Book Review: Nuanced Resolution: A Review of Bernard Mayer's Conflict Paradox
By Linda Brothers
We ombudsmen often find ourselves unpacking conflict conundrums that masquerade as deceptively simple problems. The puzzles we unravel are often embedded within the disputes we seek to manage; we may not even be aware of these deeper puzzles until they pop up, unannounced, as we attempt to resolve a presenting dispute. For instance, we may respond to a visitor’s request for a facilitated conversation with her roommate only to discover, after additional conversation, that the visitor has no intention of speaking with her roommate at all. Or we may negotiate an agreement between an employee and his supervisor, then find ourselves reacting with concern when the employee willingly agrees to be bound by provisions in the agreement that are illegal and/or unfair to the employee. In such cases we perceive a disquieting tension between the outcome and some aspect of the resolution process. Although we use our skills as conflict practitioners to mitigate problems and improve the conflict situation, we are still aware of underlying polarities that influence, and ultimately challenge, the conflict.
These underlying polarities are the subject of The Conflict Paradox: Seven Dilemmas at the Core of Disputes (Jossey-Bass 2015), a new book by Bernard Mayer, professor of Dispute Resolution at Creighton’s Weiner Institute and well-known author of The Dynamics of Conflict and Beyond Neutrality. Mayer has written previously about the layered and intricate complexities of mediation practice. The Conflict Paradox, however, is different because it is a provocative deconstruction of the conflict resolution process itself. The book does so by analyzing what Mayer sees as a series of dichotomies inherent within both how we perceive conflict, and the processes used to resolve conflict. Mayer examines seven basic paradoxes, or “contradictory realities” (p. 268) that reside within conflict; disputes are felt as tensions between: 1) being competitive or cooperative; 2) approaching the dispute from either an optimistic or realistic vantage point; 3) the competing desires to avoid or engage the conflict; 4) holding to principles or seeking to compromise; 5) engaging the conflict through one’s emotions or through one’s logic; 6) neutrality or advocacy of just outcomes; and 7) the freedom of autonomy or the need to be in community.
Mayer uses examples from practice and behavioral psychology to expand on these ideas. For example, in the section of the book on Avoidance and Engagement, Mayer makes the point that we all decide when and when not to engage a problem; sometimes we do this deliberatively and sometimes we unconsciously drift to one polarity or the other. In either case, our decisions will have behavioral manifestations: our “avoidant” behaviors insulate us from engaging the conflict while our “engaging” behaviors deepen our conflict involvement (p. 100). There will also be emotional and psychological manifestations of our avoiding and engaging behaviors that impact how we see the dispute, and contribute to a “conflict paradox” within it (p. 108).
To illustrate his concepts more concretely Mayer includes many practice examples that resonate with the reader. He relates a story from his past in which he and several friends at a New York youth center would get together for a monthly poker game. All the friends, except for John, were at the same level of poker competence. John, the lowest paid member of their group, was a very bad poker player. He also was the only member of their group with a family to support and without a college degree. John routinely lost more money at these games than anyone else, money he could not afford to lose. Attempts to help him improve his game were fruitless. The friends increasingly felt they were simply taking away John’s money, and the situation became painful for them. The group also felt, however, John would be hurt if they discussed their concerns with him. They attempted to resolve the problem by holding their poker games without telling John about them. As might be expected, after some time John asked when the next game would be scheduled. The friends avoided answering him, and soon they stopped meeting for poker. They never discussed their actions with John, and when John got another job some months later they eventually lost contact with him.
Mayer notes that “to the extent we do not deal with someone about the issues or conflicts we have with them, we put boundaries around how close or genuine our connections with them can be (p. 101).” The group’s avoidant behaviors may have sprung from “kind” motives; the impact, however, was not kind. Once the group made a decision not to talk with John about the issue, they also began to make decisions limiting the quality of their relationship: specifically, how truthful and genuine they could be with him. Moreover, the group did not manage to disengage from the conflict. The interlocking relationship between the behavioral and emotional aspects of avoidance, on the one hand, and of engagement, on the other, contribute to an “avoidance – engagement” conflict paradox. The more the group sought to sidestep the conflict through avoidant behaviors, the more they actually spotlighted the conflict by escalating the emotional significance of their actions. Similar to directing someone not to think of something, expending energy on not confronting a problem makes that problem more important, and potentially all consuming, than it would be otherwise. Although the group never spoke with Jim about the problem, the conflict remained a central component of their relationship. The relationship eventually evaporated as the group experienced both diminished connection between its members and unspoken, but ever-present conflict.
The example cited above is only one of many equally insightful case examples included in The Conflict Paradox. One of the strengths of the book is the writing; Mayer has the rare ability to write clearly and simply about abstract concepts. He uses case studies to illustrate his point in a way that makes the book accessible to theoretician and practitioner alike. Moreover, with his clear language and use of case examples, Mayer helps his readers – whether disputants or practitioners - understand how contradictory impulses toward principle/compromise or autonomy/community relate to other conflict situations. I found, for example, that the above “poker night case study” and the “avoidance-engagement” paradox had implications for a spectrum of diversity-related disputes. In that case members of the group did not engage the problem, in part, because they were conscious of their differences in social class (they feared John would react negatively to their belief he couldn’t afford to lose money). This is similar to other conflicts many of us have encountered wherein disputants opt to disengage from the conflict, and ultimately from relationship, when dealing with someone they view as being significantly different from themselves. A white supervisor, for example, may not bring up a performance issue with his Latina employee because he fears he will be called “racist.” In such a case, as in Mayer’s case example, the problem is magnified precisely because it is not addressed.
It must be noted that many of Mayer’s observations in The Conflict Paradox are not new. The tension between the desire to compete and/or cooperate when resolving conflict has been written about by numerous mediation scholars (often when explaining the difference between integrative and distributive mediation). Likewise, Mayer’s discussion of the neutrality-advocacy dichotomy in conflict resolution (e.g., “I need to be neutral but I need to level the playing field between the parties”) has been written about many times by others; Mayer himself also wrote about it previously in Beyond Neutrality. Nevertheless, he has the ability to frame these dichotomies, old and new, as part of an ongoing process that helps us develop a sophisticated understanding of conflict.
Mayer references psychological concepts as grounding for many of his observations. Significantly, early in The Conflict Paradox he discusses Piaget’s theories on human development: in order to mature cognitively one must both assimilate new, unfamiliar, information and accommodate one’s thinking to that new information (p.12). There is a polarity in this process; a child matures cognitively when information is understood, challenged, and recast through a back-and-forth collision of contrasting ideas. In addition, this process of cognitive assimilation and accommodation requires that the child hold multiple and conflicting realities in order for growth to occur.
Mayer draws an analogy between this behavioral progression and conflict resolution. He writes “in a sense, this is what all effective conflict intervention is about – developing a greater capacity to accept the truth in seemingly contradictory realities, needs, and points of view” (p. 13). He is correct. The Paradox of Conflict eloquently makes the point that holding and considering the contrasting polarities within conflict expands our capacity to understand and resolve complex disputes. It helps us to grow and understand different perspectives.