Eye of the Storm Leadership
150 Ideas, Stories, Quotes, and Excercises On The
Art and Politics of Managing Human Conflicts
by Peter Adler, Ph.D.
Writings > Unconscious Excellence
 

From Bringing Peace Into the Room: How the Personal Qualities of the Mediator Impact the Process of Conflict Resolution, Daniel Bowling and David Hoffman, Editors, Jossey-Bass, 2003.

Brining Peace into the Room

UNCONSCIOUS EXCELLENCE

An Exploration of Mastery and Incompetence [1]

          Being Also, a Rumination on Art, Craft, Career, Bungling, Skill Acquisition, Bell Curves, Baseball, Cooking, Surfing, Dentistry, Tree Trimming, and Why Mediators and Facilitators  May Be Dangerous to Those We Are Trying to Help

Peter S. Adler [2]


1.     Right Livelihood

If you are reading this, the odds are pretty good that you are a mediator, facilitator, ombudsman, or arbitrator. I am too. Mostly I mediate and facilitate. Along with a few other colleagues with whom I am associated, I have been doing this work for about 25-years. I study it, practice it, and teach it and find a certain triangular nourishment in doing all three. Primarily, though, I consider myself a practitioner. My specialty is environment, health, and energy issues.

Over the years I have worked on matters ranging from out-of-watershed bulk water transfers, the siting of geothermal power plants, and the creation of new telecommunication regulations. I have mediated many other more ordinary cases as well, inside and outside the court system, including disputes over broken promises, barking dogs, fights at weddings, and several especially nasty church and university feuds. Admittedly, plunging into other people’s confusions is a peculiar, possibly aberrant way to make a living. Nonetheless, it is what I do and by some fluke, I like doing it.

When I was a graduate student in sociology, one of my professors assured me that I would one day have to choose between working in the world of action versus the world of ideas. Turns out he was wrong. The conflict resolution field combines both and does it beautifully. At its most elemental level, we get to try and help people get un-stuck and solve vexatious and stubborn problems with a methodology that, when it doesn’t work, has few serious negative side effects.

When it does work, big things seem to happen. Agreements are made, relationships are improved, and people have new road maps for the future. Intellectually, people like me and you are privileged to study up close and personal the intricate ways human predicaments can be framed and tamed, how solutions can move from being exclusive to inclusive, how adversaries can turn the corner and become partners, how we can get all the people involved into the action and still get some action, and how people who mistrust each other deeply can ultimately face larger problems together.

Because conflict tends to be a sometimes nasty and venal crucible of human affairs, much of what we do is not just repugnant to other people, it is also – when they actually see what goes on -- boring. Mediation is not the big theater most people think it is. More often, it is something akin to a double-header baseball game. There are a lot of innings with not-too-much-happening interrupted once in a while by a high-intensity moments when the bases are loaded and a flinty-eyed pitcher goes mano a mano with a great slugger. In evolutionary or biological terms (having never met good metaphors that couldn’t be mixed), multi-party and multi-issue mediation is a quintessential example of what evolution expert Stephen Jay Gould called “punctuated equilibrium.”

In my practice, I tend to work in the background of public quarrels over natural resources, health, energy development, and social and economic policy. Most of the disputes I get involved in have a lot of parties, are laden with ideological differences, and fraught with contentious politics and contested science. Usually, there is a legal or regulatory flap going on, or one that everyone recognizes is coming soon. In many of my cases and projects, business people want to make or do something, non-governmental organizations and community advocates oppose it, and government agencies are struggling to decide which public policies and in what combination properly apply.

I get involved in other conflicts as well. There are the usual business fights -- the two corporate officers locked in mortal combat, the shareholder factions trying to wrestle control from each other, and the construction disputes where costs have started to outdistance potential profits. I have been in the middle of family owned partnership dissolutions in which all sides were slowly descending into the abyss. And there have been numerous organizational matters which challenge our best ideas about democracy: parliamentary impasses, strategic planning problems, leadership battles.

Surprisingly, all of these cases follow a certain pattern. People (usually, but not always, of good will) espouse divergent positions or interests. Each side seeks advantage. They clash. They attempt to work things out. They fail. They start demonizing each other. Communication channels get clogged or severed. Deep distrust starts to permeate every transaction. Matters radiate centripetally or centrifugally and the dispute escalates. Each side counts on threats, brinkmanship, and bluffs to further its position. Finally, staring into the mirror of uncertainty and possibly an inferno of future conflict, someone says “let’s try to mediate.” There is a shuffling of feet, small mutterings and throat clearings, a bit of denial and face saving, and finally people consent to sit down and negotiate. To paraphrase my colleague Howard Bellman, “Having made a big mess in the kitchen, they now want me to come in and cook them a nice omelette.”

