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Beyond Neutrality: Confronting the Crisis in Conflict Resolution,

by Bernard Mayer, Ph.D. (Jossey-Bass, 2004, 336 pages, $38)

Reviewed by Carl D. Schneider, Ph.D.

ACResolution, Summer 2004, Vol. 3, #4, p. 7

It’s always a pleasure to participate in a Bernie Mayer workshop. He never lectures or tells us; he invites us to join him as he reflects on his experience and ponders the paradoxes of this field. His newest book, Beyond Neutrality, is written with that same gentle wisdom and invitation for reflection.

Drawing on his 25 years of leadership in the conflict resolution field, Bernie asks us hard questions: “Have we lived up to our promise? Are we actually getting somewhere?” He fears that we could come to be seen “not as a free standing field” but as (merely) a set of specific skills and cluster of roles. Our fate, he fears, could be that of community organization and group work, once strong fields in social work but now pale shadows of their former selves.

He sees a field in crisis, and that crisis is our failure “to seriously engage …conflict in a profound or powerful way.” Why, he questions, were we not consulted to help with the aftermath of 9/11 or why are we largely absent from negotiations on everything from environmental issues to pressing social problems? On 9/11, he observes, “Diplomats, politicians, journalists, military experts, area experts, political analysts, pollsters, legal experts, and an assortment of other media favorites are repeatedly consulted, but not a conflict resolution practitioner is in sight in these discussions. “What we are mainly remarkable for,” he notes wistfully, “is our absence.”

The enemy, he argues, is our self-limitation – the restricted role and purpose by which we have defined ourselves. Bernie’s vision of the way forward grows out of his reflections on his own journey. In his younger days, Bernie created conflict as a union organizer, peace activist, and child advocate. Now, as a leading “conflict resolver,” he considers whether he left something essential behind. The recognition of what is now missing in his conflict resolution work provides him a key to what is missing in our field.

Steven Covey said, “if you want small change, learn a skill. If you want major change, get a new paradigm.” Bernie is after major change. Rather than touting ourselves as neutrals whose role is to help “resolve conflict,” he wants us to see our task as helping people to “engage conflict effectively.” According to Bernie, “people in conflict need assistance throughout the whole cycle of conflict – in preventing conflict, in understanding that there is a potential conflict, in raising that conflict to the level of awareness, in escalating a conflict to the point where some response is provoked, in conducting and carrying on a conflict until resolution may be possible, in engaging in a resolution process, in coming to resolution, and in healing from conflict. If we are to flourish as a field we have to become more involved in all aspects of this process.”

Bernie suggests that we may be putting too much energy into the trappings of professionalism. Our efforts to develop standards of practice, criteria for approved training programs, certification requirements and other professional policies and procedures may be a case of misplaced priorities. Whether conflict resolution becomes more widely accepted and influential depends less, he maintains, on developing the infrastructure of a profession than on “strengthening the clarity practitioners share about the heart of what they have to offer and providing services accordingly. Conflict resolution is more… a vision, a set of values or even a movement than a professional discipline.”

In moving “beyond neutrality” and expanding our repertoire of roles, Bernie sees us becoming more comfortable as advocates, coaches, trainers, advisors and negotiators and accepting these roles as appropriate for conflict resolution professionals. This would be a major change, but, he contends, one that could move the field in new and more effective directions. Beyond Neutrality presents a thoughtful rationale and foundation for a more robust and deepened field. This book will be argued, revised, expanded – but it will be the agenda!

Carl Schneider, Ph.D. is a mediator, trainer, and director of Mediation Matters in Rockville, Maryland. He is an Advanced Practitioner member of ACR

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