Pirates of Penzance: A most ingenious conflict paradox

In Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera The Pirates of Penzance, Frederic, a pirate apprentice, was faced with a “most ingenious paradox.” A paradox is a situation with two competing sides that appear as a contradiction. The Pirate King explained the paradox to Frederic. Frederic was bound by contract to serve the Pirate King as an apprentice until he reached his “twenty-first birthday.” However, Frederic was born on a leap day, the 29th of February that only appears on the calendar every four years. So, although Frederic could count 21 years of his life, he could count only 5 birthdays. His paradox was that his age was 21 and 5 at the same time, depending on the method of calculation. Here’s how Frederic explained his situation:

How quaint the ways of Paradox!
At common sense she gaily mocks!
Though counting in the usual way,
Years twenty-one I’ve been alive,
Yet reckoning by my natal day,
I am a little boy of five!

This paradox placed Frederic in a conflict with the Pirate King over the interpretation of the contract that defined his freedom. When we are in conflict, we may also experience our own paradoxes. In fact, Bernard Mayer describes seven conflict paradoxes in his book, The Conflict Paradox. Let’s take a look at these through Frederic’s eyes.

1) Competition & Cooperation Paradox

In negotiation, offers can be considered either competitive or cooperative. For example, when Frederic was faced with the news that his indenture with the pirates was to last another 63 years, he took a cooperative approach by playing nice and asking, “You don’t mean to say you are going to hold me to that?” He sought to cooperate with the Pirate King to find a solution. In contrast, when Frederic’s love interest, Mabel, got the news, she took a more competitive stance by acting tough and asserting that the pirates “have no legal claim.” She appeared ready to challenge the pirates. Choosing between competition and cooperation can be a tricky balancing act. As Bernard Mayer teaches, cooperation tends to yield better results, yet without competition there may be no motivation to cooperate. In this case, Frederic would have benefited from balancing his cooperative approach with Mabel’s competitive approach, rather than simply telling Mabel that “when Duty calls, I must obey.”

2) Optimism & Realism Paradox

An optimist may be confident that everything will work out. A realist might say, “Don’t believe everything you think.” Bernard Mayer points out that optimism without realism is not meaningful, while realism without optimism is a dead end. When motivated by optimism and guided by realism, one can wrestle with uncertainty and doubt. In Frederic’s case, he displayed optimism with laughter as the Pirate King described the paradox. But the optimistic outlook soon vanished when Frederic was faced with the reality of his contract with the Pirate King, leaving Frederic in a state of confusion. Bernard Mayer recommends approaching such confusion under the assumption that a way can be found forward that will make a difference, but with the full knowledge that there is no guarantee that there will be a successful conclusion to the conflict.

3) Avoidance & Engagement Paradox

We pick our battles by choosing to raise a conflict or ignore it. Before learning the news about his contract, Frederic enlisted the police to hunt down the pirates. Mabel tried to encourage the police to engage against the pirates by exhorting, “Go, ye heroes, go to glory, though you die in combat gory.” In comic display, the police avoided the pirates by staying in place while saying, “Yes, yes, we go.” Such avoidance, while frustrating to Mabel, may have been the prudent course of action in this case. For example, Bernard Mayer recommends waiting a bit before confrontation and, in the meantime, asking for more information in order to prepare for constructive engagement when the time is right.

4) Principle & Compromise Paradox

Compromising on principles can be considered cowardly, while being unwilling to compromise for practical reasons can be considered arrogant. Bernard Mayer recommends that in order to advance our principles that are based on our most important values and beliefs, we have to be willing to compromise on those principles. He put it another way with the phrase: Never let your values get in the way of doing what is right. Frederic would have benefited from this advice. Instead, he clung to the principle that “duty is before all — at any price I will do my duty.” In contrast, Bernard Mayer might have told Frederic that his approach to conflict could have improved by distinguishing interests from principles.

5) Emotion & Logic Paradox

Traditionally, emotion and logic are kept separate under the belief that logic is an aspect of the left-brain and emotion is an aspect of the right-brain. However, Bernard Mayer believes that emotion and logic are best integrated as part of the same conflict resolution process of expression and analysis. For Frederic, he logically told Mabel that he will return to her in 63 years, while Mabel responded emotionally (and accurately), “It seems so long!” Frederic would have benefited by integrating some of Mabel’s emotional expression into his own logical analysis.