In these kinds of melodramas, I have always thought my little part was fairly straight forward. I help people organize and stage difficult, touchy discussions. If I can, I shepherd them through the substantive, procedural, and psychological mazeways they have created and bring some semblance of discipline to the processes of communication, negotiation, and agreement-seeking. In some environmental cases, participants need a lot of help as they puzzle their way towards a reasonable juxtaposition between viable commerce, a healthy environment, and social equity. In other cases, matters come down to interpersonal dynamics and attributions (rightfully or wrongfully) of avarice, revenge, or honor vindicated. In all cases, regardless of origins and dynamics, I follow Casey Stengel’s dictum: “My job is to get all of these guys to hit a home run.”

To do this, I try to have a variety of strategies at the ready. Sometimes matters require political disentangling. Other times, it is all about wayfinding, coalition development, vision setting, cohesion building, deal making, and the bargaining out of impasses. Some of what I do seems counter-intuitive to people outside our profession. With social workers, educators, psychologists, and others accustomed to endless verbal jujitsu, I try to narrow the issues and focus on problem framing and problem solving. With lawyers, engineers, and business professionals who are comfortable slapping down position papers, I may try to de-position their demands, widen the view plane, and focus on the communication of needs and interests.

Without meaning to boast, I think after 25-years of doing this kind of stuff that I now know something about designing good issue “taming” processes, convening stakeholders, mediating differences of opinions, helping people build constructive working relationships, and infusing high quality scientific and technical information into deliberations. All of this makes me, and you if you are also in the trade, potentially incompetent and quite possibly hazardous to the very people we are working so hard to help.

2.     For Whom the Bell Curve Curves

It really makes no difference if you are a grizzled veteran of hundreds of disputes, a newly minted conflict resolver emerging from the womb of the university, or a certified graduate of four 150-hour training programs. Consider this: your clients and participants are at risk from the best of your intentions. Not only that, you yourself are in jeopardy of deluding yourself that you are doing something helpful, that your failures are harmless, and that your successes are great victories. It turns out that the highest forms of proficiency and the lowest forms of incompetence are two ends of the bell curve with the majority of us falling somewhere in between. Most of us, most of the time, are adequate and unexceptional. Stated differently, we get by.

Unfortunately for conflict resolvers, bell curves aren’t all that helpful if you want to locate or improve your mediation and facilitation skills with any precision. The hot shots can’t really tell us what it is they do to be exceptional and the nincompoops are blithely unaware that what they are doing doesn’t work. Although most people think it is self-evident (“we know it when we see it”), incompetence may actually be a little easier to ferret out. Cornell psychologist David Dunning says incompetent people tend to be supremely confident in their own abilities and oblivious to the fact that they are mucking things up. Through his research, Dunning found that the blunderers, bunglers, goofs, and ignoramuses among us are actually more confident in themselves than the people who do things well.

Dunning’s work get’s even more interesting because the incompetents turn out to be in double jeopardy. They not only screw things up, but they also lack the reflective skills needed to change their patterns and make things better. Dunning says that this deficiency in self-monitoring skill explains why the humor-impaired keep telling jokes that are not funny, day traders repeatedly jump back into the market and lose more money, and “the politically clueless continue holding forth at dinner parties on the fine points of campaign strategy.” [3]Thoughts/Inept.html.   Ambrose Bierce said it even better: “Ignorance ain’t so much what you don’t know as what you do know that ain’t so.”

At the other end of the spectrum we have the more complicated business of “excellence” which the dictionary defines as “ability to an eminent degree” and “surpassing merit, skill, or worth.” [4] These definitions sound fine so long as they stay comfortably disembodied from what we actually do. In arenas where it is observably harder to obscure bad results (sign making, truck driving, dermatology, fire fighting, newspaper printing), excellence is about measured performance that is superlative, meaning it is statistically far above the average, light years ahead of what the nincompoops do, and verifiable and replicable to other observers. All of which is a tricky bit of business when we talk about the stuff mediators, facilitators, and other people in helping professions seem to do.

