An Alternative to Traditional Dispute Resolution Instruction

Using philosophy in teaching conflict resolution

By PON Staffon / Dispute Resolution

dispute resolution

Many negotiation and mediation instructors draw from other disciplines for a range of purposes. Insights from social psychology, for instance, can help students understand, explain, or predict certain interpersonal and inter-group dynamics. Ideas from economics and game theory can shed light on various value-creation principles. The performing arts, including improvisational theater, can help negotiation students develop real-time listening and adapting skills. I wish to advocate for the use of philosophy to help students studying dispute resolution understand certain key concepts.

“The roles we play in mediation,” writes Kenneth Cloke in Mediating Dangerously (2000, p. 9), “are largely defined by our own attitudes, expectations, and styles. These roles, in turn, depend on a set of assumptions about human nature, the nature of conflict, and the nature of change that have reverberated throughout Western political and philosophical thought for centuries, resulting in radically different definitions of mediation.”

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The same argument is applicable to negotiation and dispute resolution, and for a better understanding of the set of assumptions that complements, if not governs, the roles we play in negotiation. It is for this reason I suggest that it would be extremely helpful to include certain philosophical studies as part of even the most basic courses in negotiation and mediation.

When introducing the terms “integrative negotiation” and “distributive bargaining,” I try to show the different mindset and philosophy that each of these modes of interaction draws from. I ask my students to read — usually in concert with a “prisoner dilemma” exercise in class (e.g. “Oil Pricing”, or “Win As Much As You Can”) — a summary I have prepared of Martin Buber’s philosophy and the distinction he draws between “I-Thou” and “I-It” relations.

Buber describes what he sees as two different sets of human relations and modes of interaction: an “I-It” relation that is characterized by cold indifference with respect to the other, who is treated as an object, and an “I-Thou” relation “where each of the partners really has in mind the other or others in their present and particular being and turns to them with the intention of establishing a living mutual relation between himself and them” (Buber 1932/2002, p. 22).

The word “present” is a translation of the German term “sosein,” which can also be translated as “suchness,” or “particularity.” Buber, who wrote in the first half of the 20th century, claimed that an “I-Thou” relation requires effort and strength of soul, while an “I-It” relation does not. Such strength, he went on to write, is often missing. The shift from “I-It” to “I-Thou” relations is what the humanistic philosophy of Martin Buber aspires for and is not unrelated to what we try to impress on negotiation students when we tell them that relationships matter in negotiation.

Learning Buber’s philosophy, even just a kernel of it, allows students participating in a prisoner’s dilemma exercise who are being exposed to the concepts of “integrative negotiation” and “distributive bargaining” for the first time, to reflect in a way that might not otherwise happen, and to see these concepts in a broader context. Without claiming that Martin Buber’s philosophy underlies the integrative negotiation/distributive bargaining distinction, but rather by offering his philosophy as another perspective that may shed light on this distinction, I help them reflect on the lessons of the exercise on another level. I aim to clarify both a philosophical tenet as well as the students’ own attitudes regarding human interaction and dispute resolution.

In the evaluations at the end of my course, under the rubric “note which contents in the course where most meaningful to you,” I often see many references to the philosophy of Martin Buber. I learned from my students that introducing Buber’s philosophy helped them shift from an adversarial to a collaborative conflict management style.

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Another example involves the introduction of post-modern philosophy when we discuss the “narrative” approaches to negotiation, mediation, and dispute resolution. In their book Narrative Mediation (1999), John Winslade and Gerald Monk claim that the “narrative” approach to mediation and its practices are built more on entering into a philosophical position than on learning particular techniques: “Those who grasp the philosophical position will relatively easily and quickly master the practices… [while] those who undertake narrative mediation through a simplistic practical orientation of them flounder after a short time and fail to embody the spirit of the approach” (ibid, p. 32).

Understanding the philosophical foundation of narrative mediation, according to Winslade and Monk, is essential to skillful practice. Thus, I believe, learning the philosophies of Jacques Derrida or Michel Foucault, the spiritual fathers of the post-modern theory that underlies the narrative approach to mediation, is extremely useful. My students seem to agree.

According to Jacques Derrida and the deconstructionists, everything is a text and subjectivity is constituted through linguistic relations. There is nothing more to reality but fluid and uncontrollable relations between linguistic signs. The sense of self (subject) and world (object) are relationally constituted in language. However, they should be deconstructed, as these linguistic constituencies do not signify any firm singular coherent entities.

Language, according to Derrida, does not express thoughts of a speaking subject and does not refer to objects; rather, in order to define a term or designate an entity, it is important to explore how it appears in the text and how it relates to other designated entities in it. We do not therefore make ourselves from ourselves, but are referred to by the manner that we are situated in the text and by the understanding of ourselves.

This in turn is always situational, formed in the signification of history, culture and discursive practices. By deconstructing the way we arrange the text of our experience, we open new opportunities for the re-construction of an alternative story, which in an interpersonal setting will hopefully be a co-constructed story that both parties in dispute resolution can agree upon. Delving into the underpinnings of this worldview helps students understand what we should do if we wish to use a narrative framework; it allows understanding the importance of listening to people’s narratives in manners that may help in the deconstruction process – a listening skill that goes beyond what we usually emphasize in our listening exercises.

When elaborating on the concept of negotiation and dispute resolution, Derrida asserts that “when I think negotiation I think of this fatigue, of this without-rest, this enervating mobility preventing one from ever stopping,” if you want — without stopping in the secured realm of the fixed positions, but moreover — the secured fixed and firm determinate agenda or sense of self, to which the post-modern philosophy opposes: “no thesis, no position, no theme, no station, no substance, no stability, a perpetual suspension, a suspension without rest” (Derrida 2002, p. 13).

Within the context of post-modern thought, the notion of suspending our judgments and presuppositions when entering negotiations, mediations or dispute resolution, gains a new and challenging meaning.

My experience teaches me that integrating key concepts from philosophy into the curriculum can enrich what negotiation and mediation students are learning in important ways.

Buber, Martin. 1932. “Dialogue”, Pp. 1-39 in Buber, Martin. 2002. Between Man and Man. New York: Routledge (2002).
Cloke, Kenneth. 2001. Mediating Dangerously: The Frontiers of Conflict Resolution. San Francisco, California:Jossey Bass.
Derrida, Jacques. “Negotiations,” Pp. 11-40 in Mieke Bal and Hent de Vries (Eds.). 2002. Negotiations: Interventions and Interviews, 1971-2002. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.
Winslade, John and Gerald Monk. 2000. Narrative Mediation: A New Approach to Conflict Resolution. San Francisco, California: Jossey Bass.

Written by Ran Kuttner, taken from the Winter 2010 issue of “Teaching Negotiation”, the bi-annual e-newsletter Negotiation Pedagogy at the Program on Negotiation.

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Discover how to improve your dispute resolution skills in this free report, Dispute Resolution: Working Together Toward Conflict Resolution on the Job and at Home, from Harvard Law School.

Originally published on January 5, 2010.