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The Conflict Paradox

The Conflict Paradox

What’s the job of a mediator? Are we there to help parties in conflict find ways of cooperating with each other, make decisions collaboratively or should we be helping them to compete and get the best result they possibly can?

Should we hold firm to the notion of our espoused neutrality and not interfere with the nitty-gritty substantive aspects of a dispute? But what if parties are turning to us for help because they have nowhere else to turn and want our opinions and views about what they could and should do? Are we stepping beyond the boundaries of our roles as mediators by sharing our views or are we deceiving ourselves in thinking we can be truly impartial?

Are we there to help parties engage emotionally with their conflict or are we there to help them temper their reactions lest they lose all rationality and pragmatism?

These are just some of the questions Bernie and I discuss in this interview where we explore many of the themes that dominate The Conflict Paradox.

The Conflict Paradox is Bernie Mayer's latest book and explores the dilemmas we all face regardless of whether we, conflict intervenors, are helping others or are looking for answers to our own conflicts.  The book personifies Bernie's commitment to developing the field of conflict resolution and appeals to the mediator as well as the non-mediator.

Bernie is not just a great mediator and conflict specialist but also a wonderful story-teller. In this interview, Bernie invites us all into his world so that we may reflect on our own journey through conflict.

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Full Transcript

Aled Davies: Hi, everyone. My name is Aled Davies, founder of, home of the passionate mediator or the passionate conflict specialist. This is where we interview the very best thought leaders, practitioners from around the world. We learn about new opportunities in our field, as well as how to develop our thinking, develop ourselves, sharpen our skills, so that we can be more effective at what we do, helping others in conflict.

In this interview, I want to learn about the dilemmas we face as conflict specialists and how to navigate these paradoxes to help us improve our effectiveness. My guest today is an icon in the world of conflict resolution with over a quarter-century of experience in the field. He was a founding partner at CDR Associates, the internationally-recognised mediation and conflict resolution organisation, and originally trained as a psychotherapist.

He’s worked across the globe as a mediator, facilitator, teacher, trainer, dispute systems designer, programme administrator. He’s a true scholar, as well as a leading practitioner in the field. Earning his PhD in social work with an emphasis on conflict resolution, he’s now Professor of Dispute Resolution at Werner Institute, Creighton University.

He’s the author of many works, including ‘Beyond Neutrality’ and ‘Staying with Conflict’, both published by Jossey-Bass, and his most recent work, which will be the focus of this interview, ‘The Conflict Paradox: Seven Dilemmas at the Core of Disputes’. It’s a real pleasure to once again welcome Dr. Bernie Mayer onto Mediator Academy.

Bernie, welcome.

Bernie Mayer: Thank you. It’s very good to be back.

Aled: Lovely to have you back. Really appreciate it. Your last interview was a real success, provoked a lot of discussion and debate, and I’m sure this one will as well.

What I like about the way you write, particularly in ‘The Conflict Paradox’ is the stories that you tell. I love stories. I think we all are engaged by stories, particularly when they are stories that the author tells about his or her own experiences, where they’ve either failed miserably or have cocked-up in some way, but have learned from it. Right? I think it normalises – you think, “Oh. Thank God. I’m not just the only one. Bernie is fallible as well.”

Bernie: We all are, and somebody who only tells you success stories is probably not entirely credible

Aled: Absolutely. Yeah. Well, I read something about people who describe themselves as “serial entrepreneurs” are more like serial killers.

Bernie: That’s pretty dire.

Aled: Yeah.

Bernie: I definitely think that it’s important to learn from your successes, but it’s also really important to learn from where you are not so successful. One of the things I’ve learned over time is I can’t always really tell what’s been successful and what hasn’t been.

You think that things have come out very neatly, only to find out a while later it didn’t hold, and some of the experiences I’ve had where I thought I was a real failure, I found out that that intervention actually made a long-term, very positive impact. So it’s not always obvious.

Aled: Yeah, I know it is. I was just thinking about this interview, as well. Normally I kind of have at least a sort of organised, very loosely, when I say “organised,” but I tend to sort of linearly go through things. I thought we would just parachute into a story to kind of get us into the idea of the kind of tensions between these dilemmas and these paradoxes.

Bernie: Sort of like the Queen did at the opening ceremonies of the Olympics?

Aled: Exactly like that. Just like that. The story I want you to tell and the dilemmas that that presented you is a story about your, I was going to say “your illegal poker racket,” but it wasn’t. It was a poker game. It was a poker evening that you and some of your colleagues had way back when, and a character called Bob or . . .

Bernie: John.