This is not to say that many good people have not struggled mightily to deepen our understanding of what performance with distinction really is. John Gardner, former head of Carnegie Corporation and a Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare during the Johnson years, viewed excellence in his area of interest, education, as a set of “critical qualities of mind” conjugally wedded to “durable qualities of character.” [5] Dan Goldin, long-time NASA administrator, used to argue for human and hardware systems that could be engineered around a “faster, better, cheaper” philosophy with the implication being that this honed a version of excellence.[6] And Tom Peters, after describing an entire business strategy called MBWA (“management-by-walking around”), experienced what he himself called “a blinding flash of the obvious.” He said that business excellence consists of caring for customers, taking care of your people, and constantly innovating.[7]

In the world of conflict resolution, it has been our professional associations that have thought the hardest about all this. They have actually tried to embrace practical strategies for calibrating and achieving a core level of proficiency. The Society of Professionals in Dispute Resolution, the Academy of Family Mediators, and the Conflict Resolution Education Network, through their newly merged self, the Association for Conflict Resolution, have a fine history of producing standards, ethics, and best practice statements. Like other professional groups ranging from dental hygienists to plumbers to Fung Shui practitioners, mediators and facilitators have been trying to define themselves by what they aspire to do. In the process, excellence has been rendered down to the pursuit of certain core values -- voluntarism, inclusion, confidentiality, diversity of opinion –  followed by very detailed caveats and admonitions. All of this seems good for beginners and journeymen but not very helpful for people with a dozen or more years of mediation and facilitation experience under their belts.           

There is, however, another approach. Beyond the bell curve and our statistical notions of excellence lies what Hawaiian cultural historian George Kanahele called “k?n??ole” and what he sought to teach to the owners, executives, bartenders, maids, and bell caps in the Island visitor industry.  “K?n??ole” means “flawlessness.” [8] In Old Hawaii, wrote Kanahele, when a warrior, craftsman,  priest, or King’s official performed a task in his or her line of work, it was expected to be done perfectly and without defect. The concept was something akin to continuously rising standards: doing the right thing, in the right way, at the right time, in the right place, to the right person, for the right reason, with the right feeling... the first time. All of which locates our work as mediators in the realm of “craft” as opposed to art and art form and which brings us to the idea of “mastery.”

3.      Proficiency and Its Pathways

Years ago, I heard a description of the “Four Stages of Skill Development” that, if you are learning to play a violin, ride a bicycle, speak Hindi, ice skate (or presumably mediate disputes), looks something like this.[9]

I.

Unconscious Incompetence

II.

Conscious Incompetence

IV.

Conscious

Competence

III.

Unconscious Competence

Here’s how it actually seems to work.

                                               

Imagine you are walking along a lovely beach one day and you happen to see someone surfing just off shore. It is a warm, bright morning. You stop and watch. Sunlight streams down and dances on the water. Sea birds are squawking and flapping above you. You gaze, mesmerized, as a certain surfer you have been watching steers his board into a wave, catches the leading edge of the wave’s inner curl, rises to his feet, zigs and zags and dances down the slope of water, and then rides the break a few hundred feet until the power of the surge plays itself out on the flat of the shore.

Maybe it happens then or maybe it is a day or two later. You are bewitched, smitten with the idea that you can stand up on a stick of wood on top of the water and move with it. You go rent a board, drag it out in the water, fumble and bumble around in the baby surf, and eventually you crouch your way over a small ripple on your knees. You do it again. And again. Eventually you are in a half-standing, half-stooping position. At the end of the day, you have had a grand time goofing off at the beach, gotten fried from the sun, and caught your first few waves.

You could let all this go as an enjoyable one day escape. Or you could be hooked. If its the latter, what you have probably just experienced is the first stage of a learning trajectory that is called “Unconscious Incompetence.” Basically, this is the “dumb and happy” stage of skill acquisition. You are enchanted with what you are experiencing, ignorant about real surfing skills, and oblivious to what you don’t know. If you stay the course in your effort to surf, you will, with varying degrees of effort, move into a second phase of learning called “Conscious Incompetence.”

At this point you are aware of your lack of skills and resolved to learn more. In effect, you now know what it is that you don’t know. So you study, practice, and plod your way through a series of recurrent surfing experiences. If you were trying to learn violin, this would be the equivalent of doing scales. If you were studying Hindi, it would be repeated and exaggerated pronunciation, practicing the reading and writing of script, and doing conjugations and declensions. If you were working on bike riding or ice skating, you would be spending a lot of time with skinned knees and elbows or sprawled out on the sidewalk with a cold and sore butt.

