Frisbie on the World Mediation Congress at Loyola Chicago

And you thought basketball is what put Loyola-Chicago on the map.  TFOI Teresa Frisbie provides this first-hand report about the World Mediation Congress, which Loyola recently hosted.

The 300+ mediators, judges, attorneys and students at the International Academy of Dispute Resolution World Mediation Congress and 17th annual international mediation tournament held in March at Loyola University Chicago School of Law exchanged many interesting ideas related to mediation throughout five days of educational and social events.  Among the workshops, presentations and panels by mediators from around the world, one of the highlights was the keynote by Ken Cloke on the topic of political conflicts.

Cloke posited that the current political climate is the single greatest challenge mediators now face as a profession.  In a session that swept from the political theories of the ancient Greek philosophers to Daniel Kahneman to the neurophysiology of political conflict, he raised the question, “What if politics was the art of conflict resolution?”

The audience seemed riveted, I think in part because most of us (certainly the U.S. mediators) have truly struggled with our own political conversations in the last couple of years.  He challenged us on our duty as mediators to take the high road and use our peacemaking tools to create true dialogues. If we use the (admittedly effective) tactics of resorting to the language of rage and fear to achieve our own political ends, we perpetuate the problem.  He reminded us, in the words of Vaclav Havel, that “there is only one way to strive for decency, reason, responsibility, sincerity, civility, and tolerance, and that is decently, reasonably, responsibly, sincerely, civilly, and tolerantly.”

Cloke’s description of the neuroscience emerging around “red and blue brains” was also fascinating.  According to the studies he cited, social conservatives have a larger and more active right amygdala, an area of the brain associated with vigilance, fear and the fight-or-flight response. This was specifically noted when the brains of Republicans and Democrats were engaged in a risk-taking task.  (As a person in a bi-partisan marriage, I like to think of these differences in the context of a primitive tribe that needs some members who are good at being alert for dangers to keep the tribe safe and other members who are good at connecting with others and encouraging exploration.)

He also raised the idea of two truths at the same time, which got me thinking about Sheila Heen’s presentation at Loyola earlier this year when she asked the audience what taking a knee at a football game was “about” and unearthed an interesting array of beliefs ranging from safety to patriotism.  (This has been a great year at Loyola for the topic of politics and conflict – we also had former Illinois Governor Pat Quinn speak on this topic.)

Cloke also challenged us on our duty as citizens.  If we stand by silently, hiding behind our neutrality as mediators, we are part of the problem. He stressed the importance of nuanced language and respectful dialogue in preserving democracy and gave historical examples of how simplification of language supports fascism.  Cloke’s slides, which he suggested we share, are available at

The week included too many engaging discussions to cover here, but another one of my favorites was an interactive presentation with the Hon. Sabine Koenig (ret.), a pioneer in mediation in Germany. Koenig has made a study of what humans can learn from how animals manage conflict.  She described examples from the animal world that might help a mediator read human responses and body language.  One example is the “freeze” response of opossums, fish, etc. when they are under duress — something that can also happen to human clients during a mediation, and which their own lawyers may not recognize. A skilled mediator can take appropriate steps to help the client feel safe.

I am truly grateful to everyone who presented or participated and look forward to future events.

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