Sunday, August 24, 2014


An entertaining new book on philosophy (who would have thought there could be such a thing) called Plato at the Googleplex, transports Plato to various settings in our modern world, and attempts to show that we are still grappling, or should be grappling, with many of the same problems that Plato addressed in dialogues written more than 2000 years ago. The book's Plato character makes you wonder whether, for example, Google does a better job of organizing knowledge than the ancient philosophers did, or whether we've made any progress in dealing with child rearing or love or figuring out how to live a better life.

This "Plato" leads the people who pass for our modern dispensers of wisdom (such as search engine specialists or Tiger Moms or advice columnists or cable news producers) through the kinds of Socratic dialogues meant to help them think about what is fair, or what is most satisfying, or how best to organize society, or what ideals are most important.

Naturally these dialogues made me wonder whether philosophy as exemplified by these Socratic dialogues has any relevance to the practice of mediation. It seems obvious that parties involved in conflict also need help in identifying what is most important to them, what results seem fair and why, and similar considerations that enter into resolving a dispute. In that way, the mediator is acting in some respects like a philosopher, by challenging parties to consider their noblest impulses, and by asking people to step outside themselves to try to imagine what would constitute a just resolution for all parties.

If we try to resolve a dispute only by making predictions about how the legal system might handle that dispute, we might fairly be accused of acting like we are stuck in Plato's cave. We are blinding ourselves to other considerations that might provide a better solution. On the other hand, if we venture outside the legal system, how do we identify the values that would lend legitimacy to mediated resolutions? This is where philosophy might be able to help.

We know that mediators sometimes need to act as an amateur psychologist, an amateur economist, an amateur diplomat, an amateur judge, or apply other kinds of expertise to help resolve conflict. That's what makes the practice of mediation so interesting. We might not have realized that mediators also need to act as amateur philosophers. But in helping parties move beyond vindictive or selfish concerns to discover their best selves, as well as finding principles that can guide them to resolution, mediators are practicing philosophy whether they know it or not. Reading Plato at the Googleplex makes me want to dig out my old copy of the Republic to explore further whether these ideas have practical value in dealing with modern problems.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Marching together

What a remarkable turnaround we witnessed today in Ferguson, Missouri, where five days of protests in the wake of the shooting death of Michael Brown this past weekend, had been met with police armed to the teeth with military weapons and tactics. But when Governor Nixon finally decided to replace the local police force with state highway patrol officers, the situation changed almost immediately. Today the new representatives of law enforcement started marching with the protesters, and a much different atmosphere returned to the streets.

Yesterday law enforcement viewed the protesters as the enemy, and felt they had to meet them with force to preserve order. All that did was inflame the situation, and exacerbate the conflict.

Today, law enforcement took the opposite approach. First the new commander, Ron Johnson, renounced violence, saying his officers would not be carrying and using tear gas, as the local police had. He apologized for the prior use of tear gas, even though he had had nothing to do with that decision. Second, Captain Johnson emphasized the need to listen: “Sometimes you just have to let people speak and make yourself listen. I used to tell my kids when they were small, open up your listening ears.” Third, Johnson identified common interests with the protesters, saying that "we all want justice. We all want answers." Finally, Johnson marched alongside the protesters.

In one day, this new approach achieved what peacemakers dream of, turning a confrontation where both sides distrust the other, and respond to each other's provocations with forceful opposition, into a joint effort where both sides now appear to be working together to solve a problem.

Once we drop the war mentality, once we stop treating our opponents as the "other," once we identify common goals between ourselves and the opposition, we find ourselves no longer needing to fight our opponents, but instead marching alongside them toward resolution. Note that the parties haven't yet resolved the underlying problems, and haven't suddenly decided they agree with each other. Far from it. But they are approaching this conflict with a much different attitude. Let's hope this new spirit holds.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014


Last night I had a chance to assist at an improvisation class, playing the role of mediator to actors working out various conflict situations. The class arose out of some discussions with the teacher, Rob Watzke, about the similarities between the techniques used in improvisation and mediation. In both situations, careful listening is imperative. You must be sensitive to the content as well as the emotional underpinnings of statements made by other participants in order to advance the process. In both situations, it is also important to stay positive. Whatever new bit of material is offered to you by a fellow improviser, you must use it. You cannot reject it, or the scene dies. Similarly, in mediation, it is better to thank the other side for their proposals, and make a counter-proposal, rather than to simply reject or attack the other side. In both improv and mediation, creativity is also key to success. Improvisers are encouraged to come up with all kinds of crazy suggestions, sometimes the crazier the better, as these fresh additions lead the scene in new directions. Mediators also encourage the participants to brainstorm to come up with creative solutions that might satisfy the interests of both sides.

The actors I had a chance to work with were very talented and a lot of fun. But after watching them create some warm-up scenes, I could see some of them having difficulty doing scenes that asked them to try to win an argument, but most had no trouble at all enacting an argument they were trying to lose. It seemed that improvisation training makes it difficult for these actors to do what comes naturally to people embroiled in real conflict. Parties in conflict are generally focused only on proving their own points. They are unable even to recognize what the other side is saying. To the extent they even pay attention to the other side's points, they do so only to prepare their response. That's why a mediator is often needed to transmit the other side's perspective in a way that might be absorbed.

Parties in conflict could be compared to actors who work from memorized scripts. They only listen to the other side enough to recognize their own cue to speak. Actors trained in improvisation, on the other hand, are always trying to build something from the information the other player is giving them. They had some trouble with an assignment that simply asked them to try to "win" the argument, because they couldn't help but pay attention to the information the other party was giving them, and try to incorporate it into the scene. Their training also kept them focused on guiding the scene toward a satisfying resolution, rather than going around in circles pointlessly, as people in actual conflict tend to do.

So when my turn came to act as mediator in various scenarios that resembled some I have handled in real life, I found these actors very good at expressing emotion and setting up a conflict. I was also amazed at all the new material they kept adding to the conflict. But then I found it was much too easy to lead them to resolution. These people were actually trying to search for the underlying motivations that led themselves and their partner into the conflict, and find their own ways out of it. So we quickly found out, for example, that the guy complaining about his neighbor's barking dog was only doing so because of his own childhood trauma at seeing the death of a family pet; and that the store manager was only piling an unfair workload on an employee because she had broken off their romantic relationship, but that she actually wanted him back if he would only change one little thing about himself. (This was probably the only employment mediation I will ever handle that was resolved by a circumcision!) In the real world, parties in conflict work hard to avoid revealing these kinds of vulnerabilities. And that's why mediations in the real world take hours, while we were able to wrap up cases on the improvisational stage in about ten minutes each. It made me think we should send divorcing couples or feuding business partners to improv class so they can learn some techniques that might make the process go a lot quicker and easier.