I recently returned from a wonderful spring trip to Italy during our country's war with Iraq. When I left San Diego, U.S. flags were hanging everywhere in support of the troops and the war effort. In Italy, peace flags hung everywhere in opposition to the war -- beautiful, rainbow-striped flags with "Pace" written on them, placed on apartment balconies, storefronts, in public parks and even at the Doges Palace in Venice.
As a mediator, I was fascinated by these displays of differing perspectives in my country and in the country I was visiting. But another observation fascinated me more: Most Europeans I spoke with opposed the U.S. military intervention and assumed that all Americans had wanted to go to war with Iraq. I explained that instead, Americans were in robust debate about all aspects of the war. This surprised my European friends. On the surface, the American position looked simple and monolithic.
Let's place this in a conflict resolution context. Conflict often looks simple and monolithic. Well-rehearsed opposing viewpoints escalate into easy sound bytes that we hurl at one another. Our opponent becomes one-dimensional in our eyes at the same time that we begin to appear one-dimensional and unreasonable to the other side. It's simple: We're right and they're wrong.
In reality, though, conflict is not simple, because life is not simple. There is change and flux in every situation, every workplace, every neighborhood, every family. We can never know exactly how things look to another person, because we each operate from a unique vantage point. This can produce conflict that stifles forward movement. We become temporarily paralyzed. We lose our ability to maneuver through the many landmines of conflict, including communication breakdowns, blocked information flow, false assumptions about each other's motivations, and polarization of positions.
What are opponents to do? A smart thing to do is to seek the services of a skilled mediator. Conflict, if well managed, can be the impetus for growth and learning.
What does mediation have to offer in managing conflict? Many things. Here are just a few:
This brings me, somewhat circuitously, back to my recent sojourn in Italy, where I gained more insights about the nature of perspective during a visit to see Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper" in Milan. I have seen reproductions of this fresco all my life -- on postcards, in Bibles, on key chains, on funeral parlor fans. I assumed that seeing the original would be like seeing an old friend. It was not. Seeing the "Last Supper" on the actual wall where Leonardo painted it, across the entire back wall of a long narrow room, was an astonishing experience. The painting belonged in that room. The scale was right, the light was right. The lines of Leonardo's painted ceiling continued the lines of the actual ceiling of the room. Seen in context, the painting took on a whole new life. In just a few moments, my old image of the painting was replaced with a new one.
When we come to the mediation table, our perspectives on the issues in dispute can change dramatically as well, under the guidance of a skilled mediator. Assumptions fall away, and positions become more flexible when the larger context is considered.
I would love to explore this subject further. Perhaps next spring in Rome?
Mc Manus, J.D., manages the Mediator Credentialing Program for the San Diego Mediation Center. She has been a mediator since 1985. She can be contacted at email@example.com