Comes a time, however, when you somehow move into a third stage called “Conscious Competence.” Although there are achievements that seem to mark the passage, it isn’t always a clear transition. It just happens. With concentration and great expenditures of energy, you can perform the sequences and techniques that surfing requires. You know something about long boards and short boards, skegs and tethers, and how wax makes a difference to the traction your feet have on a wet piece of fiberglass. You can paddle out, wait for a set, catch a small wave with generally positive results, and have a pretty good time doing all this. Unfortunately, it is also very hard work. After each ride, you are exhausted.

Eventually, of course, things get easier and you cross another invisible frontier. For most people it takes years. For a few it might be months and for a tiny minority, it could be days. It might happen like this. One day you paddle out to a shore break, one that you’ve been surfing at for awhile. You know the geography of this particular stretch of ocean, the reefs, sandbars, and seasonal ocean moods. On this day you take on a bigger and more challenging wave. Maybe its strategic or maybe its just something you decided by impulse. Regardless, you catch it at exactly the right moment,  impeccably carve a luminescent groove in the water, revel in the spectral blues and greens and the fluid forces of water in motion, and come out the other side, not tired but energized and exhilarated.

You are now in that place called “Unconscious Competence,” that beltway of human affairs where you can surf with a minimum of choreography and without thinking your way through every move. I think of this as “mastery,” a kind of unintentional excellence that is fluid and beyond the rational procedures and techniques of reason. When you come to this moment, relish it because it is usually fleeting. Very shortly you will start the cycle over again, quite possibly with some new or kindred sport (wind surfing, para sailing, snow boarding), but also when you are confronted by some new aspect of surfing (a bigger wave, a faster set, a cleaner form, a whole new location) that devolves you back to previous stages, and possibly to the very beginning -- the unconscious incompetence stage.

The role of the unconscious as a developmental element of competence and incompetence has long been suspected. Recent experiments, however, reveal just how important mental processes that are normally inaccessible to our conscious self are in shaping professional judgements. In a battery of paper and pencil and card game tests, psychologist Thomas D. Wilson has shown that people divine or intuit the “rules of the game” well before they understand them intellectually. If true, the implications of this are potentially far reaching. Rather than being some vast swamp of primordial memories and suppressed emotions that only therapists can decipher, the unconscious is probably more akin to Windows, DOS, Unix, or Palm OS. It runs in the background of our thinking, learns and adapts, evaluates circumstances, sets goals, detects threats, judges people, and deduces causes and effects, all below our normal waking radar systems.[10]

This also suggests a different way of thinking about mastery. Instead of being a condition, or strata, or state, its is probably more like a succession of unconscious, semi-conscious breakdowns and breakthroughs. Mastery isn’t persistent and it isn’t about continuous precision, though it may well be perceived that way by those who have not been exposed to the fundamentals. To the contrary, mastery is full of interruptions, failures, reversions to old patterns, discoveries, and small incremental gains. But there is also something else at play that the “Four Stages of Skill Development” model doesn’t pick up: an obsession with perfection.

Gifted and remarkable people, says Malcolm Gladwell in an article on what he calls “physical geniuses,” have great passion for their work and endless inquisitiveness about how to do it better. They are in love with what they do and they do it over and over. They seem to be on a high level quest for exactness, flawlessness, and precision and their commitment to the pursuit is recognizable by others. Fighter pilots (the Top Guns) and professional athletes (those who are selected by colleagues for the Pro Bowl) are good examples but so too are many auto mechanics, barbers, and chiropractors I know. Everyday lives are filled with great examples, if we stay alert for them.

High on my personal list is Dr. Harry Ishida who is able to bring science, craft, and art together in dazzling ways. Harry is my dentist. He understands mouth anatomy, jaw dynamics, the aging process of teeth, and the inevitability of disease. He works with human and synthetic materials with equal dexterity, does extractions and fillings without pain, casts molds , shapes molars, and does all of this and more with a continuing, quiet competence that I have admired for many years.

