Conflict can damage lives, both personally and professionally. Mediation can help all involved in a dispute to work through it and create mutually satisfying solutions.
OpenTalk is an organization dedicated to preventing, managing, and resolving disputes through mediation and other conflict-resolution services. Creating a nonadversarial environment that fosters mutual understanding is fundamental to our approach. OpenTalk seeks to change the way we engage with conflict in our society by focusing on communication, exploring options, and guiding resolution.
Mediation is appropriate across a wide spectrum of conflict—from individual to organizational, from small to large—and is a highly effective, though underused, process.
Mediation is a facilitated discussion with a neutral professional. The mediator guides the parties toward solutions that work for everyone involved. Because conflict can make communication difficult, the mediator works to create a safe environment, one where all voices can be heard. The goal is to allow those in conflict to engage in a more constructive conversation.
The mediator works toward this goal by structuring the conversation and seeking to understand all perspectives. The presence of a neutral third party whose role is not to judge but rather to listen and understand all sides helps to take the “heat” out of the conflict. Mediation helps people to engage their conflict in a different way—through the power of understanding rather than the more traditional powers of coercion or persuasion.
The following are central aspects of mediation:
- The mediator encourages each person to voice their concerns; this helps the disputants to working through the conflict in a way that’s best for all involved.
- The mediator does not make decisions. If an outcome is reached, it is up to the parties to craft it, with the help of the mediator. This allows for a more enduring and authentic outcome.
- Mediation is voluntary. All parties must agree to participate and can choose to leave at any time during the mediation if it is not working for them.
- Mediation proceeds by agreement. The parties involved and the mediator choose together how to proceed, step by step.
- Mediation is confidential. The mediator will not share any information heard during the process, and a written confidentiality agreement is reviewed by all parties.
When faced with conflict, we have a tendency to freeze, fight, or flee. It is our evolutionary legacy. The amygdala, a part of the brain, reacts to protect the self. We may choose to fight: by hiring attorneys to speak on our behalf, we litigate and leave the final outcome to a judge. We may freeze or flee: by ignoring the conflict entirely, we hope it will go away. But a conflict ignored has a tendency to return. With time hearts harden, positions become more entrenched, and the situation only gets worse.
It is difficult for anyone to choose a different path of engagement and navigate the complexities of conflict when hijacked by the amygdala. Everything looks black and white, right or wrong. This is why in the United States, we spend $5 billion to $10 billion annually on interpersonal conflicts and violence, according to the Human Rights Watch. Not only do we spend money to flight in the court system; we pay an emotional price as well. Conflict is one of life's worst stressors.
Mediators interrupt this cycle through a powerful process that encourages each party to speak, hear, be understood, and decide. Whether it’s used to help people reconcile or to part on good terms, to move through a stalemate or to create a fair contract, mediation is a method that engages the neocortex—the part of the brain responsible for emotional regulation and other “executive functions”—and that allows participants to bring more innovative solutions to the table.
Just as prevention is an essential aspect of maintaining health and wellness, so too is it an important part of managing conflict. But preventing conflict is often difficult because if we aren’t reacting to a crisis, we’re not likely to see immediate benefits. Still, preventive and wellness measures are taking hold in organizations. Google, for example, hired Zen master Chade-Meng Tan to teach mindfulness techniques to its employees. He contends that compassion is good for business, and at OpenTalk we agree. Having systems in place that manage conflicts when they arise can greatly benefit an organization’s efficiency.
Conflict can diminish productivity, effectiveness, and good will. Helping employees to acquire better communication skills through training, to understanding their own tendencies when responding to conflict, and to developing the capacity to manage disputes when they arise can create a better working environment.
OpenTalk Conflict Management assesses an organization’s existing conflictmanagement systems—for instance, are they implicit, explicit, or both?—and creates a system, with the participation of the organization, that supports all involved to handle conflicts as they arise and prevent them from erupting. If an organization suffers from longstanding conflicts that involve many stakeholders or are otherwise complex, OpenTalk can provide mediation to address those persistent situations.
"Problems cannot be solved at the level of awareness that created them." -Albert Einstein
Who we are and how our society views conflict affect how we navigate difficult situations. Raising the awareness of how we engage with conflicts can greatly change our outcome.
Disputes in the United States are often handled by attorneys, taking the power to make decisions out of the hands of the disputants. This system encourages competition, and situations quickly become a “zero-sum” game in which there is a winner and a loser. Everyone hopes to be the winner, but there is no guarantee. And competitive environments discourage mutual understanding: the focus becomes what we want and what the conflict is about, rather than why we want what we want and how we are going about getting it.
OpenTalk Trainings make use of the current research on conflict and examples from individual and organizational disputes. We explore conflict through exercises, games, theory, and discussion. Participants gain an awareness of their own reactions to conflict and learn how their response can influence the outcome of a dispute. Our interactive trainings give participants specific skills and knowledge of alternative approaches that will help them in resolving both personal and professional disagreements.
Yuko Uchikawa founded OpenTalk in 2012 to work with cases ranging from personal to organizational disputes. Drawn to the field of conflict resolution by her commitment to peace-building, she has been working in the field of anti-violence and peace education since 1993, and is a co-founder of Ruckus Safety Awareness, an organization that teaches self-defense using an empowerment model. In 2007, Yuko received a master’s degree in education with a focus on conflict resolution and peace education from Teachers College, Columbia University. She is a certified mediator through the New York State Unified Court System, for which she handles a wide range of cases, from custody and visitation and community disputes to small claims. Yuko works with the Department of Education on early-intervention and special-education cases. She also conducts trainings and workshops in New York City and Japan on transforming conflict, mediation, and secondary trauma.
© OpenTalk 2013