Episode 115: A Zen approach to conflict mediation – cultivating the unbiased mind

diane+hamilton+mushoIn this episode I have the delight of connecting with Diane Musho Hamilton from the US. She is an experienced conflict mediator, Zen teacher and integral practitioner, and is also the author of Everything is Workable – A Zen Approach to Conflict. I’m also joined by my dear friend and co-host Anders Asphaug from Norway, and together we tap into Diane’s experience and wisdom in relation to mediation, developmental psychology, integral perspectives pertaining to communication, and last but not least, how the insights from Zen can inform our engagements with other people, especially when we find ourselves in the midst of conflict. We focus our inquiry around the mediators role, but anyone interested in conflict work, communication and interpersonal dynamics will benefit from tuning in.

In regards to conflict work it’s worth mentioning that Diane was the first Director of the Office of Alternative Dispute Resolution for the Utah Judiciary, where she established mediation programs throughout the court system. She is also the recipient of several prestigious awards for her work in this area, including the Peter W. Billings Award from the Utah State Bar, the Utah Council on Conflict Resolution Peacekeeper Award, the Judicial Administration Award and Friend of the Court. More recently she has been teaching in a program called Integral Facilitator®, a program that integrates Zen, Integral Theory, Developmental Theory and Facilitation Skills (more info).


Book by Diane Musho Hamilton

On my end I’m approaching the end of a 4-year engagement with the Norwegian Mediation Service (Konfliktrådet), and I’m looking to extend my engagement for another 4-year period. In this regard it seems especially fruitful to take a step back and reflect on my own practice. Since I became a mediator I’ve assisted more than 200 people in both civil and legal disputes, and every single case has both challenged and informed me. My experience is that every mediation teaches me something new about myself, other people and society at large.

Below you can read an extensive summary of our dialogue and feel free to share your comments and own reflections in the comments section. Please share this resource with other people who might be interested in the themes discussed.

(08:15) Motivations for working as a mediator
After a brief check-in I ask Diane to share some information regarding her background in the field of mediation. Her choice of work came as a response to a personal inquiry: what is it that people tell me I do well? Working with conflict seemed to be a natural skill and shortly after she was hired by the Seattle Dispute & Resolution Center where she was trained as a mediator and facilitator. One and a half year later she moved to Seattle and became the first Director of Dispute Resolution for the regional court system. This was back in 1989. I inquire further into some of the underlying motivations for going into this direction and she describes how her early years from growing up in a large family gave her ample opportunity to see and feel the implications of heated discussion. She also experienced how conflicts could be contained, instead of leading to estrangement and separation, although it could be very intense at times.

(12:50) Three conflict styles
I share how I gradually came to see, in my own life and work as a mediator, that there was something I needed to learn myself, regarding conflict. Likewise, Diane describes herself as a “hot head” and subsequently she had something to learn when it came to finding other approaches or styles when engaging in conflict. She points to what she has described in her book as the three conflict styles; modes or personality tendencies that also correspond to the three poisons or three ignorances found in Buddhism. The first is withdrawal or avoidance, the second is accommodating or pleasing, and the third is a more hot tempered, competitive and aggressive style. Diane also points to how working with conflict is working with our human and evolutionary history.

(16:45) Is the mediator aware of his or her conflict style? 
Given that we have these conflict styles, how does this effect us as mediators? Diane clarifies that it’s not about changing one’s style, rather, we want to have the opportunity for diverse responses, being able to draw on the different responsive styles when needed. The artistry of mediation depends on this ability and these different styles will inevitably show up during mediation. If we’re not aware that we have these styles this will most likely limit our ability to mediate in diverse situations. Moreover, being able to take a perspective on our own style will enhance our flexibility and ability to respond in constructive ways.

(20:40) Using the body as an instrument
I bring in a common experience from mediation, namely that the parties involved and the conflict itself will trigger something in me, on a personal level. Following this I’ve asked myself the following question: to what degree does what I can allow for in myself effect what I can allow for in the shared space where the conflict is unfolding between two or more parties? Is there a connection between my personal and unresolved conflicts and the potential outcome of a mediation? Diane’s immediate response is yes! The framing of the mediation and the mediators presence will of course influence the meeting. Luckily we don’t have to “purify” our awareness and become free of unresolved conflicts if we want to become effective mediators, rather, what we need is the ability to use our body as an instrument, something Diane teaches in her own facilitation training. We use physical and emotional reactions coming from the body as information. So instead of us tainting the process we’re actually becoming open to more and more information and possibilities for transformation.