Aled: . . . John. Tell us a little bit about that story and how it relates to the book and the paradoxes and why we need to understand this stuff.

Bernie: Well, because it’s a story in which I completely wimped out. John and I worked together at a drop-in centre for youth in New York City. I think we worked together from 1969 to 1972, or something on that order, on the west side of Manhattan.

I was a social worker. I’d finished my graduate training at that point, and most of the other people who worked there were trained similarly. John was what we called in those days, I guess people might still call it that way, but somewhat diminutively, a “paraprofessional.” He came from the community. He was a very nice guy, but he wasn’t professionally trained, and he was paid less. We all had a male, I might say “only,” poker. No it wasn’t. I take that back. It was a coeducational poker game, and we played together, I don’t know, maybe once a month or something like that, mostly in my apartment in New York City, and John came.

Aled: High rollers?

Bernie: Yeah, really high rollers. I was stuck at making $9,000 a year at the time. As I say, we were paid more than others. He had a family. The rest of us were mostly single. And he was a terrible poker player. What can I say? He was one of these people who could not dare to fold, thought that being bluffed out was a sign of weakness and couldn’t really read the math on the table.

We would often try to point out and say, “You can’t possibly win. Why are you betting? Just look at what’s on the table.” and it wouldn’t work. The game became a matter of taking away money from him and feeling bad about it, and sometimes I think people went down simply to avoid it, and it was really ruining the game.

We didn’t know what to do, so couple of times we just didn’t invite him. I was still working with him at this time. And he said, “When are we going to have our next game?” which was very uncomfortable, and we finally stopped playing. We never said, “John, it doesn’t work. Come and watch, but don’t play. It’s no fun. It’s screwing it up.” We didn’t do it for a lot of reasons, but mostly we didn’t do it because we were trying to avoid the issue.

The thing that was interesting about it was why. What would have been so hard about doing that? In that, also, it actually even, by ending the game, our relationship with him was never quite the same. It felt like we had done something not quite right, a little bit manipulative. We couldn’t quite be straight with him.

On the other hand, we felt he was really being obtuse by not really seeing what was going on. Never talked about that. You know what? Seven months afterwards, he took another job, and he left, and I may have seen him once or twice afterwards, but I don’t know what happened to him.

It was an example to me of what was, on some level, a really silly little issue, was in fact, it had a profound impact on a relationship that was not my closest friend in the world, but it wasn’t unimportant to me.

Aled: Yeah, and of course, the unintended consequences of avoiding it, since we’re talking about avoidance, is that you also stopped a fun activity between a set of friends.

Bernie: Exactly. Exactly.

Aled: So what was the alternative?

Bernie: What you going to do? The alternative was to say . . . I played poker many other times in my life. I considered a form of continuing professional education in negotiation, and I’ve had to do this at other times, not quite as dramatically as that, but would have been to say, “John, for better or worse, you just don’t get it, about poker. This isn’t your thing, and because it isn’t your thing, you’re losing a lot of money, and I’m not feeling okay about it. We’re not feeling okay about it. Come and hang out with us and watch, and maybe you get a little better sense of it.”

He might’ve been upset, he might’ve been angry, he might’ve told us to screw off, but it would’ve been honest, and it would’ve been treating him like an equal. It would have been respectful of him instead of being patronising. Now we felt like he couldn’t handle it, rather than giving him the chance to handle it.

Aled: Do you think it was a case of you thought he couldn’t handle it, or was it a case of you lot couldn’t handle giving him the feedback?

Bernie: Oh. Absolutely the latter was what it was, and what were we really afraid of? I think when we think of the many different times we don’t want to say something to someone . . . I do an exercise in classes I teach based on a real-life incident, with a colleague of mine, some colleagues of mine, where a bunch of people have to tell somebody else they don’t want to drive with them. They’re not a safe driver.

It’s amazing how people will avoid just saying it, or if they say it, how they say it by saying, “Your driving sucks. I’m never going to drive with you again.” That’s a form of avoidance too, I think, rather than just being straight about saying things. Again, that, similar to the poker incident, is not the biggest deal in the world. You don’t want to be driving with somebody you’re unsafe with, but telling them that is not like telling them they’re a liar or a cheater, incompetent, sexist, racist, and those are important things to be able to say too, find a way to say it too.

So what are we afraid of? The interesting thing is, it is a form of avoidance that points also out to how we’re engaging in other ways. Every time we decide to avoid something, in a sense we’re setting up another conflict.