The same is true of Bill Steinhoff, the guy who annually trims our 60-year old avocado tree. For all of his 215-pounds of bulk and discomfort in social situations, Bill is agile, graceful, and shrewd when he get’s anywhere near a tree. Moving through the branches and limbs, he is constantly surveying the tree, looking at the health of leaves and bark, examining its features, and noting our tree's basic desire to grow over and into my neighbor’s window. Like Harry Ishida, Steinhoff translates complex ideas into demanding movements and intentional strategies, in this case, the craft of the arborist. [11]

Then there is Charlie Wilson (no relation to psychologist Thomas Wilson) who, according to Malcolm Gladwell, is one of the best brain surgeons in the country. He is a high achiever who works mainly on pituitary tumors. Wilson thrives on complexity. Gladwell reports this reflection from one of Wilson’s younger colleagues: “Most people are afraid of aneurysms. He wasn’t afraid of them at all. He was like a cat playing with a mouse.” [12] Or listen to Anthony Bourdain, a well regarded chef who is also a heroin addict who never wanted to do anything else except work with food. “Line cooking done well,” he says, “is a beautiful thing to watch. It’s a high speed collaboration resembling, at its best, ballet or modern dance. A properly organized, full loaded line cook, one who works clean, and has ‘moves’ -- meaning economy of movement, nice technique and, most important, speed -- can perform his duties with Nijinsky-like grace.” [13]

Observers of very accomplished people tend to wax metaphoric about the virtuosity of “Unconscious Competence” but it seems to come down to six interlaced elements which I’ll call “gifts,” “models,” “reps,” “chunks,” “critiques,” and “grace.” If these six workings really progressed step-like in a sequential way, life would be neat and predictable. Reality seems otherwise. Think them instead as layers of a Viennese chocolate-raspberry torte with a mocha sauce and a light slathering of whipped cream. All of the parts bind and blend together in ways that could be dis-aggregated if you tend to be a dissembler and require all your food to be separated into its constituent parts prior to consumption. Somehow, everything in a cake like this does better together. The ingredients create a culinary “synergy” in which 2 + 2 = 7 on the ten-point Richter scale of tortes.

Let’s take “gifts” and endowments first. Basically, some people (perhaps most people) are blessed with certain raw talents and dispositions. It may be a unique capacity, a special mental acuity, or even some uncommon physical peculiarity. Former Senator Bill Bradley, for example, was one of the best basketball players Princeton ever produced and a starter with the New York Knickerbockers. Little known fact: Bradley was actually born with some extra peripheral vision. Baseball player Tony Gywnn, a superb hitter, says he can see the ball traveling to him. The average speed of a pitched ball is 89 miles per hour. Most of us can’t see anything. Harry Ishida, my dentist, has very small hands that can fit into large talkative mouths like mine quite easily. And Ludwig Beethoven, Bruce Springstein, and Madonna all seem blessed with a certain “ear” for the sounds and cadences of their time.

The concept behind this has been well described by Howard Gardner.[14] While we tend to think of logical-mathematical aptitude as the key attribute for success, there are, in fact many other forms of intelligence. Gardner sees physical and kinesthetic abilities as a different but equally useful form of intelligence. So is musical intelligence (think of Yasha Heifitz), spatial intelligence (think of Frank Lloyd Wright), natural intelligence (think of Daniel Boone in America or Richard Burton in Africa), linguistic intelligence, or emotional and interpersonal intelligence. Ability comes in many forms and it is highly differentiated.

By itself, however, talent doesn’t guarantee anything. Lot’s of us have mental, physical, spiritual, or emotional gifts that, for a variety of reasons, are squandered or are so unbridled that they can’t amount to anything. Or perhaps parents and teachers fail to recognize them or we are told over and over again that they are useless. The second component of mastery, therefore, is a “model” that arouses our curiosity. To cultivate ability we need examples that open up prospects. The man on the beach needs to see the surfer before he can be smitten. A Winton Marsallis gets his jump-start from hearing Louis Armstrong. And a young woman with sculptural instincts must see (and more likely feel) the art of a Henry Calder or Jean Arp before she can grasp that the mind’s eye can create beautiful and enduring forms. Models create possibilities. Mediators and facilitators are no different. We require a picture or schematic of that which intrigues us. In effect, the model says “look, here’s someone doing something unusual to help make an agreement and I want to do that.”

In the realm of conflict resolution, there are no lack of models. In fact, most of us in the profession tend to delimit our thinking, settle on one approach, and then put on blinders to others. Finding something that works and getting good initial results, we tend to forget that biological necessity and social ingenuity have, over 40,000 years, created thousands of interesting, and artful ways of mediating disputes. The Big Man tradition in New Guinea is one. Hawaiian Ho’oponopono is another. So too are the Leopard Chief traditions of Central Africa, the disentangling ceremonies of Melanesia, the traditional Lok Jirga in Afghanistan, the peace pipe rituals of Native America, and the song duels of certain Eskimo people. All of these (including our peculiar obsession with only two forms of mediation -- “transformative” and “evaluative”), are part of a broad tapestry of ideas, models, and tools for managing controversy. They are “models.”

