A HUSKY LORTON INMATE ignores the heckling
of a cellmate as he sits on his bunk, legs drawn up, eyes tightly closed.
A small boy urgently whispers, "Pizza, pizza!" to a classmate who appears on the verge of jabbing his pencil into the next boy in line.
A retired postal worker patiently shuttles back and forth between two feuding neighbors who stopped speaking when one's dog dug up part of the other's garden.
What these people have in common is that all are defusing tense situations with techniques learned during classroom training in a fast-growing new academic subject and specialty: conflict resolution. No longer solely the province of far-flung diplomats and high-priced labor lawyers, methods of solving or controlling disputes are being taught at colleges, universities, and even schools across the country.
One reason for the growing interest is simply the upswing of conflict in society at all levels. "Conflict is a growth industry," observe Roger Fisher and William Ury in Getting to Yes, their best-selling guide to wise negotiating. "Everyone wants to participate in decisions that affect them; fewer and fewer people will accept decisions dictated by someone else."
An even more potent factor may be fear--about the escalation of historic grievances in the Middle East and elsewhere and, most especially, about the specter of all- out war and nuclear holocaust.
In fact, the dangerously high level of conflicting interests around the globe has dramatically improved the prospects for establishment of a national institution for research and training in conflict resolution skills. Such an idea has been bandied about ever since George Washington recommended "a proper peace establishment for the United States." Since 1935, no fewer than 140 bills have been introduced in Congress to set up some kind of department or academy of peace. But, though taxpayers support four military academies and five war colleges, no proposal for the systematic study of peacemaking at the federal level had had much of an impact on Congress until last November, when more than half the Senate signed on to a bill to set up a United States Academy of Peace.
"Peace is everybody's business. It's time it became somebody's job," said Sen. Jennings Randolph (D- W.Va.) at a Senate hearing on the proposal last April. If approved, the Peace Academy will perform and assist research in international peacemaking, educate and train specialists in conflict management skills, and establish broad information services. The task one day might be to provide a working group of specialists in the negotiating behavior of the Soviets, while another day a tricky and violent situation like the Iranian hostage crisis might call for an advisory group with expertise in the geopolitical area and cultures involved.
Because this kind of sustained technical backup is now lacking, the government sees only a limited repertory of options and responses as available, according to James Laue, director of the Center for Metropolitan Studies, University of Missouri-St. Louis, and vice chairman of the presidential commission that last year recommended the Peace Academy's formation. "For a modest investment ($31 million for the first two years) the capacity of the United States to respond to conflict in the world could be broadened and strengthened," Dr. Laue told the Senate hearing. "We could begin to overcome the tremendous imbalance that has existed for years in the nation's capabilities for responding to situations of threat or conflict. We are heavily overbalanced toward meeting conflict with force--in our war budgets, in our military academies and war colleges, in our strategic and weapons R and D."
Sponsors of the Academy have said that they want it to be an arm of the government, but an alternative arm, not part of the establishment that sees peacemaking essentially in terms of balances of power. Conservative syndicated columnist Jeffrey Hart has speculated that the faculty "would be an enclave of the 'peace movement' from the '60s and '70s," and that the Academy itself "would merely be a political pressure group, grinding out propaganda, putting pressure on the West but not on the Soviet Union, reinforcing neutralist trends abroad and unilateralist opinion here at home."
As the Peace Academy proposal moves toward a floor vote in the Senate and consideration by the House Foreign Relations and Education and Labor committees by early fall, it is drawing other fire as well. The professional schools of international relations seem to feel slighted by the implication that existing private institutions are not doing all that could be done to refine and publicize methods of conflict resolution. Several deans have fallen behind Theodore L. Eliot, Jr., dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, who has testified that more money should indeed be spent on research and training in international conflict resolution, but that it should go to well-established centers like his own.
The assumption that common threads run through domestic and international disputes is another thing about the Peace Academy proposal that rubs Dean Eliot the wrong way. "To contend that training for international conflict resolution goes along generically with domestic conflict resolution mixes apples and oranges," he says. Dr. Laue counters by calling that point of view "an implied elitism of scale."
"Virtually every technique applied in international peacemaking first had to be learned and practiced in a smaller setting," Laue says, claiming that those who have practiced at both levels, such as former U.N. ambassador Andrew Young and Diego Asencio, the American ambassador who helped negotiate freedom for himself and other hostages seized in Bogota, have become advocates for the connections.