6) Neutrality & Advocacy Paradox

While most disputing parties are willing to have a neutral third-party assist with conflict resolution, parties ultimately hope that a neutral third-party will be an advocate for their position. In Frederic’s case, Mabel went to the Sergeant of Police and imploringly advocated that Frederic was acting nobly by returning to piracy, because of his “heroic sacrifice to his sense of duty.” Comically, the Sergeant wanted to concur, but he did admit, “This is perplexing.” Bernard Mayer acknowledges the perplexing nature of the tension between neutrality and advocacy, especially in relation to the contrasting styles of transformative and evaluative mediation.

7) Community & Autonomy Paradox

Bernard Mayer defines community as interdependence with others in our lives and autonomy as independence with individuality. Both community and autonomy give one a sense of identity of who one is. Frederic wanted his autonomy by breaking free from the pirates. He explained, “Individually, I love you all with affection unspeakable; but collectively, I look upon you with a disgust that amounts to absolute detestation.” Bernard Mayer explains that both community and autonomy are necessary in life. Specifically, independence is established by having a healthy attachment to others, and one can become truly autonomous by having a healthy network of social relationships. Of course, Frederic recognized that his relationship with the pirates was unhealthy, and so he attempted to free himself from them.

Taste for paradox

Before Frederic was faced with his paradox, Mabel’s father, Major-General Stanley, introduced himself by asserting that “I am the very model of a modern Major-General.” He further exclaimed that “I’ve a pretty taste for paradox.” Bernard Mayer shows his taste for paradox by saying that both sides of a conflict paradox “are not really polarities” because “each element of the paradox is dependent on the other.” Bernard Mayer acknowledges that finding the unity of each polarity is difficult to do, but teaches that “embracing paradox is a core method of dealing with conflict.” Have you ever dealt with conflict by embracing a paradox?


Image: “Jolly Roger Pirate Grunge Flag” (CC BY 2.0) by Nicolas Raymond

Source: Mayer, Bernard S. The Conflict Paradox: Seven Dilemmas at the Core of Disputes. San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass, 2015.

Elaine Stritch’s Shoot Me: Giving up the car keys

For an elder, few things are as symbolic of the loss of freedom as the phrase “giving up the car keys.” Elaine Stritch illustrates this well in her documentary Shoot Me, filmed when she was 86 years old. At the beginning of the documentary, it was clear how full of life she was walking the streets of New York City. She trotted on the sidewalks with driven determination, pausing along the way to engage with fans who recognized this Tony Award winning Broadway legend. And, as she connected with passersby, she delivered witty remarks that indicated that she not only was a master of active listening but that her mind was sharp as a tack.

Yet, before these introductory Manhattan neighborhood scenes, even before the opening credits, Elaine was filmed in her apartment responding to a question about how she felt about her life at age 86. She emphatically stated with her saucy voice:

Look. I’ve got a certain amount of fame. I’ve got money. I wish I could [expletive] drive! Then I’d really be a menace.

For Elaine, who was bounding with energy at 86 years old, she was frustrated at having to give up the car keys. Considering the sense of isolation and dependency that comes from not being able to drive, giving up the car keys can feel like a devastating experience.

Transparent conversations with Elaine Stritch

If the name Elaine Stritch does not sound familiar to you, you may recognize her from her guest appearances on 30 Rock as Jack Donaghy’s mother. For theatregoers, she is famous as the grande dame of Broadway musical comedies featuring songs from Stephen Sondheim. In her documentary, she reprised those Sondheim songs in cabaret shows while occasionally forgetting her lyrics. Despite her memory lapses, she connected with her audience to the envy of any attorney attempting to connect with a jury.

In her documentary, for example, a reviewer of one of her performances writes: “The mere presence of this lean, glaring lion of a woman said everything about resilience, feisty determination, and the will to continue. Almost any other performer would probably throw in the towel, but a trouper grits her teeth and plunges ahead, trusting in her survival instincts to carry her through any crisis. That is exactly what Ms. Stritch did, to wild acclaim.” To see an example of her classy determination to push through her forgotten lyrics, watch her performance of I’m Still Here sung at the White House.

The documentary showed much more than just Elaine’s stage presence. It also chronicled her daily struggles with diabetes and alcoholism. For example, after being rushed to the hospital due to a sudden drop in blood sugar, Elaine described what it was like when she was physically unable to talk, yet her mind was fully engaged. Throughout the documentary, her transparency allowed the viewer to journey alongside her as she dealt with the advances of age.

