Thinking Ourselves out of Conflict

In the most recent issue of ACResolution Magazine (Spring 2007) from the Association for Conflict Resolution, Eileen Barker wrote an article titled: "What Would Gandhi Do?" At first I was skeptical. Gandhi is used to invoke all sorts of things and I wasn't sure where Barker was going with this. She started the article by asking: "If I could seek guidance from any wise person, past or present, who would it be?" After explaining that she chose Gandhi she writes: "What lessons can mediators and others in the field of conflict resolution learn from his extraordinary life?" Barker then continues by giving a brief history of Gandhi's life and the lessons that can be learned from it. I was still skeptical, but by about half-way through the article, she had begun to pique my curiosity.

On the second page, Barker states:

"As conflict resolution professionals, treating each person with respect and consideration is fundamental to our creed. Can we go a step farther, and work to eliminate negative thoughts, beliefs and judgments? What about the difficult person, the one who seems to be blocking resolution? What about the person who is threatening, deceptive, unreasonable or petty? Gandhi teaches that there can be no exclusions; we must learn to practice nonviolence--in our words, thoughts and actions--with each and every other human being."

After reading this paragraph, I immediately considered my recent attempts at toning down my onslaught of comments directed at fellow drivers. There's just something about being on the road, behind the wheel, that gets me talking up a storm, and usually not in the manner of complimenting others. While mostly internal and rarely, if ever, expressed to the provoking driver, my thoughts and gestures are nevertheless fiery.

I'm pretty good at empathizing with mediation clients regardless of their behavior, comments, or past actions. With them I have a particular context for their acting out and I can step outside myself enough to know it's not about me. Experiencing the lunacy and/or aggression of Chicago-area drivers (I've lived in Boston too and Chicago is worse), on the other hand, just feels personal. As a mediator, this has created some serious cognitive dissonance for me even before reading Barker's article. What Barker writes merely drives the point home (pun intended) .

As practitioners of conflict resolution, I agree with Barker (via Gandhi's life example) that we as mediators need to rise to a higher standard. It is hypocritical of us to set "ground rules" for sessions and to remind our clients to be respectful in their use of language with one another, only to turn around and tailgate, groan, moon, launch a middle finger, or swear at others whether figuratively or literally. For me, *bad* drivers have been previously excluded from receiving my empathy and peaceful thoughts.

Going forward, I will try to expand my mediator empathy to include not only all drivers, but also the odd person who cuts me in line, the security woman who makes me throw out my favorite hair gel for being .0000008 ounces over the maximum, and even the customer service representative who asks me to repeat the problem 20 times, then directs me to the company's online FAQ's for my answer.

Honk if you agree to do the same!

By Laura L. Noah
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