The Value of Conflict

This morning I had some business at the county courthouse where I’ve mediated small claims cases for the last 12 years.  This year I am due to reconfirm my commitment to ongoing education in mediation, as all court-connected mediators in this state are required to do by presenting for the court’s review the number of hours I’ve spent in deepening my understanding of mediation.  It’s a bright, clear November day, and I found myself thinking about the woman who started this court-based mediation program many years ago.  She died several years ago, and I felt her loss personally, as did so many others she influenced by her example and her remarkable intelligence and fierce compassion.

Before going downtown this morning, I spent some time on the phone with a colleague.  We talked about, among other things, the value of effective engagement in conflict in creating and maintaining engaged and creative workplaces—something we’re both deeply committed to.  And, yet, this lengthy discussion could have degenerated into a broken relationship as it had come about as the result of a series of email messages across multiple threads generated somewhat hurriedly as we were both trying to satisfy professional obligations and prepare for the Thanksgiving holiday.  Then, in the middle of the exchange, I shut down for the holiday, determined to rest, focus, and get some difficult reading and thinking done.  Meanwhile, the discussion remained “open” in both of our inboxes.

When I finally felt ready to come back and respond to the correspondence on the next business day, my review of some of the messages left me feeling very concerned and somewhat marginalized.  I responded to the easy ones first and then tried to craft a meaningful and well-considered response to the final two.  It was difficult, and as I saw the rhetorical structure of my response take shape, I realized I better stop and think about what I was doing.  I decided to take the advice I offer to my clients and students:  When email exchanges seem to evolve toward conflict, it’s often wise to pick up the phone.  I picked up the phone.

Fortunately, she was there and had time to talk.  And we did talk for quite a while.  We have been having a series of conversations around organizational structure and dynamics in relation to human creativity and personal agency and had invited a number of other people into a series of face-to-face conversations on related topics.  The context in which I read her messages (the ones I was having a hard time responding to) was the context of the mission of the entire discussion group; the context from which she was “speaking” in those messages was the context of a single upcoming meeting.  Hearing this resulted in an entirely different understanding and interpretation on my part, thereby largely unknitting the conflict.  And, because we were speaking “in real time” we were able to explore the resonances and differences in our views, which actually resulted in a deeper commitment, at least on my part, to the undertaking of nurturing the discussion group.

It might have all gone differently.  In fact, a wicked rift could have occurred.  They say that the emergence of email as a dominant form of communication has kept a lot of lawyers employed.  No doubt.  In the case of this morning’s conversation, picking up the phone actually, it seems, resulted in greater intimacy and empathy as well as taking us to a new place that we might not have gone.  That’s the value of dialogue over debate, and avoiding the conversation would not have deepened the connection or taken us to a new and better understanding than we had before.

In the courthouse this morning, I noticed the faint twinge of a feeling I used to have when I’d go there as a new mediator.  The courthouse is rarely a place that attracts citizens for happy reasons.  When Shannon Stewart died, there were three memorials held for her that I know of.  I went to one.  For hours, people came to the microphone in the middle of the circle and talked about their memories of Shannon; many of these people were established local attorneys and judges who had taken time out of their work day to talk about how Shannon’s commitment to mediation had impacted them personally, or impacted their professional practice.

One in particular stuck with me.  He was an attorney who talked about the fact that the courthouse is often a difficult place to go to and that you can witness a lot of unhappiness there.  He had also talked about how Shannon had responded to the ebb and flow of funding for her program, her tenacity and dignity.  He said that, when he entered the courthouse, he was comforted in knowing that, because Shannon was there, “good was being done, and harm was being avoided.”  There’s no better epitaph than that.

I remember Shannon swinging into her little office with a view of the central airshaft in the building where I was waiting for her one spring day.  “Have you seen the cherry blossoms!” she virtually caroled–such a startling comment in that the morning had been spent dealing with landlord/tenant disputes, and preceding an afternoon would be spent with all manner of small claims disputes.  She had spent decades of her life steeped in what many people try to avoid everyday:  conflict.  And, she saw the power of effective engagement for a mutually satisfactory outcome.

Today, I could have not picked up the phone, but simply avoided interacting with someone who might hurt my feelings, insult my intelligence, or any of a number of other things I haven’t even imagined.  Thank goodness I picked up the phone to check things out.

Shannon died suddenly a number of years ago.  A few days before she died, we were talking about the notion of “the enemy” and about enemy making.  She had to interrupt the conversation because it was time to go into court.  “Now, I want to talk to you about that later,” she said.  But “later” was interrupted and now won’t happen.  I was looking forward to that conversation.  As a former high school Shakespeare teacher, she had a way of teaching and mentoring that drove the point home so you could take a sharp point with little or no pain.  Lacking that conversation, I pay more attention to transitional moments when enemy making might occur.  She said something about the sense or nonsense of enemy making.  And, I’m still listening.

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