“I wonder, do people choose to behave in a certain way because that is what they really want to choose, or because they can’t access a better alternative? I once had a teacher, who changed my professional outlook, and the way that I operate from one comment: “people do not make a change in how the think or behave unless they can envision or conceptualize a more compelling outcome than the one they are currently getting.”
A start of the journey
Michelle Arbid considers herself to be a mediator but beyond that, she is more a practitioner, and educator around conflict identification, prevention, management, and resolution. When speaking about the reasons behind choosing this particular career path, she mentions two factors. “One is just being Lebanese. I come from a culture that is deeply and profoundly shaped by conflict” she says. The second factor is her professional experience. From a very young age, Michelle knew she wants to be a therapist, and work in psychology, After graduating from Lebanese American University, and completing training in one of the hospitals, she started as a social worker in the Lebanese prison system – that role exposed and immersed her into a lot of conflict dynamics both internally among members of the prison community, between different religions sects, cultures, factions, and at a larger-scale; she also found that her role required her to provide social and therapeutic services in a landscape heavily painted with systemic conflicts (in the prison system and general governmental systems, as well as systemic social challenges).
Beyond working with incarcerated people and the conflicts they were experiencing within the system, and with their families/social circles, she also observed challenges of a bigger matter, revolving around identity and related social expectations. “I was really immersed into systemic nature of Lebanese larger scale conflicts. Liaising with different parts of the judicial system and organizations outside of the prison system itself and just being immersed in those conflict dynamics made me acutely aware of conflict, and the role and space that it took up in our daily lives in Lebanon—and how unprepared we are to do deal with conflict.” That experience made Michelle really interested in conflict and dynamics, understanding specifically the neuropsychology of conflict, the long-term functional, and physical impact it has on the brain, the endocrine system, and how people view the world as a result. That is why she decided to come back to the United States and pursue a Master’s in Negotiation and Conflict Resolution at Columbia University, New York. She narrowed her attention to coaching and mediation and started volunteering at the Institute of Mediation and Conflict Resolution. Coaching felt like a natural extension of her background in the therapeutic space, but also allowed her to take a more approach that was more aligned with her view of mental health by moving away from the biological model of therapy and mental illness, toward a more constructive and proactive, productive approach to mental health. She took a role supporting the research being done at the Columbia University Earth Institute’s Advanced Consortium on Conflict, Cooperation, and Complexity before taking a role as a Harm Reduction Specialist at Community Access in New York City. After that, she came to the United States Federal Emergency Management Agency and started her role as an Alternative Dispute Resolution Advisor, where she also acted as the FEMA Ombuds for one year.
A search for community
When Michelle made a shift into the space of conflict resolution as a profession, after graduating with her Master’s she felt lost, feeling like she was floundering, trying to figure out where to go. What to do now? She completed the mediation training, apprenticeship at IMCR in New York, along with other pieces of training and coaching. One of the ways that she was trying to seek answers was through joining different organizations, looking for a community, and ways to connect with other practitioners and to continue learning. That is how Michelle joined Mediators Beyond Borders International. By joining she could figure out how to be part of a community of practitioners, and continue education in hopes of helping to improve the world.
“I think it is a series of uncomfortable and painful observations” starts Michelle, asked about inspiration. “Living in Lebanon, really experiencing conflict dynamic as an integral part of the fabric of our identity, society, and interactions with each other. So much of it is grounded in conflict.” Michelle thinks that the way Lebanese society navigates through much interaction is often characterized by an approach that could be considered a conflict. Those can be really minor things, several societal issues that people acknowledge to be an issue in day-to-day life. For example, how people operate in traffic in Lebanon is very different than in the US. It is a common pattern that cars instead of getting in the line to take the exit, will go around all the other cars and traffic, and then cut to the front. Everybody gets upset about it, but it is still a very common phenomenon. There was one moment when Michelle was in the taxi and got struck by two things. One, observing the way that people navigate through things, she realized that there was a mentality of “offense is the best defense”. People often show up in that pattern of defensiveness, and so much of that is based on the impact that transgenerational trauma has had on Lebanese society.
The way that impact shows up from generations of being colonized, wars, geopolitical conflicts, instability, and insecurity, that transgenerational impact showed up in how people operate with one another. Michelle thinks that the way it shows up in society, creates a disturbance, grievance, that are normalized. That person who is going around the other cars, they always trying to be one step ahead. “I think that is because people have defensiveness and fear engrained in them from those transgenerational challenges. That was only one part of what I was fascinated by.” Michelle then started looking at the systemic piece, “I was just sitting there, thinking that it is not something only one person is doing, but that this is a cultural, societal norm. I was struck by the fact that we have those societal norms that everybody is uncomfortable with, and everybody complains about.” However, people are also normalizing it. Michelle knew she wants to better understand how do systems, large groups, how does the traffic systemically ended up like this. What are those factors? That moment in the taxi, was one moment of inspiration, proceeded by a series of uncomfortable observations. As Michelle says, she had all these different elements, when everything in her life was pointing towards conflict and the psychology, neuropsychology, and physical impact, so she really became interested in better understating this. There is an interpersonal dynamic impact here, but what impact is that having generationally, what changes in the brain structurally? That was the moment she experienced something she have seen million times before, but that day she experienced it differently.
