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 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.


Very interesting Greg.  Aside from pointing out that we have now known each other for 23 years, I really like the framing of the drive for efficiency ad in tension with the need for innovation or adaptability.  Systems seek to maintain system stability but unless they are also able to change and adapt they won't ultimately survive.  So as conflict specialists are job is often to push systems (and people) to be build adaptability into their agreements when what they want is certainty.  Our job is also often to raise conflict when people's urge is to suppress it because otherwise durable and wise outcomes (which are not necessarily efficient) are harder to achieve.

The bottom line is do you manage (or mediate) for emergence or for outcome. 

The facilitative mediator who uses the joint session with strategic caucusing can create a safe space for the emergence of the new and novel. It is a process that opens the door for luck and serendipity.

The command and control mediator that only caucuses tends to find just outcomes. Freud again -"If you follow your expectations you will never find out anything more than you already know".

Bernie my sense is that we conflict specialists can not change the outcome driven, alpha command and control corporate leaders and their managers.  We don't have to because they will not survive the new digital fluid commercial age.  They are being disrupted by risk takers who understand the relationship between risk and reward.

The next generation of corporate (and political) leaders will be those who can manage the flow of networks between people in a way that allows for a safe space for minority views, diverging opinions, conflict and internal disruption. It requires a higher state of alertness and the ability to provide a real-time response to emerging patterns and behaviours.  This is the best pathway to creating strategic surprises and opportunities.

There will be opportunities for conflict specialists to work within these new organisations to help manage internal disruption. If managers do not allow this type of internal disruption to occur then their competitors will disrupt externally.

In my view conflict specialists will need to possess fluid (or soft) skills which include the ability to remain totally present in the moment by maintaining an evenly suspended attention, acting without memory, desire and the need to understand everything that is happening, the use of time and space and intuition that goes beyond just pattern recognition .


Hi Bernie

In Australia we generally start with the proposition that taxes are important for the development of the country both in maintaining basic services but also helping the country to prosper. So taxation is viewed a good thing. This relates to both collecting and spending taxes because they both go together.

So the main issue that we in Australia face with taxes is one of fairness. Is everyone paying their fair share in proportion to their income and are we spending it across the nation in a way that is fair but also takes into account that the more isolated and less wealthy parts of the country need some assistance in bringing their standard of life up to that which is comparable to the more wealthy parts. 

Of course there is always complaints that taxation is too high or some of the wealthier states give too much of their wealth to the poorer states.

The underlying approach to tax can be seen in the official title of Australia which is “the Commonwealth of Australia” which implies that wealth belongs to everyone.

I suspect that the underlying US philosophy is based more on Adam Smith contention that in competition individual ambition serves the common good. Where as in Australia we are more aligned to John Nash’s contention that the best result is for everyone in the group doing what’s best for himself AND the group.

Perhaps the problem with the US taxation issue is that there is a false ideological separation between collecting and spending tax.  No one wants to pay tax but everyone wants to get the benefits of the taxation spend. There is a fundamental illogical disconnect with this proposition.

I come back to the point I made in my above contribution to this discussion. Trust is the basis of any well functioning society and organisation.  The balance between collecting and spending tax forms part of that trusting bond in any community and in Australia it has generally reached a positive Nash equilibrium.

It looks to me that the disconnect between collecting and spending tax in the US is an example of a classic Nash trap. It is abandoning trust in a fair and balanced taxation system for pure self-interest.

The Nash Equilibrium proposes that decisions that are good for the individual can be terrible for the group. This is because the benefit that people gain in society depends on people cooperating and implicitly trusting one another to act in a manner corresponding with cooperation.

Taking a similar big picture approach to the US taxation issue maybe you should view and respond to it through the lens of it being a classic Nash trap.


(Let’s catch up for a coffee when you’re in Australia)

This discussion on "the role of conflict specialists in the age of Trump” must have been interesting. It probably would have been even more challenging had in been held after the recent tragic protest marches in Charlottesville. As you know, most of my professional life has been focused on conflict resolution, mostly through research and analysis on policy alternatives that can bring all sides together on a practical if not ideal solution. Occasionally there have been times when I hit a wall, realizing only after lengthy efforts that one or more parties to the issue did not in fact want a resolution. Often it was because they were in a position of power, and calculated that they were capable of forcing their will on the other parties, and then they proceeded to do so.

This juxtaposition of “the age of Trump” and a series of discussions with my daughter about her work in human rights and genocide prevention has led me to question the value of “staying neutral.” I am a scientist by training, and was at first a little taken aback by the Scientist March on Washington and the impact it might have on the credibility of science itself in objectively informing the policymaking process. But as things with the current Administration have gone from merely irritating to downright alarming, I’ve concluded along with many others that I can no longer remain neutral on the horrendous directions in which this Administration is leading our country. As a responsible citizen, my inclination is to support a duly elected President, whether or not I voted for him. Now I find myself agreeing with the “Not My President” crowd, mostly because this President has made it abundantly clear he has no interest in being my President. His utter disregard for what more than 70% of the American people believe should be done in any one of a hundred different areas of national policy demonstrates that he has nothing but contempt for the majority of us and our views.

Reading through some of books by daughter has shared with me, I am struck by a particular quote from Elie Wiesel with which I’m sure you are familiar:

“We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must - at that moment - become the center of the universe.”― Elie Wiesel, The Night Trilogy: Night, Dawn, the Accident

Desmond Tutu put it even more succinctly:

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” — Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness

Even Dante Alighieri weighed in on this issue—in the 14th century:

"The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.” -- Dante, The Divine Comedy, Inferno

So after a lifetime of working to find compromise among differing interests on matters of public policy, and with a deep and abiding respect for our democracy and democratic processes, I find it impossible to “stay neutral” in the age of Trump, sorry to say. I’ve listened thoughtfully to his arguments and those of his followers, trying to understand how things look from their perspective, but I must say I find many of their positions repugnant and having no place in a modern civilized society. Like Patrick Henry, I will defend their Constitutional rights to freedom of speech and expression. But I will also work in every way I can to see that their positions do not come to define our nation or our society. There is a danger that we will all become so desensitized to these daily assaults on decent values that they come to be “the new normal”. No responsible citizen who truly cares about the future of our grand 200-year experiment in democracy can sit by and let this happen.

I look forward to following the conversation among conflict resolution specialists on this question, but at this point my natural inclination to help unify is leading me to oppose the forces whose sole intent seems to be to divide us as a country.


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