The third component is “repetition.” Said in everyday language, practice helps move us towards “better” and then pushes us on towards “perfect.” Cellist Yo-Yo Ma rehearses every piece in his mind. He does this on the plane, in his dreams, and while he’s brushing his teeth. Jack Nicklaus never took a swing with his golf clubs that he didn’t go over in his mind beforehand. And Charlie Wilson, the best pituitary surgeon in the country, does half a dozen operations during the day and then practices on rats and mice before he goes home for dinner. The result is a knack for working smoothly, quickly, and with  economy of motion.  Repetition is also the breeding ground of innovation. Through continual exercise, we can experiment in private and study the failures.

Extended, successive, and disciplined training is probably the root source of the fourth component of mastery: “chunking.” [15] Chunking refers to the storing of arrangements and sequences, sometimes exceedingly subtle ones, in long term memory. Wayne Gretsky, says Malcolm Gladwell, remembers certain positionings and configurations in the hockey rink that the rest of us merely mortal hockey fans may briefly observe and even possibly hold in short term memory for a moment or two, but then quickly let go. Non-hockey players have no reason to remember such stuff. Wayne does. When Gretsky says he “skates to where the puck will be,” he is literally calling up a chunk of memory that can keep the coordinates of the puck, the goal, himself, his teammates, and his opponents in mind. To use a different metaphor, “chunks” are the mental instructions Wayne uses to triangulate the “X” on the ice where everything converges for a good shot at the goal.

The same idea -- chunks of mental instructions that can be called up in complicated situations -- is true of Michel Jordan sweeping towards the basket, Julia Child cooking a souffle, Winton Marsalis taking us to dizzying heights on the horn, a skilled fork lift operator laying pipe in a trench, or a gifted mediator holding off on asking people for their positions while he or she sets up the political face-saving move that will break an impasse. In each case, you are intuitively and sub-consciously pulling a strand, clump, nugget, or sequence of previous experience out of long term memory, unconsciously inspecting it to see if it is the right one, holding the image steady, and applying it to the particular circumstance or fact pattern that you face across the table with disputants.

All of this takes place in nano-seconds. Ironically, if we asked Michael Jordan, Julia Child, Winton Marsalis, Harry the dentist, or Bill Steinhoff the arborist to explain their brilliant moment to us, they will probably say: “I dunno.” It is not because they are being modest. Without being aware of it, they are doing something which they think is instinctive or intuitive and that the rest of us assume is intentional and strategic. And even though it defies precise description and measurement, their mastery is apparent to people in the know. Colleagues who are watching them and who are also skilled and effective at what they do can pick the real masters out and see their ability.

This kind of internal, possibly subliminal visualization gives rise to a fifth layer of mastery: critique. Real experts -- unlike the incompetents Dunning studies at Cornell -- are intellectually honest and brutally self critical with themselves. They examine their mistakes squarely, deconstruct them, and relentlessly search for the impeccable. Some professions force this contemplation, even if isn’t welcomed or pleasant. Lawyers must be able to argue alternative theories of both sides of their case in depth. Doctors routinely have to bring their failures before scowling panels of colleagues and defend their practices. Scientists are expected to undergo the banging and bruising of peer review for their research. Child welfare workers must do death reviews and confront the failures of their prevention efforts.

Using somewhat different terms, Don Schon in his book The Reflective Practitioner studied engineers, architects, managers, urban planners, and therapists and showed how high accomplishment in these professions involves building visceral competencies that are beyond strictly rational and technical proficiencies.[16] Mental preparation -- learning the theories and practices of diagnostics, analysis, and intervention -- sets the stage for the kind of unconscious absorption that Thomas Wilson is discovering through his experiments. When we are data, fact, and theory “sodden”, other things kick in. Critique, appraisal, and criticism, hard as it may be at times, sharpens our discipline and creates mental toughness. But more than building character, it extends and deepens practice, builds intuition and instinct, and sets the stage for building the hunches, anticipations, and premonitions that Don Schon finds to be an integral part of professionalism.          

