying with conflict can be helpful.
Two parents and former spouses were in conflict over what school their daughter would attend. They wanted to be cooperative, but they also wanted what was best for their daughter and they disagreed what that was. At twelve years old, they both felt their daughter was too young to decide for herself. It was a classic and simple conflict.
After about 1.5 hours of mediation they were stuck.
I changed tack and stopped trying to assist the parents to satisfy their interests or resolve their differences. For probably 10 minutes during the crux of the mediation I worked to hold them in their conflict asking questions such as, “What is it like to have this conflict? What are you thinking about each other? How does it compare to other differences in the past?” If anything my questioning increased their frustration: It was all about staying with the conflict.
At some point I asked, “Given you are not likely to resolve this disagreement tonight, what could you do next?” I didn’t ask how to solve the problem, I asked what could be a next step of communication. It was a process rather than content question.
They came up with the idea of talking to their daughter together in an agreed upon manner that would not leave her feeling that she had sided with one parent against the other. Talking to the daughter led to a further conversation between the parents that subsequently led to an agreement.
This was a simple one-session mediation that was a turning point for me. I began to value conflict and impasse in a new way. Encouragement to be in the conflict consciously – even to savour the frustration of the impasse – seemed to have helped. Out of the fire of the conflict a little phoenix arose.
We tend to flee conflict or try to work through it. The suggestion to be with it or feel it more strongly is counter intuitive. Sometimes staying with conflict may be exactly what is needed to find a way forward. Thank you Bernie!