Last week we had one of our on-campus residencies for the newest cohort of grad students in the Mediation and Applied Conflict Studies program. I always look forward to the residencies because, for me, nothing substitutes for working in-person with my students.
I was wrapping up teaching Interpersonal Conflict with this group; it’s a course I’ve developed over the past seven years and one of my favorites to teach. In it, I essentially ask students to begin delving into the ways their own “conflict selves” influence their intervention work, and I invite them to step up to their own difficult conversations as a path to understanding what we’re asking of our clients.
At break, I noticed that one of my students looked lost in thought. As the classroom emptied out and others headed straight for the coffee and snacks table, this student, holder of several degrees and a rich professional history, remained seated, staring into space. I commented on his far-away look and wondered aloud what he was musing about.
He replied that he was pondering the giant abyss.
After pausing a moment for me to absorb the image, he reflected on the dawning realization about how much there is to know about conflict and its engagement, and how truly complex a subject it is. He said it was daunting to realize how much he doesn’t know.
My student, just a few months into his mediator education, is already well along the “conscious incompetence” path. If you’re unfamiliar with this concept, a quick primer (also see excellent treatment of the subject in Bowling and Hoffman’s Bringing Peace Into the Room) (affiliate link):
- The new mediator, perhaps just out of Basic Mediation and a few follow-up workshops, may be unconsciously incompetent. Armed with a few tools and skills, she is unaware (sometimes blissfully so) of what she doesn’t yet know.
- The goal of any good training or education approach to mediation is to help the learner enter the consciously incompetent stage, where he begins to recognize the significant amount of knowledge or experience he doesn’t yet have. Some folks reach this point after basic mediation training or a few follow-up workshops, some much later. We see most of our grad students move into this stage during their first term of study.
- The would-be mediator who makes a commitment to learn and grow may ultimately move into the consciously competent stage, where focused practice and concentration help develop her skills and artful use of them in a conscious way.
- With committed practice and a healthy, ongoing dose of self-awareness and self-reflection, the mediator may finally move into the unconsciously competent stage, where the mediator’s craft is second nature and the act of mediating is integrated with the person who is the mediator.
Of course, the cycle doesn’t end there. Reaching that last stage ultimately means returning to the first stage as the mediator develops greater capacity and raises the measuring stick for herself.
I dared not say this last part to my student. The “giant abyss” of conscious incompetence is enough for him right now.
His musings reminded me of one of the great ironies I experience repeatedly as a teacher in a long-term, integrated mediator preparation program: Our students, who complete our program with hundreds of hours of preparation and practical experience, often express trepidation about their knowledge and ability as they get ready to bring their work out into the world. I think the underlying awareness of perpetual conscious incompetence is always lurking for them—not a bad thing, really.
Except that they’re going out into the ADR world with too much self-doubt, probably more accurately described as self-honest awareness, and running into the over-confidence of mediators with 80 hours under their belts.
I’m tempted to say that it just is what it is and so be it. Another part of me really wants to make sure that more of our students, who are probably in Stage 3 at the time they finish the master’s, fully appreciate their Stage 3-ness and begin their post-grad work with the humble confidence that brings. I don’t know that we do a very good job of this.
Back to the drawing board.