Conflict Intervention in a Divided Nation

(An online conversation with Gail Bingham and Bernie Mayer)


ADRHub is pleased to introduce a new online dialogue featuring two of the most experienced mediators in our field, Gail Bingham and Bernie Mayer.  Follow the conversation – and feel welcome to join in.

Gail Bingham is President Emeritus of RESOLVE and currently serves as Chair of the Missouri River Recovery Implementation Committee and as convener of the Lead Service Line Replacement Collaborative. 

Bernie Mayer is Professor of Conflict Studies at the Negotiation and Conflict Resolution Program at Creighton University and a Founding Partner at CDR Associates. 

Together, Bernie and Gail have over 80 years experience in working with environmental, public policy and other types of conflicts.

Gail and Bernie will be continuing a discussion with each other that they began in a webinar last May on the appropriate role of conflict specialists in these polarized times. 


A note from Gail and Bernie

 In May 2017, the two of us participated in a webinar on the role of conflict specialists in the “Age of Trump” sponsored by the Environmental and Public Policy Sector of the Association of Conflict resolution and ably facilitated by Larry Schooler and Dana Goodson.  We discussed ways to contribute to constructive conflict engagement in this extremely polarized environment.  While we agreed on a lot (for example, that conflict specialists have an important role to play in challenging stereotypes that people have of one another), we also had some very different perspectives (for example, how important is it to stay neutral). 

We both felt that the challenges – even threats – of polarization will have a huge effect on public issues for years to come.  So, we thought it would be valuable to keep the conversation going. We have been friends and colleagues (and sometimes, competitors) for many years, and we look forward to this opportunity to continue to collaborate.  We hope many of you will join us in this discussion.

We have no set format or frequency planned—instead we will follow where the dialogue takes us. Please join in and make this a rich conversation.

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Hi Bernie.

You asked what I have in mind. The answer is learning more about different experiences with past truth and reconciliation / restorative justice efforts and what factors seem to promote various beneficial effects – as well as possible unintended negative effects. I gather that some scholars have studied these issues in different contexts and I am curious what insights they have developed.

When I was in South Africa, I heard similar reactions as you did. Some people were disappointed that serious wrong-doers were not punished. Others felt great relief at reconciliation and development of a more acceptable normal (though things still are problematic).

Someone said that of truth, reconciliation, and justice, you can have two but not all three. Efforts to attain justice by punishing wrong-doers can interfere with efforts to gain truth and reconciliation as the process would involve legalistic procedures creating incentives for denial by defendants, which could re-victimize some people and drag things out for a long time. Perhaps that would produce truth and justice, but we know that this is not always the result of legal procedures, especially in societies with limited financial and social resources.

I wonder if it would be different in a situation where there aren’t living wrong-doers to deal with, as in the case of slavery and Jim Crow. I imagine a process in which the participants were open to hearing each other and learning together. Obviously, that excludes some people but I can imagine that a broad range of the population could be represented and engaged. Perhaps that’s unrealistic.

Some people may believe that they can achieve their goals through outright political victory for their side, where the other side is decisively defeated and does not re-emerge. This seems unlikely to me in our situation.

In any case, it may help to consider the alternatives. One option is the status quo, without truth, reconciliation, or justice – or worse, if the status quo deteriorates. Another possibility is some improvement, albeit imperfect. And it is possible that poorly designed and implemented processes could actually make things worse.

I believe that we clearly are in a situation where the (unattainable) perfect is the enemy of the good. When people expect their ideals to be achieved, especially without accommodation of others’ legitimate perspectives, they are likely to be disappointed.

So I think that it is important to have realistic expectations. Of course, it’s hard to know what is realistic. Some things that people believe to be unrealistic turn out to be seen, in hindsight, as inevitable. On the other hand, some expectations really are unrealistic.

