Recently (as part of a book club), I read The Psychology of Conflict by Raul Randolph (Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, London 2016) who is a barrister and mediator. His approach is to use existentialism as the vehicle through which to discuss the psychological aspects of mediation.  Although some participants of mediation may deny and avoid  it, emotions are involved in any conflict. As  the author notes:

All conflict involves people, and so all conflict is inevitably ‘personal’. Without people, there would be no conflict, and people are never without emotions. So emotions are ever-present. (Id. at 43.)

Using this notion that emotion underlies our decision making (and indeed, about 90% of our decisions are based on emotion!), the author discusses the participants’ need for self-esteem, and their need to express themselves with the corresponding need to be heard without judgment. (Id. at 89-99.)  At one point, the author notes that “to win, a party has four essential needs that must be satisfied:

  •         the need for vindication-to be proved right
  •        the need for revenge- for the other party to feel the same or similar pain
  •        the need for humiliation- for the other party to be shamed
  •         the need for compensation- to recover perceived losses.            (Id. at 117.)

As part of this discussion, the author delves into the participants’ perceptions, assumptions and biases noting that the essential job of the mediator is to secure “…a perception shift in the parties to the conflict.” (Id. at 101.) With this shift, the attitudes of the parties will change so that the gap between divergent views will narrow enough to find common ground and thus a resolution. (Id.)  To do this, the mediator must work with each party’s perceptions. “Perceptions are assumptions we all make—” (Id. at 104.) Often these assumptions- about the other party, her motivations, her behavior, the facts, or the law are incorrect. (Id. at 104-107.) Similarly, the mediator must be cognizant of a participant’s implicit cognitive biases and prejudices and recognize that to ask a party to change her position may create discomfort, if not cognitive dissonance, in that party. (Id. at 107-113.)   To overcome these issues, the author suggests the use of the “good enough principle” whereby the parties are urged to consider whether the resolution offered, though not ideal, is “good enough” for them. (Id. at 114.)  By using this as the measuring stick, it allows the parties to hold on to their own perceptions of self, yet settle the dispute.

Another mechanism discussed by Mr. Randolph to reach a resolution is the “golden bridge.” (Id. at 75-76.)  I have heard this term before and understand its concept, but do not really know its back story. The author suggests that the term comes from The Art of War by Sun Tzu in which he wrote: “A wise conquering general is one who builds a Golden Bridge upon which his defeated enemy can retreat.” (Id.)  Mr. Randolph then explains:

If the enemy is provided with a dignified exit route from the dispute, it will be able to ‘save face’, and thereby maintain its self-esteem. If the enemy encounters nothing but shame and dishonor in defeat, it will have little option but to fight: for it is only through fighting that it believes it can regain its self-esteem. The mediator can thus invite the assistance of the first party in building that golden bridge by furnishing some hint of a concession upon which the other party might seize in order to save face…. (Id. at 76.)

In my endeavor to be accurate, I googled The Art of War and quickly read through it, finding no such quote. After some time, I found an article on Wikiquotes which indicated that the above quote attributed by Mr. Randolph to Sun Tzu is a variation of what Sun Tzu actually said in Chapter 7 entitled Military Maneuvers, No. 36: “When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. Do not press a desperate foe too hard.”

So, from this, I have learned several things; as the author notes, be aware of our assumptions (In this case, that the quote attributed to Sun Tzu actually came from him.); they may not necessarily be correct. Test them by conducting research, looking behind them and otherwise doing some reality checking. And, if you do find an error, rather than gloat about it thereby embarrassing the other party, build a “golden bridge” by providing a small concession to the other party allowing her to save face and to resolve the dispute “… with some dignity and self-respect intact.” (Id. at 76.)  Otherwise, “

[w]hen there are no alternatives, they will fight.”   (See, Sonshi at 11.26 )


…. Just something to think about.


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