Spiral Dynamics model: click to enlarge. For more information see spiraldynamics.net

(23:20) Spiral Dynamics as a possible aid
Diane comments that for her there is no ultimate separation between self and other. If there is anger in one participant one might be better off seeing this as part of a system, and not only ascribe it to the individual. This way of framing the situation is, as I understand it, a particular way of seeing the world and oneself, a specific worldview that naturally will inform and determine how a mediator can respond to the situation at hand. Although I wasn’t able to state it clearly as a question to Diane, my sense is that in Norway the mediation culture gravitates towards a more modern and rational worldview where such a fluid sense of self might be out of reach? Nevertheless, as Diane points out, the practice of mediation is in and of itself a manifestation of a more pluralistic worldview, a worldview that is open to feelings, sensitivity and co-operative solutions to problems. As an actual sense of self and source of being and action in the world, I would claim that seeing no separation between self and other is a capacity that has it’s full fruition only at later stages of adult development, for instance as described at the turquoise level in the Spiral Dynamics model. If one does have access to a fluid sense of self, where the separation between self and other is seen as a construct and not an absolute, then how can such a worldview (or “selfview”) support the mediators practice? Diane explains with an example from a recent mediation and points to how anger arising in herself was used as information, thus seeing the anger as a phenomena arising in the mutual or open space that was created between herself and the other person.

(25:30) Varying degrees of perspective-taking ability
Diane goes of on a creative tangent and brings in another theme, namely that the capacities for negotiation, being able to let go of one’s attachments, and being willing to bring something to the table, are capacities that arise on a continuum. Her point being that it’s naive to think that these capacities are always present amongst parties in a conflict. Some people are not even able to take their own point of view, maybe because of abuse, while others are able to hold multiple perspectives, including, first, second-, third- and even fourth-person perspectives. Because of this Diane has emphasized a developmental perspective on mediation and this is also how she came to discover the work of American philosopher Ken Wilber and Integral Theory (for a primer on Integral Theory see this brief introduction).

(27:30) Challenging the assumption of separation 
Coming back to the theme of selfview Diane points to her many years of Zen training and how this investigation into the nature of mind challenged the assumption that there is a fundamental separation between self and other. Holding such a dualistic framework will limit one’s understanding of any situation, so instead of focusing on each person as an individual, and seeing her role as a mediator separated or outside the conflict, she would rather see herself as being part of the “field” (I regret not following up this last comment because it ties into some interesting notions that are specifically explored in Theory U, see page 4 in the Executive Summary).

(28:25) Accommodating to different worldviews
Oscillating back to the theme of development I share my own frustration in relation to conflict mediations where I experience that the parties involved have different worldviews and perspective-taking abilities, and where I’m not able to engage this “mess” in a constructive way. Diane gives a thorough response and paints a picture of three typical worldviews or modalities for solving a conflict, symbolized by the gangsters approach, a court ruling or a co-operative mediation process. These distinct approaches differ a great deal and reflect general developmental capacities; going from an egocentric, to a sociocentric to a worldcentric worldview respectively (this three-stage model if often referred to in Integral Theory). In the Norwegian Mediation Service 90% of our cases come from the judicial system, where people have said “yes” to mediation instead of taking the case through a conventional court process (a mediation process is of course voluntary). Nevertheless, my experience is that quite often the participants will display huge differences in regards to what they expect and how the show up in the actual mediation. Several times I’ve had situations where I’ve had to deal with “gangsters” and “academics” in the same meeting, needless to say this is somewhat challenging! Diane responds to this predicament and asks for us to see this situation as the “mediators koan” (a koan is a paradoxical question or inquiry applied in Zen as a form of contemplative practice).

(39:15) Three fundamental perspectives 
I voice an assumption I hold regarding the foundations for a constructive mediation process, namely that all parties involved must have the capacity for stating their own needs and opinions, and having at least a rudimentary ability or willingness to recognize the other person’s point of view. Following this I point to what Diane refers to in her book as the three fundamental perspectives; which are subjective (I), intersubjective (You) and objective points of view (It). My initial understanding was that regardless of one’s worldview or stage of development in regards to meaning-making one had access to all these capacities, at least to some degree. However, Diane clarifies and demonstrates how these abilities are also developmental. Everyone might have access to these perspective in a linguistic sense, but as actual perspective-taking abilities and meaning-making structures, these capacities unfold in a developmental sequence. For instance, some people are simply not able to take in and acknowledge a more objective third-person point of view because they’re bogged down in their first-person world. Diane also brings in the variable of culture and opens up the space for a whole range of questions and inquiries.