Hi all. I was so glad to meet Professor Bernie Mayer  at Ten anniversary event of the Werner Institute, into ACR Annual Conference,in Baltimore,  last year.  It was a real honour  to receive the mail inviting  me to participate in this  important and interesting dialogue. I was reading  and “listening” respectfully your dialogues, thinking  that  the topic  treats  problems  about  your own country. Then, as I live in Argentina,  I thought “you must not participate”.  But Bernie and some others have spoken in the dialogue  about  issues such as “divided Nation”, “polarized  society”. Then I thought that I could share our own experience in my country. We are suffering  the same problem : a divided Nation. We call the problem “the crack”

I think that  there are many countries that are suffering the same problem around the world.  And we have  a responsibility  as conflict resolvers. We must to help, first,  doing  what we are doing here, talking about the problems,  sharing experiences,   thinking , designing new tools….etc.-   I think that the education is the most important tool in order to get peace.  Now I’m working in a project, teaching   the students  tools  to prevent  and solve conflicts  into the high school  

And we  would be able to return to ethical reflection.-  The area of philosophy that deals with questions about how we should act and how we should live is called ethics. When we talk about ethics we talk about morality, the rightness and wrongness of people and their actions.

Thus, We have to purpose ouerselves, topics such as:

  • “morally right” -  “morally wrong”
  • “correct / incorrect”
  • The  study of actions? …or...”how do  we judge actions?”
  • Developing skills in articulating  your own values
  • There is a great need for citizens  all over the world today:  to be able to listen to one another and to be able to express their thoughts
  • Important questions…
  • ¿Am I able to listen to the other?
  • ¿Am I aware of the presence of the other?
  • ¿Is it important for me the presence of the other?
  • Are human beings forgetting “The Other”?

I think Bernie that previously to Ask ourselves WHATS AND HOW,  we have to ask ourselves ¿WHY?. If we are able to know Why…We will be able to  design What And How.

Emmanuel Lévinas[1]  said that “The Other name me, therefore I am”. We need to know what Levinas means by “the face of the Other.” First, what does he mean by “face,” and by “other?”

“Other” (sometimes capitalized, sometimes not) usually translates the French word autrui, which means “the other person,” “someone else” (i.e., other than oneself). It is thus the personal other, the other person, whoever it is, that each of us encounters directly or experiences the traces of every day. Of course, we encounter a multiplicity of others, but Levinas more often uses the singular “other” to emphasize that we encounter others one at a time, face to face.

By “face” Levinas means the human face (or in French, visage), but not thought of or experienced as a physical or aesthetic object. Rather, the first, usual, unreflective encounter with the face is as the living presence of another person and, therefore, as something experienced socially and ethically. “Living presence,” for Levinas, would imply that the other person (as someone genuinely other than myself) is exposed to me and expresses him or herself simply by being there as an undeniable reality that I cannot reduce to images or ideas in my head. This impossibility of capturing the other conceptually or otherwise indicates the other’s “infinity” (i.e., irreducibility to a finite [bounded] entity over which I can have power). The other person is, of course, exposed and expressive in other ways than through the literal face (e.g., through speech, gesture, action, and bodily presence generally), but the face is the most exposed, most vulnerable, and most expressive aspect of the other’s presence.

MaríaVictoria Marun



[1] Emmanuel Levinas (French: [ɛmanɥɛl ləvinas]; 12 January 1906 – 25 December 1995) was a French philosopher of Lithuanian Jewish ancestry who is known for his work related to Jewish philosophyexistentialismethicsPhenomenology and ontology. Some works: 1948. Le Temps et l'Autre (Time and the Other); 1982. Ethique et infini (Ethics and Infinity: Dialogues of Emmanuel Levinas and Philippe Nemo); 1984. Transcendence et intelligibilité;  1988. A l'Heure des nations;  1991. Entre Nous; 1995. Altérité et transcendence (Alterity and Transcendence)



Thanks for this very interesting comment Greg--putting this in a larger context is very helpful--and particular in terms of complexity.

Another larger concept is how the wealthy have historically used race (and more generally fear of the other) to divide and conquer those they exploit.  The history of this in the US is long and dismal.  As the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest becomes greater than ever, the steps taken to divide those who are being exploited are going to become more extreme.  For an interesting economic discussion of this--and how this is reflected in today's discussion of taxes in the US (but with implications elsewhere)--take a look at this from today's NY Times:

I would be curious about your take on whether this applies in any way to Australia (where we will be in January by the way).


