How to resolve conflict: 4 tips from a professional mediator

From mediating violent political clashes to resolving intercultural differences, Lira Low looks back at her journey and shares the biggest lessons she’s learned along the way.

By Lira Low | 28 Jun 2023

As a child, I was observant and sensitive by nature and the youngest in the family. At the playground and at home, I often became the peacemaker, smoothing out the crinkles of conflict, and was rewarded for performing this role socially.

Very quickly, I learned to discern what others needed in order to diffuse situations, and I ended up being friends with everybody. Attending different schools in different countries meant that I was also constantly adapting to new environments and figuring people out.

I suppose it was this combination of nature and nurture that developed in me an affinity for peacemaking and led me to gravitate towards an eventual career in conflict resolution.

Language, a portal into other worlds

Shortly after I was born in Singapore, my family moved to Kent in England. Since then, I’ve relocated to live, study and work in several cities around the world – Singapore, Melbourne, Tel Aviv, Paris, and now Zürich – experiencing and assimilating into new cultures with each move.

My upbringing as a third-culture kid meant following in the footsteps of my grandparents (second couple from top). After migrating from Fujian and Chaozhou in China to Malaya, they too needed to come to terms with new languages, landscapes and cultures.
Picking peaches with Dad.

I’m a big fan of learning languages – they break down walls and offer portals into secret worlds of other communities that we wouldn’t otherwise be privy to. Through language, I’ve come to appreciate different expressions of the same value or the value of contrasting but valid ways of thinking.

An example is the Hebrew dugri, which refers to being honest and straight, telling it like it is (sometimes criticised as “too direct or aggressive”), contrasting with the Chinese mianzi, which is all about saving reputation or face (sometimes criticised as “not saying what they mean”). To me, both are equally valid approaches to dealing with a counterpart. It just depends on who and when.

As I embarked on a career in conflict resolution and mediation – beginning with government diplomacy at Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, after my