(44:40) The mediator as a gatekeeper of perspectives
What about the mediators ability to hold these three fundamental perspectives? Does it matter that he or she has ample access to the whole range of perspectives available? Absolutely, is Diane’s response, and she describes the mediator as the “gatekeeper of perspectives”. In this regard one could also see the mediators role as someone who supports the parties development towards greater perspective-taking ability, instead of only seeing the mediator as an aid for solving a specific problem. In this scheme conflict is viewed as a learning opportunity, an approach to conflict which can be found in the tradition of transformative mediation (for more on this approach you might want to check out the episode I did with Joseph Folger, one of the key players in the field of transformative mediation).

(46:50) Being able to notice state shifts
Following this I point to the experience of shifts in atmosphere, or sudden shifts in the way parties in a mediation might show up. Every mediator has probably experienced this phenomena and in the tradition of transformative mediation mentioned above one will refer to this as empowerment shifts and recognition shifts. The former being an individual’s ability and willingness to stand up for themselves and voice their viewpoint. The latter refers to the ability to empathize with the other persons situation or viewpoint. Diane points to three additional shifts that are important if one is to move forward in a meeting. Firstly, that the defensive body posture and nervous system begins to relax, secondly, that the parties involved begin to open up towards other perspectives on the dispute, and the third shift, that people involved start to open up towards creativity and a further willingness to find solutions to the conflict. Diane also describes how these shifts show up in her as a mediator and how she uses this information to further the process. Especially in the beginning she does a lot of listening, so as to sooth the energetic system of the parties. On the other hand she describes how some people will need a challenge before they can relax, so some times she will have to step in an engage people in a more confronting manner. She also points to how applying different energetic qualities in the meeting, such as either soothing or stimulating the parties, is always supported by the information that shows up in the body, one’s felt sense of the situation.

(52:20) Bringing zen into the mediation process
I then inquire into Diane’s background as a Zen-teacher and how a meditative approach could be beneficial in the context of mediation and when working with conflicts in general. She describes her practice as zen-training and how the practice of meditation is also a training of the nervous system, for instance learning to relax. It also teaches the mediator/meditator to be present. Zen-training will also support the ability to hold more perspectives, because when sitting in immovable silence numerous thoughts will arise and one learns to observe these thoughts as they arise moment to moment. Thus, the training helps us to take a perspective on our perspectives! More importantly, if one trains steadily one will learn to access and stabilize a specific quality of awareness that Diane describes as the unbiased mind; an awareness that is in contact with a space which is beyond preferences. This implies that the mediator is quite literally occupying a space, both in the body and in the room, that is wide, open, accommodating and spacious, and an awareness which is not attached to any perspective that arises. She also describes this mind state as Big Mind, the mind which is beyond limit, where the boundary of self and other dissolves and where the space is open for potential (for more on this theme you might want to check out what is referred to as Big Mind – Big Heart, a process/method created by Diane’s Zen-teacher Genpo Roshi).

(58:00) What does it imply to be unbiased? 
I reflect back to Diane that for me this theme on bringing a meditative approach into the context of mediation seems paramount.My sense is that as mediators we clothe ourselves with a mandate to be unbiased, nevertheless, I don’t think we appreciate the full depth of what such an impetus actually implies! Diane agrees and points to how we as mediators can become very attached to outcomes, for instance wanting the parties to reach a deal, not to mention our attachment to the role as the mediator. Fortunately it is possible to train this capacity for being open and willing to just sit with what is stuck, in any situation. Diane also explains the benefit in just letting go of wanting an outcome, which incidentally is also constructive for the actual process (paradoxical, huh?). Moreover, creative solutions tend to come out of “open space”, a quality of awareness which can be cultivated through meditation practice. On the contrary, solutions won’t show up if we trie too hard to fix the problem.

(1:02:30) The Integral Facilitators® program
Anders reemerges from his listening position and poses the following question: how does Diane actually teach, when training facilitators and mediators, the capacity for presence, surrendering and the ability to just be with what is unpleasant? Diane responds by describing how she and colleague Rebecca Colwell work when training their Integral Facilitators® program. They include a lot of state training, so learning to be present and noticing different emotional textures. They also cultivate listening skills, especially the ability to listen to the whole space and not just what is being said. Another important capacity is being able to befriend moments of not knowing, and being able to bring into awareness what she describes as the “marginalized parts of the mind”. They of course teach negotiation skills as well, but also shadow work; learning to integrate feelings and perspectives that one doesn’t want to identify with. They also do a lot of traditional meditation practice.

