When I was a junior high school student, the Beatles came to America. Their arrival created quite an uproar. Teachers and administrators freaked when boys showed up at school with Beatle wigs. Little did I know that all these years later I would be referencing one of their songs in a column dealing with societal conflict. In truth, this column deals with how certain keys to successful mediations can also help solve broader societal conflicts. Certain lyrics from the song "We Can Work It Out" do provide a good starting point.
"We can work it out" is a lyric repeated several times in the song. A belief that a case can be settled coupled with a commitment to try is very important in mediation. Regardless of the societal conflict, a similar attitude will go a long way toward finding a solution. Typically, we cannot change what has happened. We can use up our energy pointing the blame finger or we can accept the fact that we have a problem and focus our efforts on finding a remedy and/or ways to prevent reoccurrence.
An effective mediator must be a good listener. It is also most helpful if the participants themselves listen. The Beatles would say "Think of what I'm saying." Perhaps we have all been around a person who jumps in before the speaker has finished a sentence and announces what he thinks. If not, consider yourself fortunate. Alternatively, think of the panel discussions we see on television. The moderator asks a question and then interrupts the panelist to make his or her own point. Sometimes multiple members of the panel are all talking at once. While this may be entertaining to some, it is not an effective way to resolve a problem.
Genuine listening involves more than just catching one's breath while someone else is speaking. "Try to see it my way" is another lyric that can be huge in dispute resolution. Unless we really try we cannot always understand what is going on in the mind of the other person. We can fall into a trap of assuming we know what the other person wants. Understanding what the other person sees as the problem and the desired solution is an important way to avoid proceeding on those assumptions. This does not require anyone to agree to what the other person or group is saying but it does allow more opportunity to fashion remedies. I may be totally confident that I have not done or said anything that would be hurtful to another. However, I need to understand what someone else heard or saw and how they felt in response. If the other person perceived something other than what I intended I can explain my true intent and learn from the experience.
Whether in mediation of a case or the search for solutions to social conflicts, showing respect for the opposing side and the point of view held by that side is very helpful. Being tolerant of the other point of view and person or persons expressing it creates an atmosphere where solutions can develop. Disrespect and intolerance lead to anger. In my personal and professional experience, anger usually exacerbates the problem and gets in the way of effective problem solving.
Conflicts can be resolved in many ways. What is being discussed in today's column is the effort to resolve conflict in a manner controlled by the participants. Mediation gives litigants an opportunity to fashion a solution rather than leaving it up to a court to impose a solution. In the context of broader societal problems, we are looking for ways to avoid increasing anger, dissolution and even violence. That brings us to the final element, compromise.
Unfortunately, in our society it appears that compromise has been confused with capitulation. That is unfortunate because the two words have different meanings. Clearly, compromise is not possible in every situation. Nevertheless, it can be quite doable and effective in many situations.
Consider this example. My friend Beverly Schroeder has made one of her famously delicious pies.
She places it in front of two hungry people. Each wants the whole pie and is unwilling to share with the other. A suggestion is made that they cut the pie in half and each enjoy it. Sadly, the individuals have each decided they are entitled to the whole pie. They sit staring at each other getting more frustrated and angry as the time passes. Eventually, someone comes into the room and points out that the pie has gone bad and needs to be tossed out. Failure to compromise cost both the opportunity for a real treat.
The Beatles remind us that "Life is very short, and there's no time for fussing and fighting." We know we'll have individual and societal disputes. I think some of the elements discussed here can help resolve many in each category. If we do our best "We can work it out."
David Bernthal of Mahomet is a retired 21-year federal magistrate. He is a counsel with the Webber & Thies PC law firm and serves as senior mediator and arbitrator with ADR Systems. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.