Keeping Your Story Straight: Narrative & Storytelling in Dispute Mediation

By Sarah Schuster, HI Graduate Research Assistant

The Faculty Fellows seminar for December 5th was led by Dr. Madeline Maxwell, Professor in the Department of Communication Studies in the Moody College of Communication. In addition to discussing her research on conflict resolution, Dr. Maxwell discussed her work as founder and organizer of the UT Project on Conflict Resolution and the graduate portfolio program in Dispute and Conflict Resolution. Maxwell’s seminar took an unusual turn into introducing her topic, adding a note of intrigue in the form of a game.

Maxwell began by describing the disputes she mediates as ones that can threaten clients’ well-being fundamentally because of the risk they pose to clients’ personal narrative. Solutions, she noted, are often secondary to the issue of having a story that clients can tell themselves about the dispute and its resolution. She also discussed her plans to eventually write about storytelling in mediation, as well as mediation and conflict resolution as educational modalities. Teaching negotiation tactics can often be effective ways of teaching people how to work together and how to compromise, pedagogy that she has into practice with the Global Ethics and Conflict Resolution Summer Symposium. The Symposium provides high school students the opportunity to learn conflict resolution skills that apply to everything from personal disputes to global issues. Maxwell stated she would like to further explore the benefits of communication and conflict resolution skills training in education alongside her current work.

Maxwell then informed the group that they would be doing a short exercise to demonstrate the ways in which storytelling often coincides with conflict resolution. Two Fellows selected by Maxwell read from a prepared script, telling a fragmented story of two seemingly separate, unconnected events. The rest of the group was permitted to ask the two readers any question they liked about the stories, with the caveat that the readers could only answer “yes” or “no.” The goal, Maxwell explained, was to uncover the full story connecting the two incidents. The Fellows had a lively Q&A, though several details still seemed unclear. Finally, Maxwell and the volunteered Fellows told the entire story.

Through this exercise, Maxwell provided further context for her work, noting the fungibility of words and the inexact science of interpreting disputants’ meanings. Maxwell explained that disputants in mediation will often have spoken or unspoken agreements about what is to be disclosed in the session, which further complicate the role of the mediator. The seminar closed with a discussion of Maxwell’s future projects and goals, as well as a discussion of mediating as a profession and the  relationship between leadership and mediation. Maxwell explained that teaching leadership skills isn’t a matter of teaching people to be assertive, or forcing people into a perceived best outcome. Rather, it’s a process of listening, compromising, and actively finding an agreeable outcome for everyone in a group–what might be called a common story.

 

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