Why we get stuck in conflict, and how to get out

Have you ever been in a disagreement with someone, and you know it is not going to turn out well? Even with my training in mediation and studies in conflict resolution, I continually get pulled into these same situations. Why is it that even when we know we are not acting in the best interest of the situation, we still escalate the conflict and abandon the basic tenets of respectful communication?

My name is Eric Dirth, and I began my work this September at the local mediation center in effort to gain a better understanding of dispute resolution processes. I have spent my time observing or participating in several roles, and this fall’s blog entries will offer food for thought on the key topics in community mediation. This week I am considering the mediation and dispute resolution training processes to explore why we still get entrenched in conflict when we know it is not going to end well.

I recently was working with two peers to organize an event, and it did not take long before we recognized we had very different philosophies about how to make the event a success. We shared the same basic goal, yet with different ideas we became entrenched in a battle over minor details.

At the mediation center, at public participatory events, and in everyday life we are pulled into these conflicts well aware of the consequences of our actions. Why? I will spend the rest of this post reflecting on my own experiences, both at the mediation center and in my everyday life, to posit some idea on the magnetism of entrenched conflict.

I contend there are two reasons why we are pulled towards polarizing conflict: Open-mindedness is hard work, and the need to win.

Open-mindedness is hard work

The more complex the issue, the more open-minded we should probably remain. However, I see too frequently that the more complex the issue, the more apt we are to view the situation with blinders on. We naturally turn to what we know when faced with what we don’t know, and in conflict what we often don’t know is the other person’s side of the story, or the view of our actions and interactions from their point of view. For example, even though I know I communicated clearly to my colleagues, my colleagues’ views that I did not communicate clearly is certainly a valid claim. Moreover, recognizing their view and remaining opening to the fact that somewhere we are operating on different pages will transform the conflict from arguing over ideas to a problem with potential to be resolved. In other words, we need to exercise more of a willingness, not just to hear, but to listen to those viewpoints directly opposite our own.

The need to win

It is safe to say nobody likes to be a pushover. We have the urge to win in conflict, or at least keep from losing. As a result, different people adopt different conflict resolution strategies to win in conflict. Some people consider both parties losing in conflict as a success. Others prefer to give in on everything in order to avoid conflict (or have a passive aggressive victory). More often, however, disputants want to win everything on the table and leave nothing for the other party. Ideally, successful conflict resolution reframes the winning to mean a collaborative problem solving effort, but yet we frequently are much more comfortable with our own ideas of how to “win” the conflict. I believe this is because we don’t trust the other party’s willingness to work with us, and we fear they might actually persuade us to change our minds. I don’t have an easy answer on how to encourage more collaboration through development of trust, because I don’t think we should always trust the other party.

My advice to conclude today is to work in conflict to acknowledge these different types of conflict resolution strategies and have a better self-awareness of why we are acting a particular way in conflict. The self-awareness allows for more openness, and perhaps maybe a few less polarized conflicts.


Seeking to Understand: The Power of Participants

By Ali Steed

I am very shy. I thought that might be a problem when I entered into an SCOM class that centered on the organization and facilitation of public process. I was nervous about my ability to facilitate a dialogue for people I didn’t know. What would they be like? How would they speak to one another? What would I do if the conversation veered off into a bunch of name-calling and raised voices? My trepidation lingered until my first time as an official facilitator, where I began to see the unique ways that people interact in the type of environment that dialogue and deliberation makes possible.

It’s an interesting contrast: the point of having the conversation is for people with a stake in the dialogue to be able to contribute their perspective while simultaneously enlarging it through engaging with others. Yet, it is those same participants with a vested interest in the conversation that are likely to have the strongest feelings and opinions about the issue. On one hand, this is exciting—the prospect of knowing that you can help positively impact a person by allowing them to speak about some of their most deeply held truths is one of the most rewarding parts of being a facilitator. On the other hand, it is a daunting task as the facilitator to ensure that people so invested in the topic speak considerately and seek to understand those who also have deeply held beliefs.

Facilitating the dialogue The State and Marriage: Understanding Two Perspectives helped illustrate the unique ability of dialogue to foster an environment that promotes true understanding and valuable conversation amongst its participants. The small group that I facilitated was as engaged, compassionate, and thoughtful, as any group I have seen during my last few years as a facilitator. The marriage forum was a great example of a group of people seeking to understand. The participants asked with genuine interest and spoke with true consideration.

Sometimes, as a facilitator, you can get so wrapped up in the “what could go wrong,” that you forget all of the “what could go right.” My experience at the marriage forum reminded me of all that does indeed go right by virtue of engaging in community dialogue, regardless of how delicate an issue might be. Participants have the power to hold onto their own beliefs while still acknowledging the beliefs of others. Though centered on an extremely sensitive topic, the marriage forum ended up being one of the most productive dialogues I have been a part of. I continue to be pleasantly surprised by the compassion and productivity that even the most value-laden conversations can produce.

This is not to say that every dialogue will be so smooth—free of hiccups and full of kindness. But, it is to say that the reason that public process is so valuable and can contribute such tangible benefits is because of the atmosphere that occurs as a result of dialogue. The true impact that engaging in dialogue and deliberation can have communities, and the power of the participants that make these processes possible, never ceases to amaze me.

Facilitators as stakeholders: Suspending the bias

By Lauren Holder

4C Student Affiliate

In public deliberative processes, stakeholders are the persons who hold an interest, concern, or perspective that affects or is affected by the issue at hand.  With many forums I have facilitated or planned over the past two years, I have identified simultaneously as both a stakeholder in the conversation AND an unbiased facilitator of the process. The difficulty with this situation is that it is nearly impossible to remove one’s bias. One’s perspectives and beliefs are not merely erased when we step into the role of a facilitator. Therefore the challenge is to step into the neutral role and suspend all judgments, opinions, and personal values at the proverbial door where they may be picked up again later.

