The Imperceptible Line between "It's No Big Deal" and "It's Hopeless"

There is an abundance of conflict in the world.
There is an abundance of mediators and conflict resolution professionals in the world. 
There is a scarcity of demand for mediation and conflict resolution in the world. 

What's up?

In the field of mediation and conflict resolution we work with people when they are in a special place that most people in conflict are not even able to perceive. Our work as a community is to expand the awareness and accessibility of this place. The space lies in between the concepts of "It's no big deal" and "It's hopeless."

Generally when people are in conflict their initial reaction is to think that it is not a big deal and to perceive that it should be possible to resolve it relatively easily. Eg: "Surely if the other person will just listen to how reasonable I am, it will all be over soon." Later they may come to realize that the conflict can't get resolved through conventional means, and the reaction then is usually hopelessness and the perception that the differences are irreconcilable. The next step then is to end the relationship or to try to destroy the other through legal means or through violence. 

In that process the person has bypassed a third option without even knowing. The third option comes from the potential realization that the conflict is not hopeless and that the people involved can't resolve the situation on their own. In other words, if they had some support there could be a great deal of hope about the potential for resolution. This is the place where mediation or another conflict resolution process become available. The tendency to overlook this option is common across scales, from interpersonal to international conflict.

I believe that the hope of humanity's survival depends on the world realizing that there is another way to be in conflict that can work for everyone and that we need to do that as soon as possible. 

The principle challenge is a ubiquitous lack of awareness of the existence of mediation. It's not a job that children aspire to, it's not widely recognized as a profession, it's not mentioned by public figures who face prolific and complex conflict. Another challenge is that there are people who seem to benefit from the perpetuation of the idea that there are people who are right and there are people who are wrong. Ways of living that work for everyone and embrace our common humanity are a serious challenge to the status quo where so much is framed as an eternal battle between right and wrong. Often the popular way to prove one's righteousness is to show that the other perspective is wrong. This is the "lesser of evils" approach, and in the long term it creates a downward spiral. 

So how can we cut through these barriers and develop a greater awareness of the possibility that conflict can be resolved and that there are people ready to help? Those of us who know the power of mediation and conflict resolution need to be persistent advocates for the field of work. We need to be vocal about how we've seen it change people's lives.

I propose a three-fold message that we want to make ubiquitous:
1) Conflict is normal and happens to everyone. It is a fundamental part of the human experience.
2) There are ways to get through conflict that can work for all involved and even deepen relationships.  
3) There are people who are very eager and capable to help you with this process.  

This message needs to be shared with people on both sides of the "imperceptible line" and the line needs to cease to be imperceptible. 

Traditionally conflict resolution is seen as an alternative to litigation, an alternative to a legal process. In this light "alternative dispute resolution" (ADR) often focuses on pulling people back from the state of hopelessness once they have already crossed the line. Often this can happen naturally or by helping people realize that it would be too costly to walk away from the relationship (financially, relationally, etc.). The legal system can handily be shown to be inadequate in its capacity to deal with the nuance and tenderness of human relationships. This is when folk often get referred to mediation. 

It is interesting to consider how we can help people see the line before they arrive there. This strategy would focus on normalizing the decision to ask for support before a conflict becomes a big deal. This concept of lowering the bar to access is very much underexplored. It could be an option to deal with difficult relationships that don't have a specific object of conflict. Mediation is a great choice for any relationship facing a change in the status quo. It is a great way to prepare for or to navigate new experiences and situations in any relationship. There is a whole universe of unexplored opportunities where mediation can help people communicate what is important to them and understand what is important to others well before they find themselves in an intractable conflict. This is also the space where the truly generative work might unfold. This is a place of powerful hope. 

In order to open up this new access point, the strategy will need to be to ensure that the imperceptible line becomes an obvious line that people need to choose to cross on their conscious path to hopelessness. To accomplish this society and culture will need to incorporate conflict resolution and mediation into its day-to-day vocabulary. One way to advance this goal is to remind and teach strategic people with influence that there is a way through conflict and encourage them to be public advocates that can normalize effective mediation. These can be businesses, governments, non-profit organizations, celebrities, community groups, non-governmental organizations and trans-governmental organizations.

Finally, we should note that this whole conversation stems from the fact that we usually don't recognize conflict until it becomes a negative experience, which usually means that we have already crossed the "line" without noticing. So...

The final trick is that we can't just tell people all these things. We have to help them arrive at these realizations on their own, and we can only do that by listening. By creating open-hearted spaces for people to tell us what they're struggling with, we can help them understand that conflict doesn't resolve itself. This human experience of diverse and evolving perspectives is a permanent and ongoing condition, and it's terrifying. As long as we can open to the process of divergence and integration, we can forever improve the way that we relate to our own selves and to each other. Sometimes we'll need help.