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What is Conflict? A Mediator’s Perspective

What is Conflict? A Mediator’s Perspective

In this interview I go back to basics and seek answers to some fundamental questions to help improve my understanding of what conflict is, the causes of conflict and how it escalates. What I get is far from basic in this insightful and thought provoking interview with seasoned mediator Andrew Acland. Andrew’s experience of conflict resolution goes back well over 20 years, starting out life as a political analyst specialising in areas control and East West relations before becoming a full-time mediator.

In the interview we explore some of the causes of conflict and delve into issues of cultural difference and power where Andrew draws on his experiences of establishing and facilitating dialogue between Peruvian indigenous community leaders, local and international environmental and human rights pressure groups and a multinational energy conglomerate. In this case study Andrew illustrates how creative and flexible mediators need to be to design processes that bring parties together and get a dialogue of a different kind going. We learn how uncertainty causes conflict, fear and anxiety and the vicious cycles people get caught up in.

What is conflict? It's a big question I know and it's well worth watching the interview to listen to what Andrew has to say. In the interview Andrew provides such a useful explanation of what conflict is, one that I could see myself using to describe to parties that come to mediation - something I've never thought of doing until now but can see the value in doing so.

We also explore the different stages of conflict and learn why it's so important to take, what Andrew calls a 'designer approach' to conflict resolution - treating every single conflict as unique as well as every intervention. This designer approach is certainly evident in the way Andrew approaches his work today as I learn about process design for complex multi-party stakeholder facilitation.

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Full Transcript

Aled: Hi everyone. My name is Aled Davies, founder of, home of the passionate mediator. If you’re a conflict resolution practitioner and want to develop your thinking, learn brand new skills, even sharpen old ones, then this is the place for you. We track down thought leaders and experienced practitioners from around the world and for 60 minutes try and get answers to some pretty important questions so that you can improve your effectiveness, develop your thinking and sharpen your skills.

All right. The big theme of today’s interview is conflict. What is conflict, what are the causes of conflict, how do cultural differences cause conflict, what are the stages of conflict? Whilst I think I intuitively know all of this stuff, I don’t think I’ve ever stopped to give it a thought. I just take these things for granted, but I’ve no doubt that my guest today has given it plenty of thought.

He began his working life as a political analyst, specializing in East-West relations and arms control. In 1985 while working on the staff of the then Archbishop of Canterbury, he acted as assistant to the Archbishop’s envoy, Terry Waite, during a mission to negotiate the release of British hostages in Libya. He subsequently worked for a Swiss intermedial organization in South Africa.

In 1990, his first book, “A Sudden Outbreak of Common Sense: Managing Conflict Through Mediation” was published while he was ADR group’s first director of mediation.

Following a semester as a visiting professor at the Institute of Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University, he began his freelance career working nationally and internationally with businesses, governments, non-governmental and civil society organizations to design and facilitate dialogue on many controversial issues such as the transport of nuclear waste, decommissioning of off-shore installations, industrial development in environmentally sensitive areas, climate change, corporate social responsibility and many, many other things.

Today he specializes in designing and facilitating stakeholder dialogue and consultation processes in complex, multi-party, multi-issue contexts often with environmental and social sustainability dimensions. He’s a founder of dialogue by design and is also a dialogue and engagement specialist for Sciencewise.

It’s a real pleasure to welcome Andrew Acland onto Mediator Academy. Andrew, a warm welcome.

Andrew: Thank you Aled. Very good to be here.

Aled: Wow. What a CV. What a story.

Andrew: Well, yes, all by accident of course. No one ever plans a career like this, I don’t think.

Aled: I interviewed Bill Marsh a while ago and the title of the interview was something like, the Double 07 of Mediators, but I think I’m going to take that title away from Bill Marsh and you’ve got that title now. That was…

Andrew: No, I would not remotely take that away from Bill. It’s entirely, highly appropriate for him. I think it’s very good. I will tease him about it next time I see him.

Aled: All right. I want to find out a bit more about the work that you currently do as a stakeholder, dialogue process designer. I want to know a bit more about what exactly it is, what does it look like and so on. I also want to get into the nitty gritty of conflict. Before you even get there, tell me a little bit about your experience as a… working on the staff of the Terry Waite’s… Accompanying him on all of his missions and getting involved in the release of hostages. I mean, that is just mind blowing. How do you get into that and what’s it like?

