BOSTON — THE two co-workers, once close friends, had turned to bickering. Their boss wanted to fire them - but was worried they might sue.
Instead, she called in a professional mediator who took the two workers behind closed doors for a confidential chat. Later, they all emerged, with the two ex-friends hugging and crying. The total cost: less than $1,000. No lawsuit. No layoffs. No more bickering.
"It was classic," says Scott Bradley, executive director of the Mediation Network of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, who is familiar with the incident. "It showed the power of structured communication."
This skill of helping people, groups, or even countries make peace has become a big-time, worldwide profession, loosely known as "conflict resolution." As more people search for new ways to mend personal feuds and end wars, they are turning to professionals who are cool heads with a warm touch.
Thousands of eager peacemakers are ready to oblige, saying many people don't know how much money, time, or even lives can be saved by having neutral brokers help keep families together, neighbors out of court, or countries from war.
But that may be less the fault of the public than the peacemakers, who are having difficulty in defining themselves and their profession.
"This is an emerging field," says John Helie, director of ConflictNet, a computer network that links more than 1,000 users in about 90 countries. "Basically, we're making this up as we go along."
Since conflicts continue to abound, peacemaking skills are in high demand. The Washington-based Society for Professionals in Dispute Resolution, or SPIDR, has been around since 1972. In just the last five years, its increasingly international membership has doubled to 3,000. Some 1,000 peacemakers pilgrimaged to the biennial National Conference on Peacemaking and Conflict Resolution (NCPCR) in Minneapolis at the end of May, coming from the majority of US states and more than a dozen countries.
There is nothing new in trying to resolve conflict by talking instead of fighting, or in asking a peace-broker - a neutral third party - to help one do it. Even in Biblical times, King Solomon mediated between two women who claimed to be the mother of the same child. But only in the past few years have people begun to make a living practicing or studying conflict resolution.
In some areas, success has caught on fast. Sam Hoar was a trial lawyer in Boston for 39 years until joining Jams-Endispute, a nationwide company practicing "alternative dispute resolution" (ADR). In one family dispute his firm handled, the parties spent $1 million on lawyers before turning to mediation, which they expected to last two months. It lasted four days.
He says people tend to like the result - a "win-win" scenario they help devise. "They can't lose," Mr. Hoar adds. "If they lose, it's their fault, because they have complete control" over the final agreement.
Carrying the torch
And many peace-brokers say such results can be acheived across the board - in baseball strikes or civil war in Sudan. The unofficial standard-bearer of conflict resolution these days is former US President Jimmy Carter, whose nonprofit Carter Center in Atlanta works in communities worldwide. (See related story at left.)
"I don't think there's any difference in the principles involved," said Mr. Carter in a Monitor interview. "Even in arguments between two kids on the school grounds, or between a husband and a wife that led to divorce, or a war between two nations, or a civil war.
"Make sure that both sides come out so they think they won. Every time they make a concession, make sure that the benefits exceed the concession. Those principles have to be followed in any dispute resolution," Carter added.
But in an enterprise based on compromise, disputing parties may have little way of knowing if they got the best deal possible.
"It's tough," admits John Hutchins, a third-year student at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Mass., and president of the Harvard Mediation Program. The program trains mediators from the law school and the area to handle mostly small-claims cases.
"There are times when I walk out of mediation thinking, Why did this person give in?," he sighs. "But maybe it was worth the extra money to him to avoid court ... or to feel better about being on a civil basis with the other person."
Most kinds of regulation - which in theory could give mediators ground rules, like the bar exam for lawyers - are anathema to most, who point out that the field is far too diverse for rules.
Some argue that ineffective mediators naturally will be weeded out. "There are not going to be many more mediation jobs," says Jim Molomed of Eugene, Ore., one of a minority of mediators who earn a living from mediating. "The way you get a job is ... to get people to want you to be a mediator. It's very personal. People want you individually."
When mediators venture abroad, however, their job only gets harder to define, and the results are even harder to see. Peace-brokers should "go into another country with humility, with good intentions. But good intentions aren't enough," says Eileen Babbitt, deputy director of the Program on International Conflict Analysis and Resolution at Harvard University.
She conducted a workshop in Zagreb, Croatia, in 1992 with about 20 Croatians, who questioned the value of conflict in wartime. "It was very important for us to step back ... and really listen to the concerns that people there were bringing," Ms. Babbitt says. "The entire enterprise would have become suspect" had they not refocused the workshop for the Croatians.
Some say international peacebrokering is still mostly an academic enterprise anyway. "We study, develop, and talk about methodologies," says Ken Jensen, director of special programs at the US Institute for International Peace in Washington. "But it's difficult to find a pure case where a conflict resolutionist did something."
That does not keep eager peacemongers from trying, but it does keep them from labeling their efforts as a sure thing. Some programs can last for decades. John MacDonald, a former US ambassador and now director of the nonprofit Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy in Washington, says his group makes a minimum five-year commitment in any dispute.
In the divided Mediterranean island of Cyprus, United Nations peacekeepers have been at work for more than 20 years in a stalemate between Greece and Turkey over who controls the island. In such a charged climate, precooked theories just do not fit. "We had to train Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots [mediation skills] in separate rooms," he says. "They wouldn't come in the same room for a year."
But in high-profile crises, the flexibility and confidentiality that are precious to mediators vanish. President Carter's efforts in particular have been put under the microscope. In Haiti, for example, many said his deference to strongman Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras distracted from his otherwise successful last-minute salvage of peace last year.
"We have unfortunately a government policy when we disagree with someone, even seriously, to decide not to talk to them," he says. "Diplomatic niceties make it necessary for nongovernmental or private mediators to offer their services.
"Sometimes the people with whom we meet are looked upon as disreputable," he says. "My position is that if we can get those people to stop a war or to prevent future human rights violations, that is important enough for us to make the attempt."
How neutral is neutral?
Some analysts also question how neutral a mediator like Carter can be. In Haiti, for example, the US had planes in the air ready to force General Cedras to leave if Carter failed.
And when governments do not use their militaries in foreign hot spots, chances go down that mediation can work - as in Somalia or Rwanda. "In international disputes, you have the absence of a Leviathan," says Robert Ackerman, who teaches ADR at Dickinson School of Law in Carlisle, Pa. "No authority has the power to impose resolution on parties and make it stick."
But the dedicated ones persist, and peace-brokers across the globe find themselves looking for small wonders. "You seek that moment of recognition where one side says, 'Yeah, you're also a human being' that really transforms the people in the dispute and the dispute also," says Mr. Helie of ConflictNet.
Peace-brokers are quick to acknowledge they don't have the answer for all troubles. Often going to court is the best and only option, such as in physical-abuse cases, or when parties want to set a legal precedent. And war is not going to disappear soon as the world's most popular form of conflict resolution.
"This is not sexy, not something you are going to put on TV," says Helie. He adds that Hollywood has called for advice on starting TV shows, but pilots have never gotten off the ground. "One was almost like Oprah, setting up a 'Master Mediator' kind of thing. But it is just not real to have superheroes." r