In order to successfully engage in a conflict, we have to choose what elements of it to avoid. This is one of the chapters in the book, the “Avoidance and Engagement” chapter. I often feel like, as somebody who’s either coaching somebody in conflict or mediating, or as somebody in conflict myself, it’s a continuous process of saying, “What do I engage in? What do I avoid? What do I take on? What element do I not?”

I think we’re sometimes misled by some of our conflict styles tools where people are either engagers or avoiders, and I just think that is very simplistic. I think we all engage in conflict, and we all avoid conflict. In fact, we all do it, all the time and at once.

Aled: I want to put the paradox into context then. As a conflict specialist working with other people’s conflict, do I need to help parties decide what to avoid, what to engage in? Do I need to think about my own preferences, what I’m comfortable about?

Bernie Mayer: Yeah, and the way I would say it . . . I agree. Yes. The answer is “Yes.” simply. However, I would say it as, we need to help them think it through, and we need to think it through for ourselves. But it is how do we walk the path of engaging with avoidance?

You can think about every turn as a turn towards engagement in one way and avoidance in another. How do we walk that path? Anybody who comes to us has to some extent decided to engage in something, but they’ve also come to us partly because they’re avoiding some of the consequences of doing it without help, which is a wise thing. So those are engagement-avoidance decisions.

Aled: So when we reach those junctions on that path, how do we decide to turn right or left or go straight on? Well, yeah.

Bernie: Right, left, straight on? Anybody walks a lot of paths in the wilderness knows that they tend not to be straight on very much, unless it’s across a desert or something. Well, I think it gets down to what are we really trying to do? What’s our purpose here, and what are we afraid of? Sometimes there are things we should be afraid of.

Everybody who’s dealt with somebody that has to deal with domestic violence or sexual harassment or predation knows that you can’t engage everything. Sometimes avoidance is your only way of surviving.

But what are you trying to accomplish, what are you afraid of, and what’s at the heart of what’s important?

So if I am negotiating a divorce, and I am very concerned about my ex’s use of substances and how that will impact our children. If I’m going to really focus on that, I’m going to have to find of bringing that up in a powerful way but one that really focuses on the real issue, which means there’s going to be a lot of stuff I need to avoid.

What often happens for people is they avoid, they avoid, they avoid, and when they finally take on an issue like that, everything comes out, and you lose the essence of what’s important.

So I think it’s continually a matter of what’s important, what do we need to deal with, what’s the message we want to get through, what are the consequences, one way or another. Based on that, what’s the right way of integrating what we avoid and what we engage?

Aled: Yeah. I guess also, at some stage, there are some . . . I mean, you talk in that chapter about, I think it’s in that chapter, about some ethical sort of boundaries or moral . . .

Bernie Mayer: Dilemma.

Aled: . . . dilemmas. Yeah.

Bernie: [inaudible 00:16:07] talk about chapters, but that one, for example, if somebody comes to us, and it depends what our role is, but let’s say we are . . . Just say we’re “an advisor,” saying that there is a professor who’s seriously sexually harassing them and others, but we absolutely want to keep that quiet. Now, this is a moral quandary here.

We have an obligation to the person who’s talked to us, but there’s a larger danger out there. We’ve dealt with that as a profession with child abuse, with domestic violence, with threats to commit harm to others. What to avoid, what to engage and when it’s all right to support avoidance, when we have to help people really get over their avoidant tendencies.

Knowing that if I, as an individual, do report somebody for harassing me in a dangerous way, I could suffer serious consequences. The statistics on what happens to people who report that are not good. So that raises a lot of ethical challenges.

Aled: Yeah. Okay. Tell us about some of the other paradoxes in the book.

Bernie: All right. I want to talk about this, this month’s issue of Scientific American, and the lead story is called “How We Conquered the Planet. Our species wielded the ultimate weapon, cooperation.”

One of the chapters is on competition and cooperation, and we actually know, as a field, more about this, and we’re more conscious of this one, than a lot of the other paradoxes. It’s amazing to me how central that is to all evolution and to all human development, as well as to our work in conflict.

So if I may read just a short quote from it, the author quotes a study by Sam Bowles, who’s an economist at the Santa Fe Institute who said . . . [inaudible 00:18:34] quote, “An optimal condition under which genetically-encoded, hyper-pro-sociality” in other words, extreme cooperation, “can propagate is, paradoxically, when groups are in conflict. Groups that have higher numbers of pro-social people who work together more effectively and thus out-compete others and pass their genes through this behaviour to the next generation.”

So if I can translate that, I hope it’s clear, if I can translate that, he’s saying, fundamental reason that we have come to dominate the planet is we’re better at cooperating with people who are not related to us. And why is it important? Because it helps us to compete. And how did this develop?