Andrew: Well, again, by accident. I was the Archbishop’s… This is 30 years ago, Aled so forgive me if some of the details escape me. I was on the Archbishop’s staff doing classical staff work. Answering correspondence, preparing speeches and lectures. All that sort of stuff. In the middle of this, Terry developed this role as going off to try and deal with these problems around the world. Libya got complicated so I got a call one evening saying could I be on the next plane to, I can’t remember even where it was now. Tripoli, I think. We spent an interesting couple of days trying to deal with this problem. It was all rather… it was very much on the spur of the moment and I had no idea that it would finally clinch my career for me.

Aled: At the time, do you remember… Was it one of those experiences that just feels like you are travelling at a hundred miles an hour in a wind tunnel or whatever? Or did you have time to pause and think about what you were getting into and then… Were you able to draw upon some of your knowledge, theories and apply them or was it just seat of the pant stuff?

Andrew: I would say that it was absolutely seat of the pant stuff. Yes. That was about it. I had no idea what I was getting into. For the time it lasted, which was only a few days, it was very much seat of the pants. Slightly nerve wrecking of moments, I have to say. Long time ago.

Aled: I can imagine. Fast forward now, 30 years and you’re now getting involved in some fairly substantial processes. Stakeholder facilitation processes. Tell us a little more about the dialogue design process. What exactly is it. What does it look like?

Andrew: What does it look like? Well, imagine that you have somewhere in between say 20 and 100 people who need to have quite a complicated conversation about a complicated subject.

Let’s take one of the examples you gave. Like the transport of nuclear waste or development in an environmentally sensitive area, you have anything up to 20 or 30 different parties ranging from government working within certain statutory requirements to commercial organizations who may have an interest in development for example, to local pressure groups who may be looking to safeguard their communities’ interests, to small pressure groups who are working on upholding certain principles and standards, concerned about adjusting to equity and things like that.

You have all these people and you know that the object is to try to bring them to at least a mutual understanding of where they are coming from or what they are trying to achieve. Unlike lots of legal and commercial mediation, there isn’t a deal as such to be done. There is the improvement of understanding, perhaps the hammering out of certain protocols or certain things which people will do or won’t do.

The question is actually, how do you have a conversation with 100 people? How do you get into the subject? How do you get everybody talking about the same issues at the same time? How do you make sure people who are may be less inclined to speak, may be inhibited in some way because of their educational background still have a chance to put their point of view.

How do you prevent the heavy hitters from dominating the conversation? What combination of small group, large group work actually gets you to the point where people are really talking to each other and are really beginning to find ways forward in this situation?

Process design is simply the case of working out about 100 ways how not to do it and trying to come up with one which might work.

Aled: It sounds incredibly complex. If I was to take just a typical mediation, I’d give a lot more thought to the process today than I would three or four years ago. But still, it sounds like the success or failure of your intervention of the meeting really comes down to how well you design the process. Is that right? Is that a fair assessment?

Andrew: I think it does actually. I think the reason why, compare with say doing a two or three party mediation, it is more complicated, simply cause you got many more people, many more points of view and very often quite a constrained time frame. You have to use the time as effectively as you can to get to wherever you’re going to.

Process design is absolutely crucial. But one of the great ironies of it is that normally I’m going through a meeting of that sort whether it’s for a day or three days. You probably go through about a dozen drafts of this process and then you discover about 20 minutes in that you made a complete holex and you’ve got completely the wrong point of view. But at least having done your dozen drafts, you’ve already thought about how else you might be able to do it. So if you have to switch track very quickly then at least you have kind of thought about it very thoroughly.

Aled: So flexibility and being… If you are the kind of person that is inflexible, this is not for you.

Andrew: Aled, there is nothing worse than trying to have a wrong approach which everybody in the room is saying, “No. This is not working.” And also you have to remember all the time, of course that it is your participants’ meeting. You are just there to help them and if they really don’t want to do what you’ve spent hours designing then you have to change track. And you have to respect that all the way through.

