The Quantum Leap: A Higher Level for the Field of Conflict Resolution
Past a Tipping Point
We hear, with increasing frequency, about the concept of the “tipping point,” a term popularized by journalist Malcom Gladwell. Ideas, approaches, products, and messages, it seems, spread like epidemics. At first a disease will spread at a gradual rate, affecting only a few in a population. The “tipping point” in an epidemic is the critical juncture when the spread of the disease suddenly jumps to an exponential rate, now affecting a significantly large number in the population.
In the field of conflict resolution, we reached and passed a tipping point some time in the last decades of the 20th Century: what was once a patchwork of techniques (such as interest-based negotiation), social movements (such as community justice), and efforts at streamlining court dockets (such as mandatory mediation referrals), has become an interdisciplinary field in its own right, transformed from an “alternative” form of dispute resolution to the mainstream. The next evolution in the field is just beginning.
Crisis and Opportunity in Conflict Resolution
We have emerged in the 21st century to find ourselves confronting what one acclaimed pioneer of the field, Bernie Mayer, has called a “crisis” in the field of conflict resolution: the failure to provide enough of what people in conflict are actually seeking. Having passed a first tipping point in the effort to define itself as a distinct field with a focus on developing the supply of conflict resolution providers and enhancing their professionalism, the field of conflict resolution must now aim to make a new quantum leap, with focus on the demands of the marketplace. As Mayer puts it in his groundbreaking book Beyond Neutrality, “if we are to flourish as a field, we have to become more involved in all aspects” of the cycle of conflict.
A new vision requires the development of professionals in the field who become specialists in conflict engagement and management; building on the old roles of mediators and facilitators, they can broaden their offerings and make a dramatic difference in how conflict is handled. This new paradigm involves concentration on such areas as the design of systems for handling conflict within organizations (“systems design”), the development of these systems through such roles as process facilitators and designers, case managers, trainers, and systems advisers, with integration and expertise in using important tools such as dialogue, coaching, and conflict analysis.
The next evolution in the field of conflict resolution requires practitioners with an understanding of complexity theory, comfort with ambiguity and emergence, collaborative problem-solving skills, and the ability to balance the needs of diverse groups within ever changing environments. The next generation of practitioners will be leaders working with and within our institutions to improve how we work together. They will become the conduits through which future models for collaborative organization emerge.