When resources became more limited due to a climate shift many, many years ago, like thousands of years ago, like 14,000 years ago or something like that. We had to be able to protect resources to compete with those who wanted to get it, and those who had developed this genetic capacity to cooperate more effectively, were better at competing. That ultimately led us to dominate the planet, to wipe out our competitive humanoid species, etc.

To me, that little scientific sense, and there’s a lot of other stuff that’s been written about this too, that scientific element of it is at the heart of everything we do in conflict. I think we often think that our job is to help people cooperate more effectively, and it’s not.

Our job is to help people cooperate compete more effectively. It is to help people integrate that. If we are out there as the people who are advocates of cooperation, as opposed to the advocates of helping people be more effective in conflict, we’re going to be isolated and be used much less than then we could be used, and paradoxically therefore, we won’t be able to help conflict move forward in a more constructive way.

Aled: I’m trying to get my head around that. So if we see our roles as helping people cooperate, rather than helping people compete . . . I don’t think that’s what you said, is it?

Bernie Mayer: No. That’s what we think, though. We so often put out there, “Nonetheless, we’ll help you cooperate.” but that’s not the way the world works. In any serious negotiation, there is an element to use negotiation [inaudible 00:21:16] that is integrated, that is looking to enlarge the pie. But there is a distributed element, as well, which is to divide that pie up, and they are not disconnected from each other.

We can nicely talk about the way of working on mutual interests and joint gains, and we should, but we have to also be aware of the part of it that is all right [sounds like 00:21:43], but there’s also ways in which we want something for ourselves.

In order to get something for ourselves, and for you to get something for yourself, yes, we need to, at some point, enlarge the pie. But at some point, and there’s a technical word for that, we call it “pareto optimality,” that that pie isn’t going to get any larger. In fact, if we can’t help people do both elements of it, we will be used much less often.

So why do so many people want to value [sounds like 00:22:15] of mediators? Because they think all the facilitative, transformative, cooperative-type mediators are naive, that it’s really a hard-nosed world about competitiveness. Well, of course, that’s naive too. It is about both.

The genius of what we have to offer, whatever our role is, is that we can help people do both, and in the process, we can be more constructive in how we engage in that process.

Aled: I get it. I guess that links, segues nicely, into the neutrality advocacy paradox. Tell us about that one.

Bernie: This is one that’s particularly about conflict intervention. It can apply to all of us in conflict whether were intervenors or not, but that’s particularly an important one for intervenors. Whereas most of the other paradoxes apply to all of us in conflict, as well as intervenors.

That gets back to our last interview a little bit, about neutrality too. I think that we think that a critical defining factor of who we are, as third parties, is our neutrality. Yet, in no sense, except aspirational, are we really neutral, and that term itself is very confusing to people.

What people want from us when we intervene in conflict is they want to be helped. And they want to know that we care about them, and they want to know that we care about them achieving their goals, their legitimate goals, you could say, I suppose, but their goals. And they want us to have some objectivity, some perspective, some dispassion. That’s true whether we are advocates or mediators, whether we are in a third-party role or in a ally role.

In fact, unless we are able to convey both elements, that we are able to take a dispassionate view, to not get completely bought into the conflict, to look at the broader picture, to understand and help people understand not only where they’re coming from but enough of where, what they see as adversaries, are coming from, so that they can craft a more effective approach.

At the same time, that we genuinely care about their circumstance, not just in some abstract, objective way, but on an emotional level as well. Then we’re not going to be completely accepted into their lives if we can’t do that, and we won’t be very effective.

There are particular aspects to this as to what our particular role is, whether we’re third parties or advocates, for example, but it’s true for all conflict negotiators [sounds like 00:25:21].

Aled: I’m beginning to think that these paradoxes, it’s as if they’re things that we must value, components of . . . These are not options for us. These are components of a system that we need to really understand how they integrate with each other and how to bring them together in the work that we do.

Bernie: Yeah. I think that’s right. Our values and beliefs and purpose is extremely important. I think we sometimes mistake commitment to our fundamental values and beliefs with a commitment to specific approaches.

So why is it that I value being impartial or neutral? Well, that isn’t really my value. My value is to be honest, to be authentic, to be transparent as possible. As I’ve often said, all of our ethical guidelines, as professionals, come down to saying, “We are who we say we are. We will do what we say we will do.” It’s to be straight with people.

But it’s not like what’s particularly important to me is that I’m neutral, because I don’t even know what that means [inaudible 00:27:01]. Does that mean I have no beliefs? Does it mean I don’t like one side more than the other? Does it mean I don’t do something that might advantage one side more than the other? Does it mean that I have no structural relationship, means I would benefit with one side more than the other? I think if that’s the case, we fail.

As I say, the only meaning that really makes sense to me is what I would call “aspirational.” If it means that I don’t intend to advantage one side at the expense of the other, if I’m in a neutral role, whatever that means, again, then that makes sense. But otherwise . . . you know, I sometimes do things that help one party. I sometimes do things that help another. If I try so hard to be neutral, that I’m not going to help one side or another, that too helps one side versus another. Usually, it helps the most powerful side.

Aled: So how do we integrate these two . . . I was just thinking about neutrality and advocacy within the role of a conflict specialist. How do we integrate those two sides? Do we integrate them?

Bernie Mayer: Well, let me speak from the point of view of a mediator. So if I’m a mediator and you and somebody else are clients, and I say to you, “Okay. I’m here to help you have the conversation you need to have, for each of you to say what you need to say, to get into the discussion you need to get into, to see what issues you want to tackle, and to approach what agreements make sense to you, if possible.

“I will listen to both of you. I will do my very best to make sure you each have a chance to be heard and to hear each other. I’ll do my very best to do that, and we’ll go forward.” Now, that sounds like a completely neutral statement, but there’s nothing in there about neutrality other than that I say, “It applies to both of you.”

It says that I’m going to help you be an advocate, and if you are shutting up somebody else by interrupting them all the time, I’m going to be their advocate. I’m going to say, “Hang on Aled. You need to let them speak.”

“But what they’re saying is a lie.”

“Well, maybe so, and you still need to let them speak.” You know, I’m being an advocate in a sense.

I haven’t said, “I’m going to be a neutral. I’m going to be an advocate.” I haven’t said, “I’m going to be multi-partial.” I haven’t said, “I’m going to be all of your advocates.” I’ve tried to take an integrative approach.

When any particular intervention happens, I tried to take an integrative approach to that too, because I don’t say, “Aled would you shut up and quit being such an asshole”? Although, I’ve been tempted to say that to people at times. I say instead, “You may not like it, but you need to hear what they have to say, and then they need to hear what you have to say too.”

Aled: It sounds like, then, somebody needs to redraft the mediator code of ethics.

Bernie: That’s right. I think it needs to say that we are there to help. Let me ask you. What’s your fundamental purpose when you walk in the room as a mediator?

Aled: My fundamental purpose is to help the parties have productive conversation.

Bernie: Bingo. It’s mine too. That’s almost exactly what I would say. So in order to have a productive conversation, you have to do more than just be neutral. You have to be engaged. You have to be an active participant. That’s [inaudible 00:30:48] of having productive conversations.

Aled: It’s interesting, so I’m integrating now, I’m thinking about the avoidance and the engagement, but also neutrality and advocacy. So you could say that being neutral, in one sense, is actually avoiding taking up your role to facilitate a productive conversation.

Bernie Mayer: I think that’s the way it appears to a lot of people, and in a lot of linguistic traditions, the concept of neutrality sort of translates to “do nothing”. Like being in neutral in a car. It is absolutely, for a lot of people, it feels like avoidance, and for a lot of us, it is.

If I don’t want to get involved in a political debate, for example, who should be the leader of the Labour Party right now, which I know is going on there, I can say, “Well, I’m neutral.” What does it mean? That translates to a lot of people, “I don’t care”, and it’s why people are sometimes suspicious of us.

Aled: Yeah.

Bernie: And should be, by the way, sometimes.

Aled: Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah.

Emotions and logic, I’m trying to understand . . .

Bernie: I’m trying . . .

Aled: Go on.

Bernie: I’m trying to go through some of these . . . Sure. You know, that’s been an area where there’s been an awful lot of interesting neurological research, one of which says . . . you know, we often think they are two different processes, that they even reside in two different parts of the brain, but in fact, emotions aren’t located in one part of the brain. They kind of work throughout the brain.

Logic doesn’t work without emotions. The work of Antonio Damasio, who’s a neuroscientist, he’s written a lot of books, but one of which is called “Descartes’ Error”, has done these studies with people where the part of their brain that processed emotions was damaged, and found that people could still be totally rational . . . For example, I [inaudible 00:33:09] say, “Do you want to go out to an Italian restaurant or an Indian restaurant tonight?”

You could do the pros and cons of each, but you couldn’t make a decision. You need access to your emotions to apply your logic to the real world, and emotions need access to logic in order to also be able to help guide us through the world. And emotions are a guide. Logic is a guide. They’re an integrated guide.