Another firm believer in the close analogies between domestic and international conflict resolution is Roger Fisher, founder and head of the Harvard Negotiation Project, an innovative, three-year-old effort to bridge the historic gap between academics and practitioners of negotiation, mediation and other forms of conflict resolution. Project staff and volunteers move freely between community activities, such as mediation in the Quincy Small Claims Court, one of the heaviest dockets in Massachusetts, and complex national and international assignments, such as devising multilateral negotiating mechanisms for dealing with environmental regulation, nuclear energy or ceasefires. Two professors from the Project also helped develop the one-text mediation procedure used by President Carter at the 1978 Camp David negotiations, a technique first tested in labor- management bargaining in this country.
The Harvard Negotiation Project has ambitions to become a permanent, full-scale university center. So does the new Center for Conflict Resolution at George Mason University in Fairfax. This fall a multidisciplinary faculty there will begin training the nation's first candidates for actual degrees in "conflict intervention." Intervenors are impartial third-parties who help two or more other parties with conflicting interests find an agreement that has advantages for each and is reached with a minimum of violence and other costs. They can and do tackle conflicts as varied as hostage taking, work stoppages, divorce mediation, prison riots, and custody disputes. At present, though, at least partly because comprehensive professional training has not existed except within specialized legal or diplomatic contexts, intervenors rarely hang out a shingle or are sought out in the want ads.
This is a classic case of tremendous need but low demand, according to the head of George Mason's center, Dr. Bryant Wedge, a social psychiatrist and leading authority on conflict resolution. And it is a situation that he confidently expects will change as programs like George Mason's begin to swell the pool of trained professionals, and as the workaday world comes into more contact with means of settling disputes short of litigation. Still, Wedge and the center's associate director, Henry Barringer, a retired Foreign Service officer, have been careful to warn applicants to the two-year program that their master's degree in conflict management will be no easy ticket to job security. "They persist in coming, anyway," says Wedge, obviously pleased.
The majority are mid-career professionals with full- time jobs. The 36-member group accepted for the 1982- 1984 program includes two police officers, several attorneys, an elementary school principal, two Senate aides, an industrial management specialist, a social psychologist, a probation supervisor and a U.S. Secret Service agent. Most believe the conflict-management training will make them more effictive in their current jobs. Many, like Fairfax police officer Al Santiago--who hopes that the department will start a special unit to defuse stresses building up in the county--expect to remain in their present professions, but with a new twist. A few others think of starting or joining one of the neighborhood or city-wide mediation services that have burgeoned in the United States over the past five years, primarily in an effort to unclog the courts.
One such effort is the three-year-old District of Columbia Mediation Service. Administered by the Center for Community Justice, a local non-profit organization that specializes in the design and testing of dispute settlement programs, the Mediation Service operates out of the Citizens' Complaint Center in Superior Court Building A. There people involved in a quarrel and unable to resolve it by themselves are given the opportunity to reach an agreement with a mediator's help. There is no charge for this service, and it worked in nearly 1,000 cases in 1981. The trained volunteers who conduct the hearings--currently scheduled 54 times a week--include retired government workers, housewives, attorneys and ex-D.C. fire chief Burton Johnson. All have been screened to assure that they listen well, converse easily, empathize naturally and restrict their judgment calls to matters of timing. But the most important qualification, says director Noel Brennan, is flexibility. "Mediators have to be prepared for surprises. You might go to hear a complaint between two neighbors and find half the families from the block glowering at each other in the waiting room."
Although the D.C. Mediation Service has used no mediators younger than 25, the Children's Creative Response to Conflict program of Nyack, New York, has demonstrated that elementary school children can act quite effectively as impartial third parties and are quick to devise ways to help each other resolve conflicts. In Ohio, high school students are learning to relate skills for dealing with violence on an interpersonal level to the larger community and even the global context. And the list of courses and workshops goes on and on.
In the final analysis, the traditional ways of dealing with conflict--force, political authority and litigation-- still retain their popularity and purpose. But the multiplication of opportunities for education in the "new" techniques of negotiation, mediation and conciliation is making these noncoercive alternatives ever more widely available.