Finally, there is something in the realm of mastery and excellence that happens at apex moments  when strategy, impact, problem, solution, cause and effect, and intervention and result converge. Think of it as a moment of  “grace.” Although religious people speak of grace as unmerited divine assistance given to humans, grace has other collateral and derivative meanings. Grace is also the effortless beauty of a maneuver or movement, the eye-pleasing proportions of a form, the favor or gift given by someone who is under no obligation to do so, a disposition towards kindness, and the state of being protected.

As they rise to the top of their game, masters of smaller and larger things –  from football to flower selling --  develop a “feel” that comes to be more important than head-knowledge and that leads to those efficient, clean, and graceful moments. Sometimes we describe this as being “in the zone,” a time, space, or place that is beyond conventional notions of success and failure and that seems to be a complete convergence of knowledge, skill, experience, intuition, and inspiration. I’ve heard mountain climbers talk about it as a kind of “auto pilot” in which you are thinking like chess and moving like ballet. Other athletes refer to it as raw, basic “muscle memory.” Baseball pitchers talk about “finding the groove” and jazz musicians try to “get their mojo working.” For mediators and facilitators, the perfect golden moment is when substance, process, and relationships all come together “in sync”, when the participants or disputants accomplish their goals, and when there is a result that you and they find salient and valuable. To paraphrase Harvard ADR professor Frank Sander, we mediators get our mojo working right when the forum we helped  create or manage fits perfectly for the fuss that was at hand and the commotion is tamed, streamlined,  or resolved.

One final aspect of mastery is worth noting. The rigors of training, practice, and critique may be the inevitable preparation that is required to exercise ingenuity and judgement but imagination is the connective tissue. It develops and grow over time and links the analytic and emotional, the moral and pragmatic, and the cooperative and the competitive aspects of our work. It builds off all the data dots and enables those occasional leaps of insight which bridge to solutions. Imagination, says David Brook, is “amphibious.” It constructs both the visionary inspirations as well as the  dark forebodings which inform analysis, strategy, and calculation.[17]  Einstein was correct when he opined that imagination is more important than knowledge. Unwitting, unintentional, and unconscious excellence is the exercise of both fantasy and reason.

4.      Struggling Upstream...Forever

It’s the end of the month. I’m shuffling through papers on my desk looking for time sheets and invoice forms to close accounts. Paperwork is part of the yin and yang of being a full time practitioner. Some days it’s the dark side, some days the light. At this particular moment I’m looking at two files. One contains papers about a water dispute that has two developers at each others’ throats accompanies by their respective phalanxes of lawyers and technical experts. The other file is my running record of a group of scientists, lawyers, fishermen, and cultural experts that has been meeting for months to break a legislative logjam regarding the creation of new marine protected areas. In my mind, the cases couldn’t be more different from each other. One of them represents frustration and failure. The other is full of magic and light.

With hindsight, I can see my mistakes on the first case and the general  contours of some things I did right on the second. After a round of initial meetings on the first, I misjudged the nature of the dispute between the two property owners. In joint session, it was all about “principle.” In separate caucuses, and in different ways, both of them then assured me their dispute wasn’t personal nor was it about money. It was about contractual duties to purvey water through the pipes on each of their properties.  As it turns out, their conflict was all about the money and their concomitant mutual desires to inflict competitive pain on each other. It wasn’t for personal satisfaction that they were doing this but because of the contention between their respective future business ventures once they each have secured the water they need. I missed this entirely. Actually, I was beguiled or failed to get them to reveal their real interests. I accepted at face value their initial representations. Its not a  fatal mistake and I suspect we will get to a negotiated conclusion eventually. Yet, in the process, I have probably unnecessarily consumed more of their time and stamina than is necessary and foreclosed certain windows of opportunity that might have opened earlier.

The second case has proven to be entirely different. The process of getting people to reveal their fears, hopes, and interests over several meetings, coupled with the infusion of high quality technical data into discussions about fish stocks, local community practices, and ocean regenerative capabilities has brought us very close to a solution. Unlike our previous meetings, this last session turned a corner and created what Malcolm Gladwell calls a “tipping point.” People were focused, civil, helpful to each other even when they disagreed, and oriented towards finding answers.

These kinds of reflections on personal cases are useful to me as a way of sorting things out but I am also aware that they may be completely delusional. One of the hard realities doctors face is how little they actually know about cause, effect, prevention, intervention, and healing. In many cases, they can’t actually explain why many patients live when they are supposed to die, or die when the norm says they are supposed to live. The logic of their nostrums and therapies gives them the comfort of method but it doesn’t explain what’s going on. Similarly, I’m aware of the disconnect between how we mediators and facilitators look at our work and how our work is seen by the mediated and facilitated-upon.

