As a mediator, TARA WEST helps people resolve conflict. In this episode of How To Build Community, she shares stories and tips to help you use these skills in your own life. Listen here, or scroll down to read some of the highlights from the interview.
When people are in conflict, it’s hard to have good conversations. Tensions can rise, and things can descend into what Tara calls a “conflict spiral.” “We end up feeling scared, confused, disoriented, like we need to put up our defences. And while we're in that state it's very hard to let the other person's perspective in.” Social media can worsen this effect. When she first heard how some social media platforms limit how much users can write, Tara thought “are they trying to create conflict?”.
The role of a mediator is to support conversation. Tara explained that her main technique is to carefully repeat or summarise what people say. “I will reflect back what I heard them say, using some of my words, some of their words. That gives them a chance to hear themselves think, and decide if they want to say more. And the other person is hearing those words now through a different voice.”
Tara’s method is “transformative mediation”. It assumes that the participants would naturally be able to have the conversations she’s facilitating – if they weren’t trapped in the damaging spiral. “Humans are social animals. We want to get along with people, we want to help people. And we want to take care of ourselves and solve problems and rise to challenges. But when we're in a state of conflict, this goes awry.”
People have started to think about scaling this up, to the level of communities and organisations. It’s called “transformative dialogue”. Tara contrasts this with the traditional approach of NGOs or peacemaking organisations, who make decisions for people. They enter discussions with assumptions about how the conversation should go, and with whom. The transformative dialogue approach, on the other hand, is “a very organic process – it evolves over time based on what each person feels is needed”. This also means that it builds lasting relationships in communities.
Conflict isn’t always a bad thing. Tara described a study involving the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia. It found that when a team of contributors was made up of people with a broad range of political opinions – as opposed to a team who were all of the same opinions – the content they produced was rated more highly. “Definitely, conflict can be a good thing when it's approached in a way where you're truly open to hearing the other perspective, and you recognise that everyone has something to offer.”
We can all use the mediator’s approach in our own disagreements or conflicts. “The problem is not that we're disagreeing, the problem is that we get into that vicious circle.” She advises trying to recognise the signs that tension is building, and taking yourself out of the situation, or at least taking a moment to breathe deeply. And then making a decision to understand where the other person is coming from. “What people really need is to be heard”, she says, and if they feel heard, “they're now going to be in a position where they’re ready to more fully hear you”.
Tara’s work has affected her personally. Previously, she was eager to solve people’s problems, and tell them what she thought they should do. She’s learned that it’s far more important to simply listen. “If you can truly listen non-judgmentally with the goal of trying to understand where the other person is coming from, I don't think there's probably anything more important than that.” Listen to other episodes of How To Build Community here.