(1:06:00) The art of “getting the other”
Anders follows up with a question inspired from his interest in Circling; a form of interpersonal meditation where one learns to hold the space and look into perspectives that co-arise between people, the “object” of this specific form of meditation thus being the actual perspectives that arise moment to moment. This is somewhat parallel to how we might use the breath as an object when doing formal sitting meditation. Anders is curious to learn if they apply similar methods in the Integral Facilitator® trainings? Diane explains that they don’t do Circling practice per se, but they do use practices that in a similar fashion trains the ability to “get the other”, as in being able to take a second person perspective. She also describes an interesting framework for their work, namely that they distinguish between the one, the two, the many and the whole. This teaches the participants to honor (in the same order) the subjective first-person perspective, relational/dyadic dynamics and second-person perspectives, working with multiple perspectives when in groups, and lastly, being able to bring coherence into large groups so that the group functions and feels like a single whole.

(1:08:20) The value of using ritual to facilitate transformation
Diane’s description triggers an association in Anders, namely the value of utilizing rituals when training people to access different states. Diane agrees and points to the value of using singing, chanting and music to facilitate subtle state shifts and real felt experiences of being “one body – one mind”. In the context of mediation one could imagine, at least in some cultures, the parties sitting down and sharing a prayer or finding some other way of setting the tone before going into the actual mediation. The point being that the value of ritual should not be underestimated as a means to bring coherence into a group! Anders and Diane also discuss some challenges and possibilities that might arise in relation to cultural differences (when using rituals).

If you feel inspired or provoked by our conversation feel free to add your comments after the interview. You can also send in a written piece of work and get it published together with this episode. Further details can be found here.

Episode links:
Diane Musho Hamilton
Integral Facilitator (9 month program)
Everything is Workable – A Zen Approach to Conflict Resolution (book)


anders-150x150Anders B. Asphaug is a consultant working in the field of conflict and communication. Of a curious disposition, and with background in the academic fields of geography and cognitive anthropology (Cand.polit and MSc) he has read widely, and has experience from complex multicultural arenas, both as a practitioner and researcher. His interest in integral theory and practice is related to his interest in communication across boundaries (personal, cultural, disciplinary). Anders is certifying as a Focusing professional (check out his website at www.thefocusingspot.com). He also has a passion for authentic communication, and facilitates Circling (a form of interpersonal meditation) in his spare time.

James Alexander Arnfinsen (redaktør)
James Alexander Arnfinsen (34) er lærer og arbeider i Osloskolen. Han har bred erfaring innenfor dialogbasert prosessledelse, nærværstrening og konflikthåndtering. Ta kontakt med James på følgende adresse: james.arnfinsen @ gmail.com
James Alexander Arnfinsen (redaktør)
James Alexander Arnfinsen (34) is a teacher, his subjects being geography, religious studies and sports science. He is currently working as a teacher in Oslo, Norway. In his spare time he practices Aikido, a Japanese martial art.
  • James Arnfinsen

    I recently saw the Estonian movie Tangerines, an inspiring and heart wrenching story that should be of interest to anyone working in the field of conflict mediation. My sense is that Ivo, the main character, possesses many of the qualities a good mediator should have. His ability to hold the space in a neutral and unbiased way, and his deep existential and universal view on life, becomes a catalyzer for the war-torn enemies having to spend time in his company.

    I’m also reminded of the perspectives of Martin Buber, and his distinction between holding an I/it relationship or on an I/thou relationship. The movie demonstrates how a person has to objectify and demonify a human being to be able to kill, and likewise, it shows the unwinding of this destructive and limited perspective, and how humanizing a relationship is possible.

    A key ingredient seems to be “collective vulnerability”, seeing that both parties suffer in similar ways, another one, the sharing of ordinary experiences or daily activities (such as sharing a meal together). This will remind the “enemies” that the person on the other side of the table is just an ordinary human being, with the right to live.

    Here is the trailer:

  • James Arnfinsen

    I recently saw the Estonian movie Tangerines, an inspiring and heart wrenching story that should be of interest to anyone working in the field of conflict mediation. My sense is that Ivo, the main character, possesses many of the qualities a good mediator should have. His ability to hold the space in a neutral and unbiased way, and his deep existential and universal view on life, becomes a catalyzer for the war-torn enemies having to spend time in his company.

    I’m also reminded of the perspectives of Martin Buber, and his distinction between holding an I/it relationship or on an I/thou relationship. The movie demonstrates how a person has to objectify and demonify a human being to be able to kill, and likewise, it shows the unwinding of this destructive and limited perspective, and how humanizing a relationship is possible.

    A key ingredient seems to be “collective vulnerability”, seeing that both parties suffer in similar ways, another one, the sharing of ordinary experiences or daily activities (such as sharing a meal together). This will remind the “enemies” that the person on the other side of the table is just an ordinary human being, with the right to live.

    Here is the trailer: