Conflict is never pretty, but most people could learn a thing or two about resolving it from the new book “Conflict – The Unexpected Gift: Making the Most of Disputes in Life and Work” (iUniverse, 2013).
Written by two experienced local mediators, Jack Hamilton and Elisabeth Seaman, the book compiles useful tips that have proven effective over two decades of trial and error.
“We’re giving them the tools they can use in their own lives,” said Hamilton, who teaches at Stanford University and co-authored the book with fellow mediator and business partner Seaman.
Sharlene Gee and Hillary Freeman also contributed to the book.
As a volunteer mediator with the Palo Alto Mediation Program, Seaman facilitated one of the breakout groups in a December 2012 meeting to gather input on five facilities-sharing scenarios for Bullis Charter School and the Los Altos School District.
Hamilton regularly gives talks for local groups, including a book discussion earlier this year at BridgePoint at Los Altos. He also headed a training session for volunteer mediators with the Los Altos, Mountain View and Palo Alto mediation programs.
Both Hamilton and Seaman have served as volunteer and professional mediators for 20 years.
Conflict is “a result of unfounded assumptions about each other. It’s the assumptions that trigger the emotions,” Hamilton said.
The book introduces a “Ladder of Assumptions”: Step 1, Assumptions of the Facts; Step 2, Interpretations; Step 3, Motives; and Step 4, Generalizations.
“It’s a metaphor for how the human mind works,” Hamilton said.
Built into the book are methods for helping people identify and write their own ladders, he added.
“Some people see things as black or white,” Seaman said. “Things are more generally complicated than that.”
The first step to resolving conflict, Seaman said, is to “become aware of how our thinking processes work.”
Next comes something that people in general don’t do well – listen. The authors underline the importance of becoming an attentive listener. They offer a four-step process to improve communication: encourage dialogue by drawing the speaker out, clarify statements to understand more fully, restate to let the speaker know you’re listening and summarize to review what’s been said.
Good listening, they said, breaks down stereotypes and preconceived notions about the opposing party.
“When people come to mediation, they’re breathing fire,” Hamilton said. “(Mediation) enables disputants to get a sense over time of who that other person is.”
For instance, Hamilton said that because his educational background and experience was greater than Seaman’s, he figured her ideas would not be as good and thus more easily discounted.
“As long as I held her in that box, I would never have heard her good ideas,” he said.
Seaman pointed to a case between two brothers who had a conflict over property, and, more importantly, did not get along with one another. Repairing the brothers’ broken relationship took precedence before any agreement over property could be reached.
“What kind of relationship are you going to have when this (agreement) is over?” she asked the brothers.
Another four-word mantra the mediators espouse: Stop, Listen, Accept, Collaborate.
Hamilton said the book is “pretty much for anyone 15 or older. It’s full of case studies.”
Other helpful advice includes learning how to apologize effectively, finding humility and becoming more self-aware.
And the “Unexpected Gift” referenced in the title? That, according to the authors, is emerging from conflict a better person.
“There’s a tinge of idealism here,” Hamilton said, a bit tongue in cheek, of his reasons for compiling the book. “We’re trying to build world peace one person at a time.”
Hamilton is scheduled to teach a conflict resolution class Jan. 10 to March 7 at Avenidas in Palo Alto. For more information, call 289-5400.
“Conflict – The Unexpected Gift” is available for checkout at the Los Altos main library, 13 S. San Antonio Road. Los Altos Voices for Peace purchased and donated the book to the library.
To order the book and for more information, visit iuniverse.com.