Monday, July 16, 2012

On Herding Cats 2/2

How do we neutralize threats before and during a conflict?

“I promise to be fearless.” I wrote those words into my mediation handbook on nearly every page. I said it, I believed it. And it has driven me since. My mediation trainer had us say it all the time. And I carry that with me.

In my field I get to meet the people that are hopefully putting the soldiers out of business. We fight a little differently in our work. I've met people who have ended decades of violent conflict. People who have ended famines. People who have ended gang wars and street fights. People who have helped murderers apologize to the families of their victims. People who every day seek out conflict and make it something positive.

And if I were to explain in one word what we do—nothing. Our job is not to step in and say who is right or wrong, what should be, or how to do something. Rather, our job is to listen and disappear into the ether.

My job—and worldview—is predicated on the premise that people are like me. They hurt and they laugh and they are concerned about a great many things. Our sole job is to open the channels of communication between people. We take conflict between people and work to make it a challenge that they all face together.

I know it's not traditional guns and glory. In fact, my field has peaceniks, hippies, and feminists. I meet a lot of very touchy-feely emotions people. And sometimes it really is just a feelings circle.

Here's the thing: good, well-trained alternative dispute resolution (ADR) experts work.

But where does this leave the sheepdogs, the sheep, or the wolves? Certainly there are plenty of off the cuff situations that require quick timing and expert execution. And wars don't fight themselves; we still have thousands of committed men and women in our armed forces that spend every day putting their lives on the line. That's commendable.

My life is solving conflict in a different way. They aren't exclusive and I'm not naïve. The world isn't fuzzy happy things. But the world isn't black and white and harsh all over either. We live in a world of nuance, where sometimes my approach won't work. And sometimes having a concealed firearm isn't going to help you in danger either.

Like it or not we make it through life relying on a good deal of luck. There are plenty of things out of our control; so we prepare as best we can, we accumulate skills and tools to help us get through life. Personally, I have chosen tools and skills that take a lot longer to work and a lot more effort. Many believe that war is the only option and we are foolish to stop the marching masses. Yet, ADR professionals have been on the front lines of every war never fought; you don't hear about us and we don't want you to. The best day for us is the one in which there is no news.

People call us insane because sometimes we try to reason with mad men. That's ok. We will keep trying because our goal is that one day we won't be needed and neither will the soldiers that fight our wars. Until that time though, the fighters press on prepared to fight the righteous war.

If this seems less like an argument and more like a complement, then I am doing a good job. If it seems like this is somehow trying to expound, excoriate, or proselytize then I am sorry—I can be a crappy writer.

The point I am trying to make, more than anything, is that being fearless is more than committing oneself to a violent way of resolving conflict. Sometimes it is being Gandhi and fighting the world's largest empire with peace and resolve. Sometimes it's Martin Luther King Jr. walking in Alabama. Being the so-called sheepdog is fine. Being the watchful shepherd is also possible.

So I believe I have broken every rule I set out in writing this piece. It probably also rambles a fair bit. But hopefully the reader, you, took something important away. If not, I'm open to any and all thoughts.