I am so happy to have read this: "So if we accept Trump’s rise as just the natural consequence of this changing world then we can use the crisis and the energy that he brings as a way of facilitating the new to emerge. " 

And I think it plays off some points that I took from lectures that Bernie has given. If I may Bernie (please correct me if I misrepresent what you meant) you have mentioned the idea that conflict is often seen as something to be avoided when it really can/should be considered as something worth engaging in if it leads to positive change of some sort. Perhaps I did not word that as poetically as you would have; essentially I just mean that I see President Trump's rise to power and the surfacing of white supremacy, hate speech, patriarchal systems, and systemic racism as the conflict(s) that could create change. I don't mean that violence in anyway should be escalated or that these are good things. Quite the opposite. Instead I think that because this has happened, it may be just the thing we need as a society to move forward. We needed to see that the issues of racism, sexism, ignorance, etc. are still prevalent issues in this country and in our world. These systemic institutions are not going down without a fight. But perhaps we use this emergence as the means to accept and respond to the evils that still wound our world? Or as Greg eloquently said the "vestiges of a passing era".  

I take for example the issue of climate change. It is not that logic will do the trick. The science has been explained and denied for years. I think that this is where I would disagree with the effectiveness of debate during these times. Rather I think that perhaps the hurricanes that are relentlessly pounding our country are an indication that 'something is not right here'. And maybe this is the type of conflict that will inspire change? At least I hope.

Hi Michael

One of the problems, as I see it, for the mediation field/profession is that many people drawn to it have a strong dislike or an opposition to conflict per se. In other words they are conflict averse. This aversion can affect how they practice as mediators and how they deal with their own emotions when working with people in conflict. 

There is a very similar and allied problem that plagues the psychology profession and other social sciences where practitioners seek to deal with their own psychosis through their patients. The profession of psychology is well aware of the problem and deals with it. We mediators need to start thinking seriously about this problem within our profession.

I’m not suggesting that we welcome conflict but that we are able to practice with a proper sense of professional distance from the personal traumas of the parties we are working with.  That is the only way we can help them move forward.

I remember meeting Bernie for the first time when I attended his Dispute System Design workshop at CDR in Boulder Colorado in 1994.  It was built around the concept that conflict can be seen as a barometer of the state of the organisation and provides the energy that can lead to change. In that sense conflict can be seen in a positive light.

You can see this also see the importance of conflict in the age of disruption that we currently live in.  Companies are being disrupted because they have lost the ability to manage day-to-day conflict and internal disruption.  If managers do not allow this type of internal disruption to occur then their competitors will disrupt externally.

The over emphasis on efficiency and outcomes drives out variation. This is because diversity includes things that are not currently efficient.  Allowing a place for mistakes, inefficiency, conflict and disruption to occur allows new learning which can be the springboard for innovation. They create a tension in the system which allows for evolutionary breakthroughs.  

So we really need to rethink the concept of conflict and its place in our society and within our corporations.  

Hi Greg,  I completely agree, and what comes up for me to reinforce your points is the analogy to evolution - and the importance of biodiversity.  The "environment" within which any organism (or organization or country or global system) lives inevitably will change.  So, it's often the "outliers" in that "ecosystem" that will survive.  We need conflict, if by conflict we mean diversity of views, interests, ways of being.  So, that leads me back to an earlier point I have tried to make about the stance I choose to take as a "conflict specialist."  I choose to be involved in both dialogues and debates that (as much as possible) are framed collaboratively and inclusively rather than to work collaboratively with those whose views I might personally be most aligned with. It's not that I think this latter choice is wrong.  It's very important and actually wonderful, if done in the way Bernie suggests, i.e. helping an advocacy group and its allies clarify values, interests, strategies, etc. along with engaging respectfully with those of differing views and interests. 

