When It’s I Against Thou: Applying Martin Buber’s Philosophy to Modern Conflict Resolution

By Dr. David Silvera

Adapted by Shalva Ben-David

The prophet Isaiah foretold that in “In days to come,” people would “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, and they will learn war no longer.” (Isaiah 2:2,4; Living Nach, Moznaim Publishing Corporation). Still, in our times, it seems like conflicts are inescapable: spats between neighbors, feuds among siblings, conflicts between spouses, bitter divorces, labor battles, class-action suits, political disputes, and international imbroglios. 

In cases of conflict, individuals, groups, and even countries can take their case to court, and let a judge decide. But the legal route can be costly and time-consuming. Moreover, as the legal process pursues the best decision under the law, it rarely takes into account the relationship of the two sides. After the judge’s ruling, the two sides may leave the courtroom as embittered as when they entered it. 

Mediation, also known as conflict resolution, offers an alternative. Under the guidance of a mediator, the two sides forge their own solution to their conflict, and, ideally, preserve a cordial, or even friendly, relationship. 

Mediation began to emerge in the United States as a professional field in the 1970s, as an alternative to the country’s court system. But collaboration to resolve conflicts dates back to ancient times and is a cornerstone of community life in various cultures. Mediation took place in China as early as the Chou period (1100–722 BCE), and has been traced as a practice in Chinese dynasties through the 19th century. In Japan, village leaders took on the role of peacemakers, and in Africa, at the traditional “moot” (neighborhood meeting), leaders helped parties resolve conflicts without forcing their opinion on either side. 

Martin Buber for resuse

Source: Wikipedia

Mediation as Dialogue and Communication

Moving ahead to the 20th century, this article will explore how the ideas of a modern scholar were forerunners of today’s conflict resolution techniques. Martin Buber (1878–1965), philosopher, religious thinker, political activist, and educator, articulated key concepts in the realm of dialogue and communication. While conflict resolution was not his stated purpose, his ideas about dialogue and attentive listening have wide application in the mediation process. 

We will first demonstrate this point, using three themes in Buber’s philosophy: I-thou vs. I-it; the “zweichen” (the “between,” or interpersonal dynamic); and the “visible I” vs. the “hidden I.”  Then, we will briefly summarize a typical mediation process through the prism of Buber’s ideas. 

Buber’s Concepts as Forerunners of Modern Conflict Resolution   

In his signature book, I-Thou (1923), Buber posited that a person’s attitude toward others can be characterized by one of two basic word pairs: I-It and I-Thou. I-It reflects a situation in which a protagonist relates to another person in an impersonal and superficial manner, almost as an object. In contrast, I-Thou signals a relationship based on the recognition that the other is an individual with needs and values; the I-Thou relationship demands openness, honesty, and mutual commitment. 

Buber’s distinction between these two types of relationships recalls the mediation process, since the goal of a mediator is to transform a relationship from a cold, often acrimonious interaction, which could be described as I-It, into a mutually respectful and constructive I-Thou dynamic. 

Martin Buber also explored the difference between a person’s inner world and outer persona. In his book, The Way of Man (1950), he coined two “I”s in each personality: the hidden and the visible. The “hidden I” is our authentic self: our emotions, needs, and sometimes even vulnerability. In contrast, the “visible I” is governed by our minds, by logic; it is concerned with “just the facts.” We might reveal our “hidden I” to some family members and close friends, but as a rule, our “visible I” is what we share with society. 

These two formulations of human expression have a parallel in the most fundamental conflict resolution technique: the differentiation between positions and interests. In conflict resolution, positions are the stated claims of each side: for example, the demand for monetary compensation, for custody, or for a prized heirloom. The interests are what lie beneath the surface: a sense of exploitation, fear of losing contact with one’s child, or longing for a departed parent. 

When we are in a dispute, we are often determined to safeguard our interests, or what Buber would call our “hidden I.” We conceal our emotions and vulnerability. Our “visible I” takes center stage, as we state our claims clearly and substantiate them with facts, logic, and legal precedent. We would not imagine that revealing our inner emotions and interests would help us in our case. 

iceberg - with explanation of metaphor (1)

Source: Pixabay, with modifications

Not so in conflict resolution. The mediation process actually depends on the involvement of the interests—the “hidden I”—of each side. If a mediator attempts to resolve a conflict at the level of positions, he will find that solutions are limited: perhaps a 50-50 split of a contested resource, or some type of quid-pro-quo. But when the mediator succeeds in steering the dialogue to the level of the hidden interests, there is often room for creative solutions, in which each party can come away with what is most important to them.

To better explain this point, mediators often use this simple analogy: a father comes home and hears his two daughters arguing over the last lemon in the house. For the sake of peace and quiet, he splits the lemon down the middle, giving one half to each daughter. After a while, the father sees that one daughter is juicing her half for lemonade and discarding the peel. Afterwards, he checks on his other daughter. To his surprise, she is carefully removing the lemon zest of her half for a recipe and then tossing the fruit into the trash. Had he discovered why each girl wanted the lemon—the interests of each one—he could have helped them come to a solution in which each girl enjoyed the full amount of what they wanted. 

