The Ombuds Role – Conflict Engagement with the Conflict Paradox


I recently heard a keynote address by Bernie Mayer outlining his thinking on how we (people with conflicts and those that seek to intervene and help – meaning everyone!) think about conflict. Mayer is a longtime mediator and thinker in the dispute resolution field and recent author of “The Conflict Paradox” (Wiley & Sons, 2015).

Both in his talk and in his book, Mayer seeks to expand our thinking when it comes to conflict. Instead of conflict resolution, he suggests “conflict engagement.” The idea is that resolving a conflict is not always the goal of a person in the situation. Mayer’s primary theme is to move beyond either/or thinking, to move beyond “dualistic” constructs that can “trap” us, and shift to conflict paradox thinking.

Mayer describes “seven essential dilemmas” for our consideration:

Competition and Cooperation            Optimism and Realism

Avoidance and Engagement              Principle and Compromise

Emotions and Logic                           Neutrality and Advocacy

Community and Autonomy

Mayer’s idea is that each paradox is actually part of the other and not separate, i.e., you need one or parts of one to have the other. For example, we are not either optimistic or realistic; instead, we are “motivated by optimism and guided by realism.” These concepts work together and should be considered together. As another example, it’s not a question of avoiding or engaging in a conflict; instead, there may be parts to avoid and parts to engage.

I’m just starting my read of “The Conflict Paradox” and will share some thoughts along the way. At this point, I’ll share a thought on conflict engagement that goes to the heart of the ombuds role.

While most who work as ombuds, mediator, or other dispute resolution professional, think of the role as one to help people resolve conflicts, Mayer challenges us to think in terms of engagement. The idea is that we don’t necessarily help people resolve the conflict; instead we help people engage in the conflict. We help each person determine what and whether to resolve a situation or address it in some other fashion.

As the NC State Faculty Ombuds, I think in terms of helping people think strategically, to help them determine their options for a given situation, and then help them consider the choices based on what’s most important to them. As an example of the conflict paradox in action, for many faculty members, there is a significant tension with competing to win the situation versus cooperating to preserve the relationship. Most often the choices made generally meet both aspects because to be successful, faculty members need to win (sometimes part of what is sought, but not all) and preserve relationships!