So when somebody says to you, “All right. Let’s keep the emotions down here.” or “Let’s just be rational,” they’re basically saying, “I want the rationality that I attach my emotions to, to prevail.” In fact, what we’re trying to do is bring emotions and rationality together on the table in a productive way.

So what is the real problem with somebody being emotional? Is it that they use it as a . . . No. Let me take that back.

Is if it is used in a way that shuts down conversation. It shuts down interaction. You want emotions to come onto the table, to be used effectively. Sometimes it might have an immediate conversation-stopping effect. But for the long-term effect of it to be to help people engage with what’s really going on, both for themselves and for others.

A lot of times, I think, what mediators think is that first you deal with the emotions, and then you can be rational. Sometimes I think you first deal with the high-level of emotional energy, so then you can integrate it more. But you’re always trying to help people do both.

So watch somebody trying to make a decision as to whether to accept an offer, whether you’re a negotiator or a mediator or whatever. It is not a simple, rational process, even if they think it is. Their emotions are very much at work.

Aled: So just thinking about, in that scenario, someone struggling to make a decision, you say, “Hold on a second. Let me just get a bit of flip-chart paper out and whip together a decision tree for you. That should help.”

Bernie: Well, and it might. But it might also be important to say, “Well, let me do this,” lay it out, and then say, “So how do you feel when you’re looking at that?” which is a very different question, of course, than, “What do you think?”

I think one of the best tools we can use is to use feeling words about what we think our rational processes and rational words around what we think are feeling processes.

So for example, when you get really upset about something, and I say to you, “Okay. Why don’t you explain to me what’s going on that’s upset you so much.” That is a very rational question about a very emotional process. When someone makes an offer, I think it’s often very helpful to say, “I want you to think about that, and after you’ve thought about it for a while, tell me what you feel about it [inaudible 00:36:17].”

What have we done? We’ve asked people to integrate [inaudible 00:36:21], and that’s very valuable. There’s lots of evidence, neurologically, that it is. But we have to overcome people’s thinking that one’s emotional and the other’s rational.

Aled: Yeah. Bernie, why write this book?

Bernie Mayer: Oh. I want to give you an emotional answer to that. Because I felt I had to. I’ve had an experience after almost every book I’ve written, saying, “All right. Now I’ve said what I had to say. I’m done.” and something starts happening, and I start thinking about something. I start thinking about it for a while, and then I feel like it’s important to say.

So anybody who, and it comes out of research and reading, my experiences and some tests I’ve done integrating my practice with teaching my practice, and all sorts of other things.

But in a way, anytime you write something like this, it’s a supreme act of arrogance, because you think you have something to say that that other people should want to hear, but that’s what I thought.

What really came to me, which I really struggled with, which was underneath this book, and I struggled with it in different ways over the years and I’ve tried to address in different ways, is what do we do that makes a difference? What really makes a difference for people? What do conflict intervenors do that makes a difference?

Clearly there’s a lot of things we can say we do tactically. We separate positions from interests. We explore the motivational basis of what people are doing. We hear people. We’re empathic. We do all sorts of stuff. But in the end, I think what makes a difference is that people understand themselves in conflict differently, and as a result, they can understand others differently. It’s like the old saw, “Take a look at yourself so you can look at others differently.”

So the more I thought about that, the more I realised, all right, I think when I’ve really made a difference, even a little difference, people started thinking about things just a little differently.

So what is it? The more I thought, and the more I read about it, the more looked more basically into human development, into evolution and some of the brain-side stuff we’ve talked about. What we know about economics, the more I realised that the unifying themes seem to be that we create these bifurcations that are really not bifurcations, but are paradoxes. In the sense that A is true and not A is true, and that both those things are true.

And that when people can begin to understand, even if they don’t use that terminology, and they seldom do, they begin to think of things differently. For example, when people begin to have the capacity to use their emotions in a more productive way, all sorts of things begin to change. And to accept other people’s emotions in a more productive way, all sorts of things begin to change.

Aled: Yeah. Where do you think were going to be challenged more? Around which of these paradoxes are we going to be challenged most?

Bernie: Ironically, we haven’t talked about that. I mean, all of them are challenging, and we’ll always deal with this competition and cooperation, for example, but I think it’s about community and autonomy. We are, perhaps, hardwired, although that’s a funny concept. It may be a bad concept.

We’re certainly programmed, in many ways, to think of community in terms of the size of clans, of tribes, of smaller communities. As a result, we’re not able to make decisions that need to be made if we’re going to survive as a species, if you’re going to avoid calamity in the future.

We have to be able to think of our community in a lot broader ways than we now do, because the decisions we have to make, about climate, for example, about how do we work together with people who are from what we experienced to be profoundly different tribes, will have an awful lot to do with how we prosper on this planet, or whether we even do.

And I don’t know what the end result of it is, but that is about the sense of being able to see our autonomy, within the ever increasingly powerful communities. And our autonomy as individuals, our autonomy as families, our autonomy as clans, we have to be able to see it in terms of how we prosper as a species, how we prosper as a world, how we prosper across multiple generations.

We seem to be able to make decisions based on the next generation, perhaps, but we don’t do very well beyond that, and whether we can expand that capacity is extremely important.

Aled: Yeah. This isn’t a book just for conflict specialists. This is a book for anyone on the planet interested in developing their thinking in this space.

Bernie Mayer: I think so. I think that was true of “Staying with Conflict” too, which was about how we deal with long-term conflict. So yes. I use the tools and sometimes align with the conflict specialist, but I think it’s totally accessible.

Aled: Yeah. So what’s your hope? Someone putting the book down, what would your hope be that they would be thinking, doing?

Bernie: Besides telling all their friends to buy the book?

Aled: Yeah.

Bernie: I would hope that they are made to think a little harder about some of these things, that’s all. Their thinking will take them wherever it will take them. I hope it will take them to a more complex way of thinking, because I think the more complex our thinking becomes, the more poignant [sounds like 00:43:10] our interactions in conflict become.

Aled: It’s interesting, Bernie, the more interviews that I do, the more I realise how little I know, but also, the more I realise how broad the field is. I think when I got into mediation, it’s a bit like investing in a toolkit. There’s a box with . . . you open it up, and there’s some tools in it.

I’m seeing mediation more through that sort of lens now and recognising that there is a much broader, not just tools but manuals, how to use the tools in the right way.

Bernie: So, Aled, let me ask you something. When you did your introduction, you described yourself, this place, and I loved it, as “the home of the passionate mediator.”

Aled: Yeah.

Bernie: Tell me about that, because to me, the passion is the key to it.

Aled: The passionate mediator. I think tables are turning, right?

Bernie: Turn it back whenever you want.

Aled: You’re good, you are. You’re good. I’m going to flip it around, because in one of your chapters, you talk about being a conflict avoider, being, on the one hand, a conflict avoider and on the other hand an activist, or something like that.

I can relate to having similar sort of a sense of part of me being a conflict avoider, not enjoying conflict, particularly the real sort of violent manifestations of it, not just physically. Just aggression and people using power to get what they want and just feeling uncomfortable about that. Also, another part of me having the courage to kind of speak up when I think it’s important.

I do remember, when I did this mediation training in South Africa, and I don’t know whether it was the training, it was the context, South Africa, the whole Truth and Reconciliation Commission was going on at the time, where my brain was in its development. The stars that were in the sky that night, I don’t know what it was, but something in me thought, “Oh. Really? You can have a productive conversation without it ending in fisticuffs?” I mean, where I grew up, if you had a conflict with someone, there were a couple of ways of sorting it out, and it didn’t involve talking.

So the idea that you could have a productive conversation, even when you felt so strongly that you were right or the other person was wrong, it was just a rev-, . . . That experience has kind of journey forward over the last 10, 15 years, pursuing what I’m pursuing, and I do, I have a belief . . . I genuinely think sitting people down, well, not necessarily sitting them down, but just being able to talk things through. I think we have the capacity as an advanced group of beings to be able to talk about things . . .

I’m thinking about your paradox between community and autonomy. I agree. I think it’s going to be fundamental. Sometimes I think, well, what legacy am I leaving? Every time I don’t recycle an item that is potentially recyclable, I have a whole guilt com-, you know, internal conversation going on, “Oh my goodness. My grandchildren are going to go, ‘So Granddad, you threw this in the bin knowing that in 100 years time there were going to be oceans of plastic.” . . . I have those thoughts every time, which is why I’m a . . . You know.

I don’t know I’m heading now at the moment. But in terms of being the passionate sort of mediator, I think galvanising people, to help people to talk about things in a productive way and the useful way where people can understand where others are coming from. I think part of the drive of Mediator Academy is to kind of bring these resources to a place where people can have a menu of resources. It’s a buffet. It’s a small gasp [sounds like 00:48:18], or whatever, and they can learn, develop their thinking, because all the mediators I meet, people interested in this kind of field, are interested in learning.

Bernie Mayer: So I just invite you to listen to what you just said, because it was a brilliant integration of logic and emotion. It was great. You’re saying the passion is critical. It’s passionate because of our values. You care so much about it, and therefore, you have to help people who come together to be able to think about this stuff in a different way.