Ignorance vs fear of change
Speaking about the role of culture in our lives, and cultural differences, Michelle thinks that sometimes people ignore them, but she does not agree that ignorance is the more common pattern. “My experience is that often people show up to intercultural or multicultural settings or interactions, from a place exceptionalism, they are so biased by their own experience. They are so narrowly aware because we do not often teach it. My experience is that people often show up not ignoring intentionally. There is a lack of awareness, education, lack of capacity around it, it is not an intentional effort to ignore. I think they are unaware and unable to even identify those biases.” Socialization is a big component, people are often socialized with their single narrow view that is culturally appropriate where they are located. Even if they experience differences, they can see them, but approach them with a mindset of “I know what I know.” Michelle thinks that people don’t understand how fundamental those cultural differences are, how deeply rooted, and how they impact so many other things. Culture is about values, attitudes, beliefs, all the more fundamental integral components and elements of how we view the world, and how we behave.
There is a lack of education about cultural sensitivity, navigating through conflict and differences. Respectful, constructive, and responsible dialogue are competencies required to have robust intercultural interactions. People are often afraid, acting from fear of failure. Sticking to their narrative, a more comfortable view of the world is a much available and accessible option, than the intimidation, they feel as a result of not being equipped. There is the idea that preparation is a key to confidence, in these circumstances, it not only unlocks the confidence to behave in a certain way but to navigate through these foreign unfamiliar situations. Michelle thinks that in today’s society, people do not have the necessary education to feel confident and prepared. They stay with that more compelling outcome, which is to stay in their comfort zone where they feel safe and protected and certain. She says that people are not generally ignorant or exceptional, but rather afraid of failure. We live in a very competitive, accomplished-based society, where fear is so overwhelming, makes people feel so far away from the competency that it is too intimidating. It is multidimensional because there is also a fear of change. We like to feel comfortable, able to plan, and know what to expect. But when we acknowledge what we do not know what we think we know, or it is not correct or incomplete, we also have to be willing to come face to face with change. And that is scary for people.
Challenge and achievement
One of the biggest challenges Michelle experienced, is bias and a lot of ageism in the profession of conflict resolution. She has been very vocal and feels passionate about it as a result of how it impacted her, but also because in her opinion it is doing a disservice to the field and the profession. “I find myself most of the time being the youngest person in the room when it comes to professional settings and experiences. That is a challenge because it creates an expectation for the clients or us as a community that a practitioner of this work looks a certain way, or is a certain age, a certain number of years behind them, came from a certain trajectory. That is a risk. I view this ageism as a concern that we should probably all have in this field.” Through professional experiences, Michelle already had on different teams, interactions with clients who expressed their surprise, sometimes even feel discomfort by working with somebody who is on the younger end of the spectrum than what they are used to. “For example, when I have interviewed for roles, I came on camera or walked into the room and I noticed a shift, a sense of surprise, maybe shock, or discomfort or maybe even disapproval.” There is nothing wrong with folks who are in later stages of their careers, showing up for those interviews, but there is also nothing wrong with someone on the younger end of the spectrum showing up, and everything in between. To Michelle, professionally, that was the biggest challenge, but also breaking that down and understanding where it comes from, has been a challenge that she feels compelled to try to change that, help people expand their view or willingness to reconsider. I think it’s a challenge and concern for me and the entire field, there are a lot of important voices that are being cut out. “I think conflict resolution is both an art and a science. People can develop their competency in one of the different ways, and one of those ways is through our experience. Those who maybe do not have 30 years of professional experience still bring a lot to the table” she adds.
One of the achievements is that she thinks she was able to open some people’s eyes, to the presence of this ageism, and some other alternative outcomes or ways of thinking about this. Michelle thinks she was able to help them shift their view. That is the goal, and it fits into another larger achievement, which for her is the biggest sense of accomplishment. It comes when she can facilitate learning around the conflict, her approach to conflict resolution, and it starts with conflict education. “My goal is to help people become more conflict constructive, and that is why I called my practice Conflict Constructive. I want to help people become more conflict constructive by helping them improve their relationship with conflict… to sort of deconstruct their understanding, improve their relationship with conflict and then help them through that educational component, and change the way they navigate conflict to have a better experience. Once a person can recharacterize that, I think that changes their life.”
Fear of conflict
“I feel that people are really afraid of conflict, and that is part of what motivated me to do this work,” Michelle says. People do not usually explicitly get taught about conflict. People get taught about the conflict through socialization, through their experience of growing up, through the values and lessons they get taught in various ways by parents, elders, community members, media, tv shows, etc. We can socialize lessons and beliefs about conflict. Understanding conflict is mostly very unconscious. We learn by experiences, but we do not have a structured way of learning about conflict. What that results in, is that people are navigating through conflict in a way that might not serve them. Michelle thinks a big part that continues to bring her to this work every day, is the recognition that when people can bring their understanding, approach, and attitude towards conflict from the unconscious to conscious, they can start to do a lot in their lives differently. That can change the relationship they not only have with other people but also with themselves. Culturally, that is not always relevant, sometimes the interpersonal dynamic holds higher value. “What the important part of it is, is that it helps to change the way people experience dynamical relationships, and I think that is what all of us can really benefit from.”
Article by Maciej Witek, MBBI Writer