Stories and the use of stories have great resonance in today’s times. Stories abound of love lost, love found, fortunes gained, and fortunes squandered. Organizations, too, have stories of their founding, turnarounds, or their demise.
Mediators listen for and suss out stories from people in conflict (disputants) and call these “conflict stories.” Like all narratives, conflict stories have a beginning, middle, and end---and they have additional details of pain, hurt and disagreements involving others.
Mediators use conflict stories for various purposes. The stories reveal disputants’ perspective of a conflict and offer view into disputants’ sense-making and values. In telling their conflict stories within the mediation process, disputants give air (and view) into often painful corners of their lives and this airing can offer relief. When others listen to disputants’ perspectives of the conflict, they may hear new information or achieve new understanding. Mediators follow these conflict stories in order to facilitate disputants’ journey to resolution.
Conflict stories have flip sides. They can hamper disputants if disputants cannot separate themselves from the conflict or if they over-identify with the conflict. The (re)telling of conflict stories can make disputants further entrenched in the conflict. The conflict can take on an outsized role in disputants’ lives and rob disputants of other perspectives, other realities, or reality itself. This can make reaching a resolution challenging.
On the whole, conflict stories have narrative power in letting disputants tell their stories from their own voice. The role of mediators is to balance, manage time, recognize the person behind the conflict, acknowledge emotions, and facilitate a safe forum where people can fashion ways out of conflict for themselves. Mediators operate under these premises:
People are separate from their conflicts
Conflicts come with many angles and perspectives
People can build positive outcomes for themselves out of conflict
Underneath fixed positions are deeper interests that matter and that are negotiable
When these premises become actuality in a mediation, conflict stories become transformative stories.
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