Several years ago my colleague and friend Kem Lowry of the University of Hawaii Department of Urban and Regional Planning did an analysis of some thirty successfully mediated cases that had been mediated by a program I directed at the time. His study drove the point home for me. First Kem asked the mediators in our cases to explain what they did to bring about success. Then he asked the parties in those same cases what they actually  observed the mediators doing. The mediators – myself included – gave elaborate explanations of strategies, timing, and tactics. We identified how we went about conducting our conflict analyses and circumscribing issues to be worked on. We deciphered the breakdowns, breakthroughs, and the windows of opportunity both lost and found.

 The participants in our cases had a very different view. The only thing they recalled us doing was opening the room, making coffee, and getting everyone introduced.

If our goal is seamlessness and invisibility, Kem’s study suggests we succeeded brilliantly. There may be other explanations though. Maybe we don’t know as much as we think we know. Or maybe we give what we do know too much weight and credence. Or maybe its all placebo and Hawthorne effect and we are really just setting up a time and place for people to act out their own rituals of making war or peace. In the end, it may really be about room keys and cookies.

For myself, I will keep tussling and fuddling and muddling my way towards the highest perfection I can, whether it be refreshments, door opening, data management, or the politics of face-making. It’s my life work and a quest. Meanwhile, I take a certain refuge in the words Gertrude Stein barked at a young Earnest Hemingway while they were hanging out in Paris and living the big life. “There ain’t no answer, there’s never been an answer, there never will be an answer, and that’s the answer.”



[1] Chapter 2 in Bringing Peace Into The Room: The Personal Qualities of the Mediator edited by David Hoffman and Daniel Bowling, Jossey-Bass, 2003.

[2] Peter S. Adler, Ph.D. is President of The Keystone Center which specializes in the mediation of science and public policy problems. The author is indebted to colleagues who critiqued early drafts of this paper, among them, John Forester, Chris Honeyman, Paul Cosgrave, Robert Benjamin, and Kem Lowry.

[3] Goode, E. (1999). “Why the Ignorant are Blissful: Inept Individuals Ooze Confidence” originally in New York Times, now at http://www.zenspider.com/RWD/

[4] Brown, L. (ed) The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, Volume 1, Oxford University Press, 1993.

[5] Gardner, J. Excellence: Can We Be Equal and Excellent Too?  W.W Norton & Company, 1995.

[6] Bergreen, L. Voyage To Mars: NASA’s Search for Life Beyond Earth. New York: Riverhead Books, 2000.

[7] Peters, T. and Austin, N. A Passion For Excellence, New York: Random House, 1985.

[8] Kanahele, G. Ku Kanaka Stand Tall: A Search for Hawaiian Values. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1993.

[9] Bernie Mayer, Chris Moore, and Susan Carpenter told me about this in the early 1980s. I’m not sure if they actually invented the model or heard it from someone else. Regardless, the model has a certain elegance and sensibility that makes it pedagogically useful which is one of the reasons it get’s recited at the start of many mediation training programs.

[10] Begley, S. “The Unconscious You May Be the Wiser Half,” Wall Street Journal, Aug 30, 2002 courtesy of SFGate.com (http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/news/archive/2002/08/30/financial0919EDT0060.DTL).

[11] Adler, P. Beyond Paradise: Encounters in Hawaii Where the Tour Bus Never Runs. Woodbridge CT: Ox Bow Press, 1993.

[12] Gladwell, M. “The Physical Genius: What do Wayne Gretzky, Yo-Yo Ma, and a Brain Surgeon Have in Common?.” The New Yorker, August 2, 1999.

[13] Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. Anthony Bourdain, London: Bloomsbury, 2000.

[14] Gardner, H, The Disciplined Mind (Simon & Schuster, 1999);  Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century (Basic Books, 1999)

[15] The word “chunking” is sometimes used by language theorists to describe a way of parsing a text into syntactically correlated parts of words. It is also used by some communication trainers as a variation of active listening, unpacking, and then reframing complex and emotion-charged statements. In this article, chunking refers to mental sequences that are stored in long term memory and that can be used to guide the short term procedures we use in our work as mediators.

[16] Schon, D.A.  (1983).  The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action,  New York:  Basic Books, Inc.

[17] David Brooks, “Light Shows of the Mind,” The Atlantic Monthly, pp. 30-31, December, 2002.





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