Transparent conversations uncover interests beneath positions

Transparent conversations don’t have to be limited to up-close and personal documentaries. Transparency can be between adult children and their parents by participating in family facilitation. Like Elaine sharing with the camera about her hopes and fears, in facilitation an elder parent can intimately share with his or her family the emotions of aging. Similarly, strained sibling relationships can be eased when an adult child shares with other siblings concerns about what is often called “caregiver burnout.” With the goal of planning for the right level of care, families can collaboratively make tough decisions that come along with aging.

A family meeting with a facilitator can be effective because it enables families to go beneath the surface and uncover what is important for each family member. As an elder parent enters a life transition, families can go beneath positions and uncover interests. In the classic book Getting to Yes, Roger Fisher and William Ury explain that positions are things you want, while interests indicate why you want it or think the way you do about it. Often, families will get stuck in arguments over declared positions. Family facilitation can help preserve family ties by having difficult conversations that recognize and satisfy interests. For example, an adult child might take the position that the elder parent must no longer drive. By exploring why the adult child has taken this position, and why an elder parent needs access to transportation, solutions can be explored that balance the twin desires of safety and independence. While this type of collaborative dialogue may take time, understanding what is important to everyone is time well spent to reach family decisions based on mutual understanding.

Cheering “Bravo!” for aging parents

Elaine helps us understand her views of aging when she explained:

I like the courage of age. And Bette Davis said it better than anyone, you know? Not for sissies. Getting old is not for sissies. And I never liked the word ‘old.’ I like ‘older.’ I’m getting older every single day, and so is everybody else. So we’re all going together. Ba-boom, ba-boom, ba-boom. And why not enjoy it? ‘Cause there’s not a [expletive] thing you can do about it.

Similar to Elaine looking ahead to her life’s curtain call with brave honesty, elder parents can map out their plans for what they still want to accomplish. Family facilitation can strengthen family bonds by uncovering dreams as well as recognizing vulnerabilities. By engaging in family discussions, adult children can help their parents cast themselves in their life’s scripts and understudy Elaine by living life with pizzazz.


Image: “Panning around” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Damianos Chronakis

Van Halen: Tracking mediation issues with a checklist

It turns out that there was method to Van Halen’s madness. Have you heard the story of David Lee Roth demanding that a bowl of M&Ms be placed in his dressing room, except that all of the brown M&Ms had to be removed, and if there was a single brown M&M in the bowl, Van Halen had the right to cancel that evening’s show? Despite the story sounding far-fetched, it is not about an eccentric rock star. The story is actually about checklists designed to keep everyone safe.

According to Atul Gawande who wrote The Checklist Manifesto, Van Halen’s truckloads of heavy equipment had to be set up correctly, especially in smaller arenas. If something was set up wrong, it could fall and crush someone. To ensure safety, Van Halen’s contract provided a detailed checklist of precise setup instructions. However, the checklist was only useful if it was followed. So, the band buried in the checklist the unexpected instruction to remove all brown M&Ms. When David Lee Roth arrived backstage, all he had to do was inspect his bowl for brown M&Ms to know whether or not the equipment checklist had been followed.

Mediators use checklists to provide you with a consistent and predictable process surrounding what can be an inconsistent and unpredictable negotiation. One of the checklists is the mediation agenda, which is a list of the issues that need to be addressed. Just as airplane pilots use concise checklists in emergency situations, mediation agendas work best when each issue is described with a short phrase that captures the main idea. These short phrases help ensure that issues don’t get forgotten.

According to Atul Gawande, sometimes people object to taking time to create a checklist. For example, in the past, some surgeons didn’t want to follow checklists. However, those surgeons became fans after they saw the improved results. Here are some improvements that you can expect with the creation of an agenda of issues in mediation:

  1. Agendas provide a way for you to think about what is important to you.
  2. Agendas communicate that importance to the other side.
  3. Agendas assist negotiation by indicating to you what is important for the other side.
  4. Agendas ensure that as we go deep into the trees of conflict, we won’t lose sight of the forest of resolution.

Of course, just because an issue is on an agenda doesn’t mean that we have to talk about it. After all, sometimes an issue will decrease in importance during a negotiation. Similarly, if you think of an issue after we create an agenda, we can always add that issue. This makes an agenda a tool that helps keep mediation on track without it adding unnecessary constraints.

As you prepare for mediation and think through your needs and wants, be ready to explain them to your mediator so that they can be tracked on an agenda. Like airplane pilots and surgeons who benefit from checklists, you’ll appreciate that the mediation agenda is a simple checklist that will keep you focused on what is important to you.


Image: “m” (CC BY 2.0) by Dawn Huczek

Source: Gawande, Atul. The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2010.