A historical example, the 1978 Camp David agreement between Israel and Egypt, also demonstrates the difference between positions and interests. As Roger Fisher and William Ury analyzed in their book, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In:

“Israel insisted on keeping some of the Sinai [Peninsula]. Egypt on the other hand, insisted that every inch of the Sinai be returned to Egyptian sovereignty…Looking to their interests instead of their positions made it possible to develop a solution. Israel’s interest lay in security; they did not want Egyptian tanks poised on their border…Egypt’s interest lay in sovereignty; the Sinai had been part of Egypt since the time of the Pharaohs…At Camp David, President Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Begin of Israel agreed to a plan that would return Sinai to complete Egyptian sovereignty, and, by demilitarizing large areas, would still assure Israeli security.” 

Another of Buber’s concepts that can be instructive for mediators is zweichen (the “between”). Buber articulated this elusive idea, building on the theories of German philosopher Jakob Bernays (1824–1881). Bernays declared that, “The truth lies always between two extremes, but never in the middle.” To this, Buber added his idea of zweichen: the interaction between two conflicting sides, which can lead to the point of truth. 

In a conflict resolution setting, mediators must be attuned to the zweichen—the interpersonal dynamics in the room—and bring the two sides to a point of truth. Seated are two individuals or groups who might be unable to exchange a cordial word between them. Each side is convinced that they are telling the truth. To defuse this highly charged situation, the mediator needs to master numerous interpersonal skills: attentive listening, registering body language, validating the feelings of each side, and reframing aggressive demands. Using these skills, the mediator attempts to change the zweichen and cultivate an environment that is conducive to creative problem-solving. By defusing tension and encouraging creativity, the mediator leads both sides to come to a point of consent, the point of truth between the two extremes. 

Overview of the Mediation Process Through the Lens of Buber’s Ideas 

In the first stage of the conflict resolution process, each party declares their positions, expressing their visible I; tempers often run high, with each side unwilling to make any concessions or see outside of their own point of view. Mediators listen closely to the claims of each side, and use conflict-resolution techniques to temper the acrimonious zweichen that exists between the two sides. The mediator will then aim to discover the underlying interests of each party, their “hidden I.” 

In sessions conducted with both sides present, a skilled mediator can sometimes detect a person’s hidden interests. But for a full understanding of a person’s interests, a mediator conducts private sessions with each side. In this safe space of a private session, each side is often more willing to reveal their emotions and concerns, as well as matters that they are willing to concede to. Once the mediator has unearthed the emotions and interests that are fueling the conflict, she will ask each side which parts of the discussion can be shared in the next joint session, encouraging them to allow some disclosure of their true feelings. 

In that subsequent joint session, having learned what each side truly wants and what they are willing to concede to, the mediator leads the discussion away from the positions and toward interests. He also stimulates a process in which both sides generate a wide range of creative solutions to the conflict, particularly those in which one side can answer the interests of the other, without giving up on matters that are most important to them. The mediator guides the two sides to consider all alternatives, and encourages them to reach a settlement that optimally serves the interests of both parties.

Throughout the process, the mediator continues to enhance the zweichen between the two sides, fostering an environment in which both sides open their minds to the other’s point of view, communicate with mutual respect, and transition from a state of confrontation to one of collaboration. Thus, the mediator has led the two parties from a hostile I-It interaction, to a genuine I-Thou dialogue.  

This article is based on a chapter of the author’s recently published German-language book, „Verbundenheit im Gegenüber“ – Martin Buber’s und der Umgang mit Konflikten  (Connection between Opposite Sides: Martin Buber and Dealing with Conflicts).

About the author: Dr. David Silvera, a professional mediator, is founder and director of Silpar/Derachim Institute for Mediation and Training, and serves on the staff at The Evens Mediation and Conflict Management Center at Tel Aviv University. He is a former Deputy Chairman of the Israel Adult Education Association and previously served as Chairman of the Israeli Association of Mediators (2005–2011). In addition to a recently published book that he co-authored, „Verbundenheit im Gegenüber“ – Martin Bubers und der Umgang mit Konflikten, Dr. Silvera is author of several books in Hebrew, including Mediation, a Practical Guide (with Alma Sharon), It Takes Two to Tango: Real Life Mediation Stories (with Shosh Hartom); The East-West Junction; The Guide to Conflict Resolution; and Mediation. 

 

References:

Fisher, Roger, William Ury and Bruce Patton. 1991. Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In. New York: Penguin.

Johnson, David and Roger T. Jonhson. 1995. Reducing School Violence Through Conflict Resolution. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/195198/chapters/Conflict-Resolution.aspx.

Silvera, David. 2009, 2001, 2013. Mediation: Between Theory and Practice – Hebrew Textbook for the Study of Mediation. Ranna Institute for Education and the IAEA. 

Wall, J.A. 1993. Community Mediation in China and Korea: Some Similarities and Differences. Negotiation Journal. 9–2, 141. Cited in Culture, Conflict and Mediation in the Asia Pacific by Bruce E. Barnes, 2007, Roman and Littlefield. https://books.google.co.il/books?id=_lUJ_l0GJicC&printsec=copyright&source=gbs_pub_info_r#v=onepage&q&f=false.

Werner, Hans-Joachim, David Silvera, and Alan Flashman. 2020. „Verbundenheit im Gegenüber“ – Martin Bubers und der Umgang mit Konflikten, Verlag Edition AV 

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