Training conflict resolution practitioners: the need for new methods and approaches
By Evan Hoffman, Ph.D.
“This article critically analyzes the training of conflict-resolution practitioners by private corporations, non-profit organizations and academic institutions. In doing so, the strengths of current approaches will be illustrated and ways to improve future training will be identified.”
Just as no two conflict resolution practitioners are the same, the path they followed to becoming a practitioner will also be different. The result is that a diverse group of practitioners exist with vastly different backgrounds, levels of experience, approaches and areas of expertise.
Many see this as a weakness and there have been attempts over the years to further professionalize the field. Part of this professionalization involves issuing credentials to recognize those that have met extensive training and practice criteria. For example, Civilian Peace Service Canada offers the designation of Peace Professional, the Canadian International Institute of Applied Negotiation offers a designation of Registered Practitioner in Dispute Resolution (RPDR), the Workplace Fairness Institute offers a designation and the ADR Institute of Canada offers the well-recognized Chartered Mediator designation. In all cases, the accrediting organization expects the candidate to meet minimum educational and practice requirements.
The 40 hour Mediation Course
There are many paths to becoming a mediator but the starting point will likely be the 40 hour mediation course. More in-depth training in advanced mediation skills and/or a broadening into other important conflict resolution skills such as facilitating, negotiating, building consensus, managing power dynamics, doing workplace investigations and designing multi-stakeholder, multi-issue processes will be achieved in an ad-hoc and piecemeal way. That is, this training will likely be delivered by several different organizations as there is no ‘one stop shop’ for this training the way a police recruit goes to the police academy for all the basic training he or she needs to be successful in their new role as a police officer.
Moreover, the teaching methods and overall approach of most basic 40 hour mediation training courses is generally the same between organizations. This begs the question: is there a need to update our training methods and, if so, how?
The Need for New Training Methods
A common training style that first emerged over 25 years ago continues to be used today by most training organizations. This is unique to the conflict resolution field as other fields have updated their training methods by utilizing new technologies.
The most important shift towards using more technology in our field has been the increased use of online learning. While there are many clear advantages with online training (such as connecting people from across the country and being able to complete the training at their own convenience from their home) there are also some disadvantages. Most notably is the question of how to practice conflict resolution skills in a virtual environment and, overall, there is a need to have more opportunities to practice applying skills.
The Need to Practice Newly-Acquired Skills
There are very few opportunities for people to practice conflict resolution skills in a professional setting where they can receive timely and constructive feedback.
One model that combines the application of new skills in a real-life setting along with on-the-job training comes from training Personal Support Workers. Some colleges are using ‘living classrooms’ where students learn while on the job and this could be a valuable model to follow.
The problem with applying this method to conflict resolution training, however, is that we don’t have very many centres that can serve as training locations. This is because the field has organized itself into mostly private mediators operating from their home offices. So, we need highly-skilled or senior mediators to mentor and guide junior colleagues in the same way someone apprentices with a Master Carpenter to learn that trade. We can encourage mediators to do this as a professional courtesy as we work towards finding ways to further institutionalize this. To this end, perhaps mentoring and/or coaching can become part of the requirements of receiving one of the professional designations mentioned earlier in this article?
The Need for Training on Other Topics
We also need to update our training topics to match the realities of current conflicts. Current conflicts are complex, inter-twinned, costly and often embedded in a deeper structural or policy environment that can work against their resolution. Because of this, it is almost always better to prevent conflicts before they occur.
Moreover, stalemated or intractable conflicts can often only be shifted towards resolution when the political actors involved are sufficiently motivated to take helpful actions. Likewise, often there is ample early warning that a new conflict is emerging and taking early responses to prevent the escalation of the conflict requires generating sufficient levels of political will. Thus, the need to influence political actors is a major aspect of preventing and resolving conflicts.
Based on these current realities, some topics that should be covered as part of the ‘basic training’ for all conflict resolution practitioners includes:
- Conflict Prevention
- Critical Thinking
- Political Advocacy
- Project Design, Monitoring and Evaluation
- Policy Analysis
Additionally, I’d add that training should emphasize teamwork, self-discipline, curiosity, how to work under pressure, the need for flexibility/innovation and cross-cultural sensitivity. In sum, future training needs to be both deeper and broader to be more reflective of the realities of modern conflicts.
 Plus, the slow yet steady emergence of Online Dispute Resolution (ODR).
 We need to keep in mind that most individual mediators may not have the quantity of cases nor the capacity to host students.
Evan Hoffman, Ph.D. is a Senior Associate at the Canadian International Institute of Applied Negotiation (CIIAN) and a mediator with Concorde Inc. Over the last ten years, he’s conducted workshops and trainings with hundreds of community leaders, university students, police officers, and government officials from around the world.
Note: a longer version of this article is available here www.ciian.org/training.pdf