Thanks for this Gail. It raises an interesting question about how do we best promote a healthy diversity of participants and ideas in dialogue, debate, communication or whatever other processes we are engage in.  Certainly one element is to encourage and welcome diverse viewpoints.  But another is to consider how the very nature of our processes may actually limit diversity of opinions.  Many of our processes are infused with a set of assumptions and norms that are not universally held or comfortable for all people.  One example is that many people don't buy the idea that communicating with those they fundamentally disagree with is a good thing.  So we are faced with an interesting dilemma--how do we encourage participation in dialogue in a way that is inclusive and accepting when for many our attempts to promote this kind of interaction is in itself alienating.  One way of doing this is to emphasize the inclusivity of the process and the impartiality of the facilitator.  But that only goes so far--and is itself an approach imbued with non universally held values.  Another is to build other processes that help people develop and prepare powerful messages to receive and have a chance to understand and critique the messages they are receiving from others.  At the right time, this might well be direct and in person but there need to be other approaches as well. 

Smart, Greg.

Have you viewed the TEDtalk on why Peace isn't always good or moral? That might be a good starting point:

Thanks Remi and Gail

The TEDtalk by Fleur Just captures the paradox of conflict. Thank you for the reference to it Remi.

I like Thomas Moore's comment that you know you are on the right track when you strike a paradox. 

I find the state of mind that best describes inhabiting the paradox is Wilfred Bion's suggestion to be without memory, desire and the need to understand what is happening. If you can hold what Freud calls an evenly suspended attention while holding multiple perspectives then something will emerge.  That something will give the direction in which you should go.

Hmmm--might I suggest a book called the Conflict Paradox as well?  :)

I do love conversations such as these; gets the brain juices flowing!

This time, the juice poured me a big glass of "there's a conflict among the inner self, the outer self and the community".  What does this mean? Ummm...I'll take a shot at it.

It seems that people do have an aversion to conflict, and while I can't speak for those in the con-res field, this aversion seems more about being the cause of the conflict.  TV shows rely on conflict, from the news to Big Brother.  And we play the blame game: "Jenny did this to Steve, what a _____".  We see the "injustice" of Jenny and want to do something...but we can't.  So we pop on over to YouTube to watch videos of people "failing" or "getting what they deserve". Some of them, like the bully getting smacked in the mouth, can be gratifying a bit. But this, then, reinforces the sensitivity of our inner self: "I don't want to look like an idiot", "it's not my fault". In no way do we want to be Jenny.  With the Internet, our mistakes are amplified and judged by others. If someone else is Jenny, then we must be fine.

Umm...I'm losing myself here....

I guess it boils down to two main things: We have a disconnect with ourselves; our self-worth. And we, as a society, lost the skills to deal with attacks (real or perceived) upon our self-worth. Combine these with the phenomenon of attaching personal identity with political ideologies, and oh boy!  

Perhaps we never had the skills, at least the ones needed to cope with daily attacks. In days gone by, such attacks were, what...weeks apart? Our attention was somewhere else: the Yankees, mowing the lawn, who shot J.R., etc. Today, the Internet makes us aware of attacks constantly, and then our minds are focused deflecting and laying blame to safeguard our selves.

One of the problems is the rise of what I call comfort journalism.  The master is ex-Australian Rupert Murdoch. 

He has made huge amounts of money since he started his first newspaper  in my home city of Adelaide in Australia in the 1960's by making people feel comfortable with their prejudices.

So if you read his papers or watch his news channels your views will not be disturbed.  You will not leave disappointed by the experience.  But like all comforts you need to keep feeding them so an addiction forms. Hence the value of shock jocks.

This sets the public discourse at a very low level of goodies and badies.  In fact any attempt to find a middle ground is seen as a threat to the need for comfort.  It then morphs into a feeling of unsafety if one's comfort is disturbed. Unsafety morphs into fear and so on it goes.

Disagreement becomes a sign of conflict which is uncomfortable.  So you need to go back to  a Rupert Murdoch program to get more comfort so can feel safe again.  Hence the addiction.

So the path forward is that we have to make it safe to have conflict.  We have to develop the comfort with being uncomfortable.  So that paradox appears again. Which tells us we are on the right track.



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