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Is there an art to mediating conflicts?
January 23, 2017

Being a mediator is not really about trying to understand someone else’s conflict in order to help resolve it. It’s more about working with the parties to get them to understand their own conflict, said Peter Sampson, who works at the United Nations Office for West Africa (UNOWA) as the head of mediation support.

Sampson explained the role of mediation by using the story of two children fighting over an orange and destroying it in the process, only to discover afterward that one wanted to eat the fruit while the other wanted the peel as a baking ingredient. The conflict was needlessly caused by their failure to understand each other’s objective.

“Mediation is about helping people to understand their own conflict and to recognize that to continue to pursue the conflict may have negative effects,” Sampson said.

“People in general know how to resolve their own conflicts. It’s really just a question of listening to them, and it’s really a question of understanding what are the mechanisms in place to resolve conflicts,” he said.

Existing mechanisms can be groups or individuals who carry moral authority, respect, and the capacity and skill to bring people together. Religious groups, trade unions, former or current officials and dignitaries have served as mediators. It comes down to what Sampson calls their “convening power.” For example, to prevent or reduce election-related violence, an electoral commission can convene rival political parties, security forces, police, government and others to explain the rules.

Not seeking a mediator shows a desire to continue the conflict. According to Sampson, the only time parties don’t need a mediator “is when one of them thinks they can win and get what they need by force or continuing the conflict,” and “when they don’t see continuing on that path is actually detrimental to them.”

Professional mediators can help with technical aspects like setting a common agenda, framework, and follow-up mechanism to make sure any agreement is respected.

But, Sampson said, getting an outsider to mediate is not always the best approach, even if they are usually seen as the most neutral party. Instead, “the people that can affect the conflict the most are the ones that are actually in part involved,” he said.

One of the biggest challenges is reaching a consensus within a group itself on what their goals are and how they can translate their grievances into a political agenda that their members can support and the other side can address. Sampson believes insiders are better equipped to help a group articulate these kinds of objectives than third parties.

In reality, he said, you want people to be able to resolve problems on their own. He said a more lasting resolution is created when both sides are directly able to provide assurances to each other without the need of a third party.