Conflict Mapping and Mediation – Two Paths to Clarity

By Laura Melton Tucker, May 31st, 2012

Listen to this entry.

Word of mouth is the best advertisement.  Recent clients heard about conflict mapping* from their friends, which I offer in my mediation practice in addition, and as an alternative, to standard mediation.  This couple hoped conflict mapping would help them decide whether to stay married.  They came separately to my office, told the story of their conflict from their perspective, and then met together to see graphical representations – maps – of their conflict.  Their stories revealed a long history of infidelity and separations. One spouse wanted an open marriage, the other wanted fidelity.  Trust was something they doubted could ever be restored.  After a long mediated conversation, and informed by their conflict maps, one spouse looked at the other and said, “I think I know what I want.”  It was a turning point in their conversation and in their lives.

All of the people I meet through my practice come to mediation at varying stages in their conflict.  Some arrive with notepads and lists of agreements.  For them I may transcribe their notes and check my own lists against theirs to see if they’ve thought of everything.   For the couple described above, and others, my role is to guide a process that helps them to figure out what they want and to ask for it.   For these people – couples, families or business partners in the early stages of understanding their conflict –  conflict mapping may help to slow down the process and suss out the underlying causes of a conflict.  It facilitates an early stage inquiry that may balance perspectives and shine light on confusion.

Using process to discover meaning is a powerful tool of mediation. And, it seems, there’s a newly coined term for our desire to know what we want: “wantology.” A recent NY Times article describes specialized “wantologists” who guide clients through a series of questions to discover what it is they want.  According to the article, in our frazzled, frantic, stressed out lives, knowing what we want may not be so easy.  Conflict mapping, like wantology,  aims for clarity, but with an important distinction. Rather than ask questions like the wantologist, I listen to the client’s story and from that information map the conflict’s underlying issues.  The client, not the mediator, comes up with the insights that lead to action.

For the couple described above, conflict mapping acted as a catalyst for change. In a follow-up email, one of the spouses described the value of the experience:  “When we are presented with a neutral reflection of what we have expressed, the sense of validation is profound…tension is diffused…The mapping is a concrete way to have one’s words reflected in a format that provokes thought and encourages novel perspectives.”

Conflict mapping isn’t for everyone.  Many people prefer to do this work on their own, or have already processed the underlying source of their conflict when they come to mediation.  But for those who get lost along the way, conflict mapping can sort through confusion by showing the underlying fears and needs at the core of all conflict: dignity, identity, security and control. The process is clarifying.  From information follows insight, from insight follows action.   The takeaway is that knowing what we want may be the best takeaway of all…because from that place, a new path forward emerges.

*You may read more here and here about conflict mapping.

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