In the past two or three weeks, I have been privileged to act as mediator in a number of difficult disputes. These ranged from high value property development to patent rights in specialist off-shore equipment, to development planning in industrial sites to the supply of feedstuffs in a modern agricultural context.
The issues raised have been many and varied.
However, at the heart of each conflict was the common thread of humanity. In each instance, I saw individuals for whom the matter was vitally important, whose wellbeing and sense of worth was wrapped up in the project or product, the claim or quest for justice, or who were driven by a desire to be vindicated or to make a difference for others.
In these situations, we are often blind to the viewpoints of others, seduced by our belief that our own perspective is the correct one, reluctant to accept that there may be another way of looking at a problem. My task, and that of all of us who seek to help people to work cooperatively rather than antagonistically, is to search for common ground, explore the real underlying issues, concerns, hopes, fears and aspirations, build bridges of communication, act as a buffer for raw emotion, hurt and frustration and look for options to move forward.
What is striking is how often it is "not about what it is about" as I believe the writer and broadcaster Malcolm Muggeridge once observed. Underneath the superficial symptoms, lie other concerns and causes of conflict.
It often seems that the workplace disputes we are invited to help resolve are not about discrimination or unfairness or inequality as such but more about a lack of understanding, poor communication, lack of recognition, perceived undervaluing, a momentary slight or a careless word.
And in at least two of my recent experiences of mediation, an important issue for the protagonists, and the reason why the dispute was so difficult to bear, was that their offspring attended the same class at school and the continuing conflict was affecting the children’s relationships at school and causing parental embarrassment at the school gates.
How real that is – and how matters of seemingly great importance are magnified by, and reflected in, the seemingly mundane events of day-to-day existence.
Once the underlying tensions are identified and dealt with, the resultant disputes are often relatively easy to resolve. The re-establishment of trust and communication enables problem-solving to be achieved.
What is true of disputes and conflicts at a local level is true of national and international events too. Our task is to understand this – and to work tirelessly to build a world in which collaborative conflict resolution prevails over adversarial polarisation.