Sorting out squabbles

WHAT does a day in the life of a dispute resolution specialist entail?

WHAT does a day in the life of a dispute resolution specialist entail?

In a nutshell, sorting out squabbles. Businesses and organisations approach us when they've reached a crisis point or are heading straight into one and want to avoid the big litigation fees that arise when things go really sour.

We analyse who the parties are, what they are disputing while looking at their respective needs and interests. We find out what the levels of animosity are (can they handle seeing or talking to each other?), we sketch various desired outcomes and then we decide how to resolve the deadlock.

We're doing extensive mediation work around farm dwelling evictions, which involves understanding the legal rights of both the farmer and the farm dwellers.

We brief our mediators on each case and provide them with back-up intervention should the "stuckness" between two rival entities need extra help to break the impasse.

Because I run a company I have to deal with all the usual issues of managing a business. We have 11 full-time staff members and 120 part-time workers nationwide, so not all my time is dedicated to conflict resolution.

Why did you decide on this career?

After school I studied youth ministry at the National Youth Leadership Training Programme in KwaZulu-Natal.

It was a highly politically motivated and black consciousness-orientated college, so when I moved back to Cape Town and found myself working as a youth pastor at a group of non-racial churches, I suddenly realised I had to engage these young people on issues around how they felt regardless of their race.

I also had to listen to them and see them for the people they were, regardless of their political leanings. I learnt then that to build bridges cross-culturally, we have to find ways to talk and listen to each other.

In 1990, one of the courses on conflict resolution and mediation that I did as part of an adult education diploma at UCT sparked my interest and got me hooked on the business of solving problems.

How did you get into this career?

Later I became head of mediation and training at the Centre for Conflict Resolution at UCT, which facilitated dialogue among young progressive Afrikaners and the ANC in exile.

After spending eight years working on our National Peace Accord, training election monitors for the 1994 elections and facilitating dialogue between Pagad (People against Gangsterism and Drugs) and the SAPS among other things, I started teaching internationally at universities.

After seeing how human relations can be healed through mediation, dialogue and active problem solving strategies, I decided to dedicate myself to this field.

What's challenging about the job?

Sometimes it is difficult to remain neutral. Occasionally I have the urge to side with a particular party, based on the issues, or narratives that are presented.

Often there are certain triggers which when pressed give way to our natural tendency to side with the underdog, but in order to be fair I have to always operate on what I call "active neutrality" where I am neutral to the issues, but not neutral to the outcome.

In other words, if the outcome will weaken, or is unfair to one party, I will not accept that outcome.

What do you love most about your career?

Twenty years down the track, I'm still passionate about what I do.

The great thing about conflict is that it gives people an opportunity, if managed properly, to tell their stories and be heard.

It's often an amazingly cathartic experience for people and it's very rewarding to witness it, let alone be involved in bringing it about.

In conflict, our desired outcome is deemed the most important and only outcome possible, and this "stuckness" can limit our development. We create a clearance, or open space where both feel safe to hear and listen. We also courier messages between parties until they're ready to talk to each other and ultimately don't need us at all.

Another great thing is getting people to solve problems together. It's funny to watch how they move from being antagonistic competitors to collaborators. The beauty is that so often when they arrive at the outcome, they own it, claim it and buy into it fully.

What type of person would make a success of this position?

You need to be someone who does not have a big ego. In our society we're taught that if you're the strongest, then you're the best. In conflict resolution, it's not about you; you are just an enabling facilitator.

It's about the parties and how to get them to talk, listen and present outcomes that eventually both will be happy about. You need to have a sense of humility, but at the same time not be a push-over.

You need to be gentle, but firm with an ability to engage others in a truthful manner; you need to be empathetic while maintaining an analytical understanding to decode behaviour and emotional responses. Good communication and listening skills are vital.

You need to really hear - not just intellectually, but on an emotional level too.

When people are in conflict they only see their own point of view, so it's useful to be a creative thinker to help them see that there are different ways of doing things.

What subjects do you need to pass in high school to be able to study towards this career?

English and, or other languages and life orientation.

What does one study at tertiary level to get into this career?

Because it's all about human relations and behaviour, psychology is a must. Communication, language and counselling courses are good foundation stones.

l Mediation and Transformation Practice specialises in organisational and community transformation and conflict resolution