Each forum has been different. In Spring 2013 4C facilitated a conversation regarding natural gas fracking and its effects on the community. I had little to no opinion or knowledge on that matter, so my bias didn’t present any issue and I never thought much about it. However, when I facilitated a dialogue on Marriage and the State in Fall of 2014, I was faced with the challenge of feeling very strongly for the side of marriage equality and gay rights, but had to remain a neutral facilitator.

There is no simple way to put your beliefs on hold. Sometimes you are so tempted to blurt out your own perspectives that you feel the need to literally bite your tongue. There is no quick fix, trick, or simple strategy to suspending judgments. You simply must “do.” The way I accomplish the task is by reminding myself that this isn’t the only dialogue. I am not missing my one opportunity to be heard. I am, however, making sure that these participants are heard, and that is my most important role in that moment. I remind myself that my first and biggest priority is creating a safe and open space for others to feel comfortable sharing their own beliefs.

The biggest challenge to personal bias that I have seen through 4C was during the Students as Neighbors Forum this past November. ALL of the table facilitators were JMU undergraduate students from the SCOM department. ALL were clearly stakeholders in the conversation as they were, in fact, students. The discussion was quite literally about them, yet they were challenged to neutrally guide the conversation while certainly having an opinion on the matter.

The biggest obstacle here was to be upfront and honest with participants that while yes, facilitators were students, they were not there in the ‘student’ role. Facilitators had to balance the conversation between different perspectives so as not to appear to favor their peers’ perspective over another. The student facilitators accomplished this task with ease, while still seeming genuine and human. I was unbelievably impressed with their ability to juggle their many roles in that moment.
Neutrality is certainly easier said than done, but facilitators can learn the skill through practice and intentional thinking. Sometimes observing others accomplish neutrality can be an effective learning tool. Neutrality doesn’t mean lying or putting up a false front, because others will see through that persona. It just means suspending judgments for the time-being.

Why mediation?

I am faced with this question on a daily basis when working at the Community Mediation Center. Whether introducing myself to distressed individuals at the county courthouse, preparing disputants for their mediation session, or sitting in on a mediation session, mediation continues to be a widely recognized term with little known about its process.

My name is Eric Dirth, and I began my work this September at the local mediation center in an effort to gain a better understanding of dispute resolution processes. I have spent my time observing or participating in several roles, and this fall’s blog entries will offer “food for thought” on the key topics in community mediation. This week I am focusing on the meaning of mediation.

One of the Fairfield Center’s missions is to provide mediation as a constructive process to resolve misunderstandings and miscommunication in a variety of circumstances. Mediations may be court referred or client-paid, and frequently the first question from the disputant is not “why mediation,” but “what is mediation?” Generally they include some qualifier such as “I’ve heard about it but…” or “Just remind me…” When faced with these questions, the volunteer or mediator’s first task is to reduce some of the uncertainty surrounding what will be taking place. I find three simple sentences help reduce this uncertainty and express why mediation is a productive tool for resolving conflict.


Mediation is confidential and voluntary.

What is said in mediation stays in mediation. Confidentiality is critical to the disputants’ comfort in voicing their concerns and thoughts, and mediation supplies this type of safe space. The safe space also necessitates voluntary attendance. If the disputant does not want mediation, there is no requirement to attend the mediation session. In fact, if the disputant displays a destructive attitude, the mediator has the right to end the mediation at any time. This does not mean the disputants must agree with each other or give in on the most prevalent issues. Instead, it means the disputants must be prepared to gain a better understanding of the other disputant’s perspective.

Mediators are facilitators, nothing more.

Mediators are not deciding what should be done to resolve the issue and are not the decision-makers. The mediator acts as a facilitator to give the disputants a chance to talk, listen, and understand each other better. Frequently the mediator will identify a range of options and question flawed reasoning, but ultimately it is up to the disputants to resolve the issue themselves.


Mediation saves time and money by bringing people together to develop acceptable solutions.

Mediation is cheaper than court, quicker, and allows for the disputants’ voices to be adequately heard. The courtroom does not have the time or resources to adequately listen to the complex, seemingly intractable conflict that has developed between persons. The judge has no choice but to pass a decision, often to the detriment of one or both parties. Mediation creates space for voice and allows the disputants to make their own decisions.

4C Presents at National Dialogue and Deliberation Conference

4C Campus Community Civic Collaborative Director Lori Britt and graduate students Katie Lese and Leanna Smithberger recently presented on a panel Teaching Next Generation Democracy: High School, College, and Beyond at the National Coalition on Dialogue and Deliberation conference in Reston, Virginia. Over 400 practitioners, scholars and advocates for dialogue and deliberative democracy attended the conference.

Lese and Smithberger have been part of the 4C program since taking Britt’s Facilitating Community Engagement class as undergraduates and have facilitated community forums on guns and safety, marriage and the state, student/community relations, and more.

Their presentation was focused on the opportunities and challenges involved in training students to facilitate public dialogue and engaging them as facilitators for community issues. They were joined on the panel by faculty and students from Wesleyan University and from the Interactivity Foundation and the Close-Up Foundation, community organizations that prepare students as engaged citizens.

The panel discussion was captured in real-time by a graphic recorder who illustrated the themes of the panel.

2014-10-18 13.29.41


Welcome to our 4C blog. We are excited to be planning for Fall 2014 – planning for community forums and getting ready to train a new group of student facilitators who learn how to design and facilitate productive conversations about challenging issues. You can follow our news here on our blog.