Aled: I want to come to in a moment, what you have learned by doing this kind of work, because you touched on a couple of things where you’ve got very powerful or dominant, not just personalities, but stakeholders that have positional power or resource power. How you managed those dynamics in a very complex dialogue process.

I’m also curious, if you’ve got such a wide range of stakeholder groups, you’re going to have a broad spectrum of… it’s going to be rich in culture for example, not just social classes but all sorts of cultural different aspects. I’m curious to know how those elements contribute productively or less productively to the dialogue and how they contributed to creating the conflict.

Andrew: I suppose the basis of that is the more cultural difference you have, and not simply between ethnicities or religions or faith or whatever, but the cultural difference between a small organization or a large organization between a government department and a pressure group or between a large commercial business and a local community group, those are also cultural differences.

People make assumptions that everybody works the way that they do. The only way to get past this really, is to slow down and to make sure that when people say things, that it is heard by others in way which it is intended. And if you think there is something which is arising from a cultural difference, you slow down and you explore it and you make sure that there is a real understanding of what people are really saying. An understanding about what is said. It’s a sad sort of fun.

Aled: I bet it is. Could you give an example of where you’ve been facilitating a conversation between a number and it sort of struck in a moment that it appears to be a cultural void between these two groups and you’ve intervened to slow the conversation down?

Andrew: One of the most interesting examples of dealing with a cultural difference, this is probably a bit out on the wings. It really was fascinating and probably not typical. Quite a few years ago I was working with a team, and we were working on a potential pipeline development in quite a remote part of Peru. An oil company wanted to build a pipeline through a jungle which was where the local communities really had very little experience of… Well all of a sudden you have white people, all of a sudden you have white business people riding in helicopters with chunks of pipeline.

Also very unfamiliar with the very, very heavily sort of language base, word base, types of conversation that people were used to. Luckily, we all stumbled to this quite soon. We realized that actually the best way for people to have a conversation was by using visual images.

We managed to find a way of putting up vast sheets of paper and we asked local communities to actually draw a picture of their life as it was and to set out things in relation to each other which actually helped them to explain about their lives and what was of concern to them and where their interests lay and also helped everybody else in the room, which was pressure groups, government, business to also understand the picture from their point of view.

It was great because they were able to explain it visually in a way in which they could not have done if they were just standing up and trying to make speeches.

Aled: That’s fascinating, isn’t it?

Andrew: And that is a way of using cultural difference, actually as a way of enriching the conversation.

Aled: That’s a beautiful example. A real creative…

Andrew: At its best, I think this kind of dialogue process really does have to be creative. You really do have to actually think creatively about it, what is really going to help people talk to each other.

Aled: How do you contract in with… I’m going slightly off [inaudible 00:16:18]. How do you contract in with the parties leading up to a meeting like this? Is there a process of contracting?

Andrew: As I remember it on that occasion, we were working for a small NGO which was specializing in doing this sort of dialogue work. They had been approached, as I remember it, by a development company and then took it upon themselves to make the right contacts out in the field and to make sure… half [inaudible 00:16:55] is actually getting the right people in the room.

You do what is usually called the stakeholder analysis, when you work out actually who needs to be in the room in order for the conversation to be regarded legitimate and valid and to cover all bases. It’s the central part of the preparation for this kind of work. You do start quite a few months in advance with this sort of project.

Aled: Fascinating. Absolutely fascinating. I want to kind of strip it back down to the basics. I was thinking about this interview. I don’t think I’ve really thought about what causes conflict. What is conflict?

I think I’ve learnt some of the theory but when I go into a mediation or when I’m engaging with parties, I tend to… I think I just tend to be more… I’m justifying it now, I think I’m being more present and dealing what’s in front of me. I don’t know whether there must be something that’s good about that, but I’m slightly mindful about being a bit thin on the ground when it comes to my theory of conflict. I want to spend a little bit of time getting your thoughts on what is conflict, Andrew.

Andrew: What is conflict? That’s quite a big question. For me, it is… and I think this comes back in a way to sort of what where we are with this field as a whole. If you take the sort of conflict resolution, conflict transformation field which runs everywhere from putting a mediation clause in a commercial contract, or putting an anti bullying policy into a school, right up to kind of armed intervention by the United Nations, the underlying [inaudible 00:19:06] difference.

For me the vision of this field is that human beings over the last couple of thousand years. I’ve got pretty good at good things, many things we can put space probes onto comets, men on the moon, we can possibly find cures for cancer and all the rest of it. But the one thing we have been very bad at is actually dealing with human differences. You see now what is happening in this hideous tragedy across the Middle East.

People of different cultures, different beliefs, different power structures, different agendas, tearing each other’s lives apart. This has got to be the great challenge for the 21st century. It’s human beings dealing better with the fact of being different from each other. We are not good at that yet.

So that’s one which I think is underlying to me every time I do something, when you are designing a process, I think you have to think about with how are these people different. What do they need to understand each other, about each other in order simply to be able to accommodate their differences or to overcome them, to transcend their differences? That is for me, this is the vision for the future, is dealing with human difference.

Talking about causes of conflict, one which is actually really interesting to me increasingly over the years, is the role which uncertainty plays in difference. For me uncertainty is one of those things which sort of always lurks beneath the surface. When I mean uncertainty, I mean uncertainty about information, about data. What is really going on? What are the facts? And then uncertainty about other peoples intentions. What are other people really wanting to do? What are they trying to get to?

Uncertainty about what else could happen? What else could intervene to change the situation as it is? You have these forms of uncertainty. Wherever you have human uncertainty, the human tendency is to get anxious about it. To get fearful. When you have that you tend to trigger the sort of fight or flight reaction. People either disengage because they don’t want to have to deal with the uncertainty because they’re anxious about it. Or they tend to fight back and they tend to fight out, to try and establish that their certainty is the one that should reign supreme.

Where you have uncertainty, you first have fear and anxiety and then you have hostility because people try and deal with the uncertainty by actually enforcing their will upon others, and of course then where you have hostility, you have conflict and you have more uncertainty because nobody knows what’s going to happen.

This kind of cycle is so common in all sorts of circumstances. The data might be obscured data about climate change or not. Equally it might be about in a local neighbourhood, is what is going to happen when the new road comes in? What is going to happen to the traffic outside my door. This kind of uncertainty does create real problems. The only plus side of uncertainty is that it’s something that everybody has in common.

Sometimes when you have people who are very polarized around something, if you can start by working to reduce the uncertainty for everybody, then you kind of start building up some kind of common ground for them. The reduction of uncertainty becomes a kind of common quest.

Aled: I’ve really enjoyed that description actually because if you think about uncertainty, I interviewed Gerald Monk very recently. Gerald Monk is the founder of Narrative Mediation, co-founder of Narrative Mediation. He talks about enriching the narrative, broadening it out. I see the process of developing the narrative and broadening the parties’ narratives as creating a bit more data and a bit more certainty. It’s as if our job is helping parties reduce uncertainty, reduce anxiety because when you are anxious, you can’t use these, right?

Andrew: Absolutely. That’s the first thing that goes.

Aled: Part of our job as a mediator or a conflict resolution practitioner, whatever we want to call ourselves, is to reduce uncertainty, reduce anxiety. It sounds to me like that’s almost like a helpful frame to work through with parties. Tell me, in the work that you do, Andrew, do you talk about conflict with parties, do you help them understand what’s going on?

Andrew: Oh yes. I think so. I think getting people to understand and acknowledge, the situation they’re in is very helpful because it’s very often something which… conflict is I think a bit of a taboo. People don’t like acknowledging the fact that they are in conflict. One of the things because of that, I would say when I’m training mediators or facilitators, that one of your first obligations is to create a safe space. To create safety for people so that they can talk about the things which are troubling them and feel safe while doing so and that really is terribly important in some situations. You build confidence in people that they are somewhere where they can acknowledge things that which may have otherwise prefer not to.

Aled: It’s a bit like the… is it the Hippocratic oath?

Andrew: Yeah. Thou shalt do no harm. Exactly, yeah.

Aled: Yes. In a sense, “Thou shalt create a safe enough space for you to say what you need to say.”

Andrew: You have to build that confidence. Some of that we go back to process design. When there is very little confidence among the parties, you have to think about what we call, often talk about the visible products and the invisible products. The visible products of a dialogue process is, people come to… they may arrive with a piece of paper or certain protocols or certain agreements to meet again and to have certain conversations.

