Thursday, June 27, 2013

Crisis and Opportunity

I've been working with my co-chair Robyn Weinstein to put together SCMA's 25th annual fall conference, to take place in Malibu on November 2, 2013. Our theme this year is "Crisis and Opportunity: Expanding the Field of Conflict Resolution." The theme is drawn in part from our organization's efforts to create new opportunities for mediators in the wake of the unexpected closing of the Los Angeles County Superior Court ADR program.

But there are plenty of other crises all around. Take your pick of them. Our aim is to get people thinking about how the tools and tricks of our trade can be used to solve a myriad of problems, from international conflict to partisan gridlock in Washington to environmental pollution to gun violence. Mediated solutions can help ameliorate all of these problems and more.

The application of conflict resolution skills to our most pressing social and political problems will not only help save the world, but might also have practical value for our professional lives. We need to expand the definition of mediation beyond that of a professional hired to persuade people to settle a lawsuit, to a whole range of other applications. Workplace conflicts; labor conflicts (a traditional area for mediated solutions way before the use of mediation to help resolve lawsuits); public policy disputes; land use decisions; conflicts within schools and other institutions. All of these areas are ripe for intervention by people applying modern techniques of conflict resolution. Maybe we can even teach lawyers to resolve disputes in a more cost-effective and less destructive manner.

That brings up a new feature we are planning to add to the conference this year: a track geared toward legal and other types of advocates, both to emphasize the use of negotiating skills in formalized mediation sessions, and the application of conflict resolution techniques to solve clients' problems. We're also going to touch on other pressing issues in the field including mediator certification and regulation, ethical issues in the conduct of mediation, and mediation in specific substantive contexts. And we plan to continue the advanced track begun last year, to attract experienced mediators to the conference. And lots of other stuff. Stay tuned at where we will soon have up a schedule of the planned panels and other materials relating to the fall conference.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Violent language

Using the tools of mediation, we delve into the root causes of problems, and we try to solve those problems in a non-adversarial way. Take the problem of excessive gun violence, for example, much on the public mind since the horrific Newtown massacre. Sadly, much of the debate on this topic is fairly superficial, and much of it reflects the typical confrontational way in which we resolve conflicts in our society. On one side we hear advocates talking about banning weapons; on the other people talking about how their rights are being infringed. We may be losing an opportunity to identify shared values and find common ground to reduce the underlying problem of gun violence.

I heard a panel discussion this week at Netroots Nation comprised of prominent legislators and teachers' unions representatives all with a relatively sophisticated understanding of ways that might help to reduce violence, and a good sense of pragmatism. This group emphasized that the movement to reduce gun violence in this country has nothing to do with taking guns away from responsible gun owners who keep guns for legitimate purposes. That is propaganda spread by the NRA which plays on the public's distrust of government to accomplish their primary mission, which seems to be acting as a trade association for gun manufacturers, rather than acting in the best interests of the responsible gun owners they purportedly represent. Rather, their emphasis is on keeping guns out of the hands of irresponsible people.

Several of the panel members also stressed the importance of engaging in a dialogue with gun owners, and couching arguments for gun control in a way that is not threatening to gun rights advocates, and that will appeal to the majority of public opinion. State Senator Darrell Steinberg, for example, made the excellent point that advocating for restrictions on assault weapon sales at the same time as acknowledging the need for mental health reform, are not either/or propositions. Some of the panelists also mentioned the need to support legislators such as Senator Joe Manchin, who took a courageous stand in support of expanding the reach of background checks, despite his own record as an advocate of gun owners' rights.

It was interesting, however, that even on a panel devoted to the theme of reducing violence, gun metaphors and violence metaphors kept cropping up. Senator Steinberg repeatedly talked about "fighting" to enact legislation to reduce gun violence. I understand that strong opposition must be overcome, but it still seems a bit incongruous to talk about fighting to reduce violence. Somebody else talked about "shooting down" the opposition's arguments. And the moderator Jehmu Greene asked the panelists at the end to engage in a "rapid fire" round of final responses. It's an indication of just how strongly violence has permeated our culture when a group of people all sincerely and passionately dedicated to the cause of reducing violence has difficulty discussing that issue without resorting to the language of violence themselves.