I mean, it’s natural. If you really listen to us when we are at our most passionate, but also when we’re our most, in some ways, logical, and when we bring to the fore what is most essential to us. That was great.

For me, I’m passionate about helping people in conflict. Why? Because I think that’s where the world needs me to help people. All of us do. I really love mediating, and I believe it is an incredibly important tool, but it is a tool for helping people deal with conflict better.

The more I’ve kind of said for many years now that I view myself as a conflict specialist, and I approach it a number of ways. The more I kind of looked at that and what that really means and what that implies. I realised it takes us into the fundamental questions and challenges of the human experience, and not just the human experience, but certainly the human experience. That’s exciting to me.

The more we can connect what we do on an everyday level to its roots, evolution, in developmental psychology, in brain science, in human interactional processes, the better we are able to do what we do in everyday life.

So much of what we do is about tools, and that’s fine, but if those tools are disconnected from what the root of the passion is and what the root of the experience is, then those tools won’t be as effective.

So I cannot use a screwdriver or wrench as well as my next-door neighbour who loves doing that sort of stuff, because it’s bred into who he is. Maybe that’s a silly analogy, but you understand what I mean.

Aled: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely. I think when you listen to some of the great orators, some of the great speeches, they seem to fuse together these concepts, these ideas. I must’ve listened to Martin Luther King’s talk I don’t know how many times, but his use of metaphor, he had the ability to integrate some of these concepts into the jangling discords of . . . I can’t remember what, but just in that . . .

Bernie: Well, dissonance is part of the planet.

Aled: Yeah. Yeah.

Bernie: Yes. So great speakers do pull together these things. Two of them we haven’t mentioned yet our optimism and realism, that they pull that together. Just listen to a talk by, I’m not going to get the quote exactly right, but Winston Churchill at a critical point in World War II, I think the battle of El Alamein, said something like, “Now, this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end, but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” What a beautiful way of putting together optimism and realism.

If you’re just optimistic in the face of stuff, you’re not believed, you’re not credible, the optimism doesn’t work. Realism without optimism is kind of empty, and somebody who says, “I’m being the hard-nosed realist here.” means, “I’m optimistic about getting what I want.”

So great speakers combine those things. They combine principle and compromise too, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln. If you just listen to the rhetoric of Obama now about the Iran deal and others, at their best, they’re integrating this stuff. When he talks about race, at his best, he’s being harshly realistic about the problem and offering a sense of optimism that we can make things better, and those are critical to leadership.

They’re critical to fiction, to poetry. They’re critical to great speaking. They’re critical to good drama.

Aled: Yeah. Absolutely. Bernie, this has been inspiring, as always.

Bernie: It’s been, as always, really fun for me to talk.

Aled: I know people watching this will be digesting every word and reflecting on their own practice and their own goals and dreams and aspirations and their current realities and how to navigate that path between where they are now and where they want to be, and do they avoid, do they engage, do they go straight on through the desert? Who knows?

Bernie: Actually, probably most paths in deserts are twisted too. [inaudible 00:54:07] true.

Aled: Bernie, thank you so much for agreeing to do this again.

If you haven’t watched Bernie’s first interview, highly recommend it. There’ll be a link underneath this interview directly to it. And Bernie, just for those that haven’t seen that yet, that want to get in touch with you and reach out, I know quite a few people did after the last interview, what’s the best way of haranguing, harassing you?

Bernie: Well, Bernie Mayer, B-E-R-N-I-E M-A-Y-E-R Creighton is spelled

Aled: Okay.

Bernie: Or you can Google me, and something will come up.

Aled: Please, just drop Bernie a line. Say “Thank you.” Order a signed copy of his book. That’ll increase the value by at least a few bucks.

Bernie: Honestly, when people ask me to sign a copy, I’ll charge less for the book.

Aled: Bernie, I’m going to be the first one again to say “Thank you.” Thank you so much for your time, your insight, your wisdom, and I really look forward to the next book.

Bernie Mayer: Thank you.

Aled: Thank you, Bernie.

About the mediator

Bernie Mayer Profile Pic

Bernie Mayer, Ph.D. is Professor of Dispute Resolution at The Werner Institute, Creighton University. He is without doubt a leader in the field of conflict resolution. Considered by many in the field of conflict resolution as an icon, Bernie has over a quarter century of experience in the field and was a founding partner at CDR Associates, the internationally recognized mediation and conflict resolution organization. Bernie originally trained as ... View Mediator