Rosenblum: Want to resolve conflicts? Start listening to the other side

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 7, 2013 - 9:23 PM

Sharon Press is director of the Hamline Law Dispute Resolution Institute.

Photo: Hamline University Photo

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Grande Lum was unsure a few days ago whether he’d still be visiting the Twin Cities this week. The reason is almost funny.

Lum is keynote speaker for the annual Association for Conflict Resolution conference, which will bring hundreds of professionals to ­Minneapolis to share fresh ways to help people get along.

But Lum also is director of community relations at the U.S. Department of Justice. Thanks to the intractable government shutdown, Lum is ­prohibited from traveling.

As of Monday, he couldn’t even come on his own dime to share fresh ways to help people get along.

“It’s an interesting moment in time,” said Sharon Press, a professor of law at Hamline University who didn’t miss the irony. Press, a national leader in conflict resolution, will be attending the Wednesday through Friday event at the Minneapolis Hilton, along with about 600 people from 42 states and 10 countries, assuming they can get here.

On the eve of the conference, she and others offer a primer on the important and growing practice of conflict resolution, of which Minnesota is a national leader.

Mediation, a popular form of conflict resolution, is now being taught to elementary schoolchildren. Its ideals are worth considering, whether one holds public office, is passionate about an orchestra or is seated across the table from a teenager wearing earbuds.

So, are you listening?

Turns out listening is not overrated. “It’s why the field of mediation has taken off,” said Press, director of Hamline’s Dispute Resolution Institute, who has trained others in the Middle East, Argentina and Haiti.

“When we are upset, we tend not to be very good at listening, which oftentimes leads to bigger conflicts.” That means really listening, mind you, and not just preparing ­reasons for why what they’re saying could never work.

“Mediation,” Press said, “in its most basic terms, is about helping people to overcome that resistance and inability to hear what’s really going on.”

Problem-solving should start as soon as we stop ­listening to each other, but it rarely does, she said. Instead, assumptions and animosities grow and lines are drawn deep in the sand, where “it’s really, really hard to back down, even if you want to.”

Press’ law school colleague, Bobbi McAdoo, shares a pertinent example. Last fall, ­McAdoo taught a negotiation class at Hamline, just as the Minnesota Orchestra dispute heated up. McAdoo and her students collected media reports, tracked websites and followed Facebook pages. Far from not predicting the sad finale, they saw it coming from a mile away, even then.

“It was a classic negotiation going wrong from the first moment,” McAdoo said. “The musicians obviously felt so devalued from Day 1. I don’t think the [orchestra] board devalued them, but [the musicians] felt like the other side was withholding information.”

The two sides would have benefited, she believes, from lots of face-to-face time, a key component in successful mediation. Instead, they ended up “firing salvos through the press. I kept thinking, ‘Why are they doing this?’ ”

And once they started doing this, it was very hard to shift to a more productive strategy.

“I don’t want to make it sound like this is simple,” said McAdoo, who started Hamline’s dispute resolution program in 1991. “This is incredibly difficult work.

“But neither side ever acknowledged the other party,” she said. “The mediator needed to ask them, ‘Tell me what you believe the other side needs out of this. Let me hear it from you.’ They didn’t get past that basic communications impasse. You can’t generate additional options without this understanding.”

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