The Anti-Antagonist: Conflict and standing your ground

Wednesday, 20 February 2013 06:00 AM Written by  Ann Begler

20130220 polarbearfaceoff photocom87784200 150I was mediating a protracted conflict between business partners a week or so ago and suggested it might be helpful if I were to meet with each of them separately in a private caucus session. While in the caucus with one partner I was making an effort to help him explore all of the possible outcomes that could occur should the two people involved fail to get to a mediated resolution. Suddenly, he folded his arms, sat back in his chair, looked directly at me and said, “Look, you don’t get it. I hear everything you’re saying, but I can’t even begin to think about the possibilities on the table. Right now I have to just “stand my ground.” He went on to explain that, from his perspective, during this lengthy business relationship he had frequently acquiesced in a range of decisions he didn’t think best for the business, however, not wanting to stir a big fight, he went along. He looked at me again, and repeated his prior words: “The time has come for me to stand my ground. And, that’s what I’ll do.”

As this man spoke to me about “standing his ground,” I became aware it wasn’t the first time someone on one side of a conflict had said that to me. I’d heard it said on many occasions when mediating a family conflict such as a divorce and the attendant issues. The need to stand ground had been explained to me in several cases by a person who had filed some type of discrimination complaint, and was now in mediation hoping to get to a resolution. I’d be told, “What HR did was wrong, I won’t let it happen to others, and I will stand my ground.” I was once mediating a conflict among siblings who had a feud about their mother’s estate when one pointed out, “Tommy has always gotten his way and right now the rest of us are going to “stand our ground.”

As I gave this whole concept more thought it became clear to me that the concept of “standing ground” can be a real conundrum for a mediator. Here’s why. When mediating a case a mediator often finds that parties to a conflict have had a history of disparity related to the power involved in making decisions. When the mediator gains an awareness that a person habitually accedes to the wishes of the other person, part of the mediator’s job might be to support that person to, in fact, “stand ground.” A skilled mediator supports someone to get all critical information, then engage in a process of making a voluntary and solid decision. At times, it’s during the process of mediation, that one person involved in the conflict feels support, for the first time, to actually make a free choice about what to do. So, support for the need to “stand ground” is, at times, a component of empowerment.

Yet, when someone critical to the conflict insists on “standing ground,” it actually becomes, like many fights fueled by principle, a force that inhibits opportunities for a resolution. When this occurs, the work of a skilled mediator is to help people understand it’s possible to both “stand your ground.” and “create new ground.” Clients can easily feel confused by this notion: the mediator, on one hand, is supporting the client’s need to “stand ground,” and, at the same time, the mediator, is working with the client not to be so attached to that ground that movement is impossible.

For the client, “standing” and “moving” feel like oppositional and antagonistic forces. For the mediator, “standing” and “moving” are a delicate art form essential to reaching a mutual and constructive outcome. They are not oppositional dualities that work against each other. “Standing” and “moving” are graceful and harmonious dance steps that are at the heart of the performance.

As mediators, however, we must also respect that for some people the importance of “standing ground,” outweighs any possible resolution that might come, even if “standing ground” works against the financial interest of the person intent on immobility. The development of Self that arises for some who “stand ground,” can be a step toward the manifestation of a sense of pride and personhood that have long been sought.

In the field of mediation, the client’s right to self-determination is a core component of best practices. It is the clients who have and maintain the right to decide what’s best for them in their situation. The mediator’s job is to do everything possible to help people engage in solid, voluntary decision-making. One of a mediator’s skills is creating space for autonomy, as well as creating space for joining. It is this deep commitment to the fundamental best practice of self-determination, that may well prevent the potential conundrum that can appear when “standing ground,” starts to feel like a force that needs some reckoning.

(Image: Jupiter Images/Getty Images)


The Anti-Antagonist is a personal opinion column by Ann L. Begler, founder and principal of the Begler Group, a Pittsburgh firm providing services in mediation, advanced facilitation, conflict coaching and organizational development. You can e-mail Ann via This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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