The invisible products are also very important. Things like trust and confidence, and mutual understanding. Very often if you’ve got people who are in a very polarized situation, you invest time to give people a chance to really understand each other better and having done that you can then begin to talk about more complicated things. In a sense, it’s a process of actually teaching people to talk to people who they’ve never talked to before and maybe even types of people that have no experience with before.

Aled: It is striking how bad we are as a race at sort of handling conflict, really. I interviewed Bernie Meyer recently and he talks about… he’s got these different paradoxes and he was saying that one of the reasons that we’ve been so successful as a species is because we’ve been able to collaborate or cooperate well. Learning how to cooperate with each other enables us to be more competitive as a species.

Andrew: Yes. Absolutely. One of the certain bits of works I do at the moment. I do some work for something called the Partnership Brokers Association which I think is a fascinating initiative which has been around for about a dozen years or so. It sprang out of the Prince of Wales business leaders initiatives. The idea is to train third party partnership brokers using skills which you would… very easily recognizable from mediation, huge, huge overlaps.

These people go out, into obscure bits or Africa or Siberia or the Canadian Arctic or something. They bring together businesses and local government and community groups and they broker, they mediate effectively, partnerships between these very diverse organizations in order to do things like bringing healthcare or education initiative.

This is sort of systematic collaboration. How do you get a massive multi-national corporation working with a very small community group composed with indigenous people. It’s not straight forward. They have different assumptions about how things work. It is an example of just how broad this field is getting. It’s a shame in many ways that these kind of proactive applications of third party skills, mediation, skills are not more widely known about actually. I think sometimes we do very easily slip into silos in this field. You’re either a family mediator or you’re a legal mediator or something, doing something else. We don’t actually talk to each other enough and learn enough about the whole range of work being done across this field.

Aled: There’s a huge absence of… I think we need a body of theory. A real thick, not just a thick…

Andrew: It is out there but it is quite disparate.

Aled: It’s all over the place.

Andrew: It’s all over the place, but so many universities now have courses or departments on peace or conflict, or negotiation or mediation or whatever. There’s a massive amount going on out there. The United States has always been quite lucky. They’ve had organizations which have brought together like associations of conflict resolution. People from different parts of the spectrum to talk to each other. We’ve never been terribly good at doing that in this country actually.

Aled: It is interesting. Bernie Mayer is saying cooperation and competition are not opposite ends of the spectrum. We need to be good at both and if we take that kind of thinking into the field of mediation, if we were better at cooperating as a field, we might be able to not just compete with other dispute resolution, traditional adversarial dispute resolution processes. But mediation could become a real mainstream approach, a default for people. Not just process-wise but actually culturally. I grew up in the Rhondda Valleys and during the miners’ strikes, and the idea that you could talk about difficulty you had with them, it was nonsense. You sorted it out in one or two ways and it didn’t involve talking.

Andrew: I so, so agree with that. With one difference there. I think that mediation always needs to have an education element in it. In a way, the job of mediators, facilitators should actually be in all ways to make themselves redundant to make the people they’re working with so much better at talking to each other, they no longer may need a third party. That would be really the way forward. To make ourselves redundant. Probably not a very popular point of view. But actually…

Aled: I said earlier I don’t edit the video. I might just edit that bit out.

Andrew: No. Don’t even think about it. One of your jobs in what we do, is actually to teach people how to deal with difference, what we said before, or that caused the difference, is actually to make sure that people learn the habits of process, the habits of dialogue and conversation, which actually make them better able to deal with the difference. While we’re on the subject of difference, another great cause of conflict which, I think in the 21st century is the relationship between conflict and change. In a way, you can see your conflict as being about change. The cost of change, the pace of change, who has to change what, who pays for the cost of change, in what currency? That is a huge relationship which people need to understand, I think.

Aled: Yes. Yes. So if we look at conflict then, from the… I’m just trying to understand conflict now. Dealing with human difference and dealing with uncertainty, dealing with change. What are the stages of conflict from where… Something innocuous to I can’t sit in the same room as this individual otherwise I want to launch myself across myself across the table and strangle him. What happens in between. What are the stages of conflict? Can we define those stages of conflict?

