The Anti-Antagonist: Conflict ghosts
By: Ann Begler
Halloween is here. How do we know? Loads of candy on the supermarket shelves? Masks ranging from the old-fashioned, Lone Ranger “cover the eyes,” to your favorite rock star or politician? The all too familiar Pittsburgh “black and gold,” seeming to fade away to the seasonal “black and orange?” Well, all of those speak to the season, however, I’m not sure anything brings Halloween closer to us than ghosts. We see them everywhere. Hanging from our neighbor’s trees, flat cut outs taped to the inside of school windows. Sheets with eye- holes blowing from flag poles in yards along the block. Ghosts standing on sticks in someone’s garden. Suddenly, ghosts surround us, reminding us that we can’t be totally sure that the people we see and talk with every day are the only people who are creeping into our lives.
For many of us, Halloween ends, and for many people thinking of ghosts is tucked away until the next autumn when the hauntings start to return. For those of us who are mediators, though, or other kinds of conflict resolvers, ghosts have a life of constancy. They are ever-present in the processes we facilitate. In fact, ghosts frequently are the difference between a conflict getting resolved and a conflict getting firmly stuck.
Who are these ghosts? Well, they don’t appear as hazy apparitions or hazy greyish white fogs that move and shift across the room. In fact, nothing about them is physically visible. Yet, their presence is powerful and, in many instances, controlling …
The ghosts we conflict resolvers face are voices. Not voices in the room – voices outside the room, voices in people’s heads, or hearts for that matter. They are the voices of people not present, not overtly participating in the conversation, and still, fully existing in the world outside the room. They have views, messages and opinions. In some instances, they can be threats. Ghosts often have a vested interest in the outcome of the conflict others are trying to resolve.
In some mediations, ghosts can be the real people who have the actual authority to agree to the terms of a final settlement. They live in a different geographic location, sit near a phone and send signals to the negotiator who is physically present. In other instances, the ghost is the haunting voice that has been speaking in someone’s head for a long time, delivering messages: good mothers don’t do this; just do what you’re told; people will think you’re ___ if you _____; we will never have enough money if you don’t hold out; never trust a person who _______. When we’re working in situations involving a municipality the ghost might be a school board member who isn’t present, someone who is planning a future campaign against one of the people trying to resolve the current conflict, or a solicitor who has turned the matter over to outside counsel.
One thing that makes dealing with ghosts so difficult is that we first face the task of realizing we’re dealing with a ghost. Then, as conflict resolvers we have to figure out who the ghost is, the role the ghost plays, and how to even begin to talk about the fact that the ghost is in the room and having a strong influence. Talking about ghosts can be hard. Sometimes a party to a mediation isn’t even aware of the ghostly impact. Talking about ghosts can be a transitional moment requiring a delicate intervention.
Another difficulty handling ghosts is that it’s impossible to deal with a ghost directly – at least within the framework of conflict work. As much as we try to be sure the right people are present and participating in a process such as mediation, and though we’re successful when the right people can be identified, too often we have no idea who the ghosts are until the conflict begins to feel stuck. One of the wonderful aspects of working with people in conflict is seeing how possible it really is for people to influence each other and change. We facilitate, guide and support change all the time. But not with ghosts. Ghosts aren’t inside the process. They don’t have the experience created by the participants. The emotional and evocative story someone tells in mediation can’t move a mediation ghost. Ghosts don’t see the reality of various financial calculations. Ghosts don’t hear the analysis offered by a party’s attorney.
Yet, as with more traditional, spiritual mediators who some see as a bridge between this world and the other world, our job as a conflict resolver calls upon us to mediate between someone actually in the room and a ghost who is not present. That’s what it takes, in moments, to reach into the heart of the conflict, and it’s that reach that helps people get to a different place, helps get to a resolution.
Halloween is here this year. Halloween will come and go, and come another year. Halloween ghosts will be put back into the box and reincarnated in the next season. But for conflict resolvers, ghosts are much more than holiday delight; they are the constant call to work more deeply, more vigorously, and to remain in the search.
(Top image: Giorgiomtb1/Getty Images)
The Anti-Antagonist is a personal opinion column by Ann L. Begler, founder and principal of the Begler Group, a Pittsburgh firm providing services in mediation, advanced facilitation, conflict coaching and organizational development. You can e-mail Ann via Ipso Facto.