Since my last submission, events in the Middle-East and North Africa have escalated with alarming speed, as a contagion process has seen countries rocked with revolution, sometimes within days of each other. At the time of writing (things change daily) it is now possible to list the following countries: Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Oman and Yemen as having, or undergoing unrest and revolution. These nations represent almost the entire north coast of Africa and a significant portion of the Middle-East. Their tribal Kings and rulers have experienced something of Biblical proportions, in terms of the upheaval and challenge to the old orders.

The question however, as in any conflict, is why? In my last message from Europe I highlighted the need to understand the history behind a conflict. What were the precursors and the interests, and were early warning signs missed? In the ongoing events of North Africa and the Middle-East, the word contagion is appropriate. The revolutions and upheavals are literally spreading like a wild fire between neighbouring nations. In the workplace, a similar contagion process can occur with departments; when individuals or teams spread dissent, conflict begins to breakout. In the current international situation, there is not much one can do but observe. However, in the corporate environment, someone in the company could be appointed as lookout, to warn of impending trouble. There is a saying that bad news travels fast. In the age of Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking schemes, bad news can indeed travel extremely fast, and globally. The Facebook generation has brought down empires - it could also bring down a commercial one too?

So did those rulers and Kings who now find their thrones and governments under attack from their citizens see it coming? Was anyone keeping lookout? Or, did pride and arrogance convince them they were secure and impenetrable. Pride always precedes a fall; it is a universal principle, and what we are seeing on a mass international scale is just that. Lessons can be learned and applied to ADR work from these historic events. Watching and listening to interactions between individuals and parties in dispute can reveal much. Investigative work, prior to suggesting a plan of action, is also essential to understand the cultures, needs, and unspoken issues. So often it is not what you can see and hear that counts: it is what you can’t. It is not what people say that matters as much as what they don’t say.

What has remained unspoken of, mostly out of fear, may prove to be the driving force behind the Middle-East and African revolutions, which stem back generations. Likewise, in the workplace, disputes may be rooted in events that occurred months or years earlier. Pent up frustration and feelings of oppression have now spilled over into violence and destruction on the streets of many a city. In the workplace or family, they can spill over into feuding, entrenchment, industrial action, or breakdown.

The challenge to ADR professionals, who advise and support parties in dispute, is to effectively explore solutions that will support viable, sustainable and legitimate alternatives. Always challenge the parties to consider carefully, what comes next, and what they want the new status-quo to look like. After all, they do not want to find themselves—even with the best of intentions—having jumped out of the pan into the fire!

by Howard Stern

Operating primarily in the UK and Europe, Howard works exclusively in conflict and dispute resolution. His work follows a 25 year career in project management, training and development. Howard is a member of the British Civil Mediation Council, accredited by the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution as a mediator, and affiliated with various NGOs. His love of travel and the great outdoors has taken him to many places, sometimes in pursuit of his wider professional interests in international politics, and to explore the global pressures facing society as it copes with rapid population growth.