Andrew: I think the first thing I would have to say is… I’m getting sort of an echo on the line. Is it all right from your point?

Aled: There’s been a little bit of interference, but it’s… Is it okay?

Andrew: Yeah, it’s fine. It’s suddenly been at this end, I can hear it coming back, but I will ignore it. I just hope it doesn’t screw up the recording for you.

Aled: It should be okay.

Andrew: The first thing to say is that you have take a designer approach to conflict and to intervening in conflict. You can identify the stages of conflict bwhich appear but you’ve got to start with the idea that every single instance of conflict is different from every other and that is because the people driving it are different. There is a real problem in this field with blanket rules, either of analysis or of intervention. Every conflict is a designer conflict.

For some people it might start with a tweet or conversation or something completely out of the blue. For others it will start much more slowly and it will build up over a period of time. It’s difficult to be hard and fast. You recognize it when you see it. The trick is actually for people to understand and almost to sharpen their intuition as to when things are not quite right rather as in a mediation. You get the feeling that you’re missing something.

It’s the same thing, it’s a sort of pricking on the back of the neck which you pay attention to, which tells you more about conflict than any kind of regular analysis of the stages it goes through. Always different, every single one.

Aled: That is true. I was thinking whether one could reverse engineer the conflict. That being almost a process. Parties arrive with the stuff that they bring and whether there was a way of reverse engineering through a dialogue to help them unravel the journey that they’ve been on that led them to this point. And along that reverse engineering path, improve their understanding about how they got themselves into the position and how they might have avoided this impasse or whatever they’ve reached.

Andrew: That’s a really interesting thought. I haven’t thought of it as a form of reverse engineering but you’re right of course. When in the early stages of mediation you give the people a chance to vent a bit and to add a little bit of a shout. Actually, that in effect is what you are doing. You are getting people to tell their stories and I’m in huge favour of people telling their stories, how it is from their point of view. I think that’s an essential part of any form of dialogue process and understand how things felt and were perceived from their point of view.

One of the tensions you often find in any form of dialogue is how much time you spend on the past and how much time you spend on the future. It is useful to visit, to understand how things got to where they are but there is always the danger of getting locked into it and getting so deep that you kind of lose all hope of ever getting out of it. It’s a fine balance between past and future very often. You need to do the past stuff. You need people to understand what has gone wrong, to acknowledge where they could have done things differently perhaps. Equally, you don’t want people wallowing in all the baggage.

Aled: Yeah. It is a fine… It’s almost, the past is where they can learn about how they’ve ended up where they ended up. What they could have done differently, and how they might have contributed unwittingly to the conflict being worse than it needed to. The future is about problem solving, is about finding a way forward, an agreement, not necessarily an agreement but how they’re going to make better choices and better decisions from this sort of junction.

Andrew: Yeah. What they need to do differently in the future. Absolutely. Yeah.

Aled: I was just thinking, the concept of reverse engineering just came to me now, so this isn’t something… which is one of the things that I really like about these conversations Andrew. This is where ideas… and I’m sure it’s because I’m speaking to somebody who is creative and is spontaneous and I’m sure there’s some secret sauce coming through the…

Andrew: Come on, I’m sketching a course already about reverse engineering into [inaudible 00:40:16] resolution.

Aled: But if you’re thinking about explaining to somebody what a mediator does, part of it is reverse engineering your conflicts so that you can see how you got into the mess in the first place so you don’t do it again. But also the other part is helping you build, engineer a future that really works for you.

Andrew: I think that’s right. I think that’s absolutely right. I think to be able to explain it in… One of the things I slightly worry about in legal and commercial mediation is the gradual infiltration of legal or quasi legal or quasi judicial terms which given the original idea of mediation was to slightly get away from that. I do worry that some of the language creeping in is beginning to look a bit formal and a bit too unlike what ADR as the alternative was always [inaudible 00:41:21]. There’s a bit of warning in this, I think. Plain language. Yeah.

Aled: I want to understand as well, what you’ve taken from your training and learning in mediation to the work that you do now, are there any bits that you’ve learned that you’ve left behind or that hasn’t worked for you in the kind of work that you do now? What have you adopted?

Andrew: Wow.

Aled: I put you on the spot a bit.

Andrew: That’s right. Nothing really springs to mind because I think that one of the things you need to do as a mediator is to bring all of your experience together to the table and as I mentioned just now, the importance of your intuition telling you when things are not quite right. This is not a magical sixth sense. The intuition actually comes from the unconscious process and [inaudible 00:42:43] experience and in a sense I think whenever you’re coming to do something, you’re actually bringing the totality of what you have done in the past to it. That is the only way to do it actually.

Aled: What principles of conflict resolution or what principles of mediation do you draw upon that informs the way you work today?

Andrew: For me, I think the most important thing is in many ways to respect the integrity of the parties you’re dealing with. That you may find what they are doing or what they think very different from how you might approach it or how others might approach it. But you have to respect that that is their point of view to which they are entitled and you would work with it. Does that… I think obviously the principles of independence, impartiality. I don’t like the term neutrality which… because human beings are never neutral, there’s always stuff going on, if you’re aware of it or not.

Aled: I want to step in there for a moment. When I asked you that… You talked about respecting the integrity of the parties and the way you said that, and I really got a sense that that was important. Then you said something like and then there’s the independence and the impartiality. What do you think about that. It was almost like cognitive dissonance.

Andrew: It’s because it’s a given. You can’t do this work if you are going to be… One of the first things I say when I’m training people is you have to understand the difference between process and content. Particularly if you are a facilitator, particularly in a very political situation.

This is why the independence and impartiality is such a given. In the commercial world there’s been this long time debate about the difference between facilitative and evaluative mediation for example. Boy, in my world, if you’re evaluative, you’re shown the door very quickly. The twitch of an eyebrow at the wrong moment and you’re out on your ear. You really, really do have to be detached. You would advise on the process but you do not ever, ever express an opinion on the content.

Aled: You might have an opinion but you’ve got to keep that under wraps.

Andrew: I always quote Clement Attlee who was described by one of… he apparently sat on the fence for so long that the iron had entered into his soul. I identify with that really. I don’t have opinions about it and if I do, I don’t do the work actually.

Aled: Okay. If you’re asked to do a piece of work and you feel strongly either way about it and you’re worried that that might interfere with your effectiveness then you step away.

Andrew: Absolutely. Yeah. Anything which is remotely political, any well meaning facilitator whose voice, who gives an indication of an opinion, immediately loses credibility and trust with people they’re working with. You just can’t do it.

Aled: Yeah. I can see that. Where is the future of mediation, Andrew? Conflict resolution. As practitioners, what do we need to be doing, learning, thinking about?

Andrew: Wow. Another big question. Okay. Firstly, I think people need to have a sense of, as I said before, the breadth of the field. There is a danger in being caught in silos and not learning from what people are doing in other parts of the field. That’s important.

Secondly, there is the wider education bit. I also mentioned before. The big job we have really in front of us is in teaching human beings how to deal with difference and conflict. That is as much a role for mediators as is dealing with disputes immediately and in front of us. For that reason, I would like to see the profession having a much higher [inaudible 00:47:49]. I’d like to see pieces in serious newspapers addressing from a third party point of view situations of conflict which emerge all the time.

Now of course not everything can be mediated, we have to be realistic about this. There are groups, there are situations where actually this approach is just not going to work. There are many others where it does need to, where it can be applied. We need to bring ideas like the management of uncertainty into a much broader common consciousness, I think. One of the things which I often find at the end of any training course, people say that the value of this, “I’m going to apply it in my professional life, but gully, it appears to negotiating with my children or my partner or the Parish council or whatever as well.” Absolutely, yes. This stuff is actually about being a decent human being as well actually dealing with disputes.

Those are my three things. Firstly to understand the field itself, a much better neutral understanding, familiarity with it. Secondly the educational role and thirdly the broadening, publicizing of the role.

Aled: Interesting. You train mediators and facilitators. Is that right?

Andrew: Increasingly less, actually. Facilitators more because that’s where the bulk of my work has been in the last 20 years or so. I’m beginning to do less of that as time goes. The thing about being a trainer is that you start boring yourself and that means you start boring other people as well.

Aled: In the training that you did or do, do you talk about dealing with human difference? Do you talk about handling uncertainty, dealing with uncertainty and reducing anxiety? Does that come into your…

Andrew: Fundamentally yes.

Aled: And how much of… I guess if we come back to the beginning of the interview where you talked about the design of the process… getting that right is the big chunk of work for some of the examples that you gave. How important is understanding human difference, understanding uncertainty and anxiety in the process design?

Andrew: Fundamental again. In every situation is different. Before you can do the process design, you have to understand both the situation on what you’re working and the parties, the people who are coming [inaudible 00:51:11]. This is why process [inaudible 00:51:17] issues analysis, uncertainty analysis is the first thing that you do. You then go to the far end and try and think about where realistically in the time available, where can we actually get to in terms of moving everybody onwards. But then you go back and you work out how to get people from where they are, to where they could realistically get to. That is the process design.

How do we do it? How do we work together with these people in such a way that they get to understand each other better, they work out particular issues, they reduce the uncertainties and so on. That’s why it’s such fun.

Aled: When we last spoke, are you thinking about a PhD? Have you started a PhD? Where are you with that?

Andrew: I’m doing a part time MA on Jung, on Carl Jung and post Jungian thought because I’ve always thought I’m very interested in religious conflict. I think that understanding religious conflict from a kind of Jungian perspective is really part of it. In fact I was starting to write about it and I realized I didn’t know enough which is why I signed up for doing a two year MA in the subject. I’ve got so completely intrigued by it.

I am seriously thinking about going on to do a PhD and to looking actually at the whole field of mediation and mediators through a kind of Jungian lens. I haven’t quite worked out how to do this but I will be listening to all your interviews and trying to discern how to actually approach the subject. And that’s really just to try and deepen the understanding of what it is that third parties, that mediators actually do, which deals with the human elements of conflict. That’s the nub of it. How do we actually bring the depth of psychology into more of the role, or at least to understand what the role means to us as individual practitioners.

Aled: Why are you so interested by religious conflict? What is it about that sort of conflict that captures your attention?

Andrew: Because I think in many ways religion, and by religion also, of course I mean atheism which is a curious form of religion, I think goes to the heart of who we are as individuals. Not only beliefs and values but our sense of identity [inaudible 00:54:26] tribal identity. What is it which ultimately makes us tick as thinking conscious beings.

Aled: Okay. Listen Andrew, you’ve been incredibly generous with your time. I’m aware we’re almost… time’s almost up. If people want to find out a bit more about the work that you do, get in touch, find out about facilitator training, all of that sort of stuff and of course pick up some of your books. I know you’ve published quite extensively. Where is the best place to find you on the information super highway?

Andrew: Probably by emailing me directly. I took down my website quite recently. I am in the process of actually putting together another one, so there will be a website with all this stuff on it in due course when I get round to it. But otherwise I’m very happy to interact with people directly. So if you put my email address in your interview notes or something, that’s absolutely fine.

Aled: Okay and you’re on LinkedIn?

Andrew: I’m on LinkedIn as well. So people can send me messages via LinkedIn and I’m very happy to deal with, again, with individuals and whatever people want.

Aled: Wonderful. Andrew, I’m going to be the first one to say a huge thank you for your time and sharing your stories and knowledge and wisdom. I look forward to the Jungian mediator handbook.

Andrew: Yes. Absolutely. We’ll see where that goes. If anybody out there who’s listening to this has got any thoughts on the subject, I would be really interested to hear them. I’m getting my teeth into this slowly.

Aled: Okay. Anyone watching this…

Andrew: Anyway, thank you very much. This has been really fun. I had no idea that we’ve been talking for so long.

Aled: And if anyone watching this interview thinks about using re-engineering conflict as a title to the book, think again.

Andrew: We’re going to pay for this, aren’t we? Then copywrite it.

Aled: Copywrite it. Andrew Acland, thank you very much.

Andrew: Thanks Aled.

About the mediator

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Andrew Acland specialises in designing and facilitating stakeholder dialogue and consultation processes in complex, multi-party, multi-issue contexts, often with environmental and social sustainability dimensions. Andrew began his working life as a political analyst specialising in East-West relations and arms control. In 1985, while working on the staff of the then Archbishop of Canterbury, he acted as assistant to the Archbishop’s envoy, T... View Mediator