Interview with Dr. Claudia Cohen, Associate Director of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution (ICCCR)
How did you become interested in conflict resolution? Can you give us a brief description of the path you’ve taken since deciding to enter the field, up until now?
Even as a child, nothing was more fascinating to me than human behavior, especially the differences between individuals, groups and cultures and how they were reconciled… often destructively, it seemed. I was horrified and yet compelled by stories of injustice and felt that I needed to comprehend how people who benefitted from privilege and power could treat others in ways that damaged their dignity – sometimes with brutality. In college, I was drawn to social psychology, with its theories and methodologies for better understanding “man’s inhumanity to man.” My Ph.D. dissertation on the cognitive bases of stereotyping demonstrated in a powerful way the extent that culturally-based cognitive “schemas” can fundamentally distort our perceptions of others. This suggested to me that common psychological processes might underlie a manager’s casual cruelty to a low-power subordinate… and the systematic oppression of people based upon race or religion (e.g., slavery in the U.S.; the Holocaust in Europe), though at different levels and with different degrees of impact. Haney, Banks & Zimbardo’s (1973) study, demonstrating how playing the role of a prison guard in a simulated prison setting led average college undergraduates to commit dramatic abuses of power, seemed evidence of common processes.
Fast forwarding a few years, I left academia, looking for a more applied setting in which to understand and possibly interrupt the destructive wielding of interpersonal power . I became an organization development consultant at a large corporation; believe me, there were plenty of instances where low-power actors felt that their dignity was compromised by the corporate culture and the behavior of its leaders. Meanwhile, in the 1990s, the field of conflict resolution was growing. I was attracted to the practice of mediation, seeing it as a process through which a third party can support the constructive, possibly equitable resolution of difference. My study of mediation and also integrative negotiation led me to providing facilitation for dispute resolution sessions (between managers/subordinates, in intact work groups, etc.) and to conflict coaching with individuals. I promoted the knowledge, skills and self-awareness that would allow participants to behave more constructively in conflicts, or as Morton Deutsch would say, with less “bungling.”
Along the way, when struggling with some work- family issues after the birth of my first child, I used the services of a corporate Ombudsman. She helped me see how to frame my interests and needs so that I could propose a solution to my boss, one that would preserve my dignity while clearly supporting the interests (e.g., mission, culture, bottom line) of the organization. Eventually, I lobbied for the creation of an additional Ombuds office in a sister organization—and was hired to fill the role, serving happily for many years.
Eventually I left the corporate world, in order to work with nonprofit organizations, especially with human rights and peace building missions, whose values were closer to my own. Despite organizational missions to promote peace and justice, I was disappointed to realize that the staff was no more skilled in cooperation and conflict management within their organization than were their corporate peers. In addition to consulting, I grew my civil court mediation practice and continued teaching: conflict resolution, organization change, management and leadership, emotional intelligence.
Then, a chance encounter with a former colleague (at a mediation conference) led to the rekindling of my research interests; and I began to collaborate with him on a complex, qualitative study of mediator style. When my current position (the Associate Director of the ICCCR) became available, I knew it was a perfect opportunity for me: serving a venerable organization, one founded upon cutting edge research in cooperation, conflict resolution and social justice, that promotes the integration of theory with practice as it educates the next generation of conflict scholar-practitioners.
You’ve had quite a varied career. Do you feel that there was a turning point – a specific job, or a particular life decision - that you credit with bringing you to where you are today, or that was the most meaningful for you?
My role as a corporate Ombudsman was particularly satisfying and challenging. A couple of things made it stand out. First, because I had personally benefitted from using the Ombuds office, it was gratifying to be able to offer the important service to others. In addition, I had proposed the creation of a new Ombuds office. My boss agreed to a six-month trial period to determine if the office met the needs of employees and the organization; I served in the role for more than five years. I also loved the elements of the job: a combination of supporting individuals with feedback that is both empathetic and practical, and of providing the organizational leadership team with information on systemic challenges; strategies for promoting the dignified treatment of employees, leading to productivity and commitment; and opportunities for organizational growth.
Do you believe the field of conflict resolution has changed significantly since you began your career? If so, how?
Absolutely. First, it has grown tremendously over the last thirty years. This is borne out in the greater number of conflict and dispute resolution programs at colleges and universities and the increased prevalence of Ombuds offices in organizations. The study of cooperation, conflict and constructive resolution is situated across a variety of disciplines, and I believe the awareness of this breadth of knowledge has grown. However, we have not yet developed robust processes for integrating knowledge and understanding across disciplines. Many barriers to interdisciplinary collaboration remain, including the culture and reward structure of academia, and the processes through which new knowledge is disseminated. Mining the potential for effective interdisciplinary collaboration is a challenge for conflict scholars and practitioners of the next generation to continue.
What advice or pointers do you have for young professionals and/or students looking to advance in their careers? What specific career advice do you have for people in this field (conflict resolution, violence prevention, sustainable peace, etc.) that may be distinct from more general career advice?
First, as in other careers, I think it is vital to gain an understanding of the landscape of the field. Because it is such a multidisciplinary field (e.g., psychology, law, political science, security, business and more) visualizing the landscape can be particularly challenging. Identify some more experienced professionals and ask to do an “informational” interview. Find out what they do, what they read and what organizations they belong to. Second, identify your skills and your passions. Conflict scholars and practitioners are often deeply committed to the reduction of human suffering; what do you feel “drawn” toward? And, finally, the field is relatively young and professional roles for conflict resolvers are not always well-defined. Volunteer work (with community mediation centers or international aid organizations) can help build your resume. And, look for an opportunity to identify the need for a position… and propose it! Developing the job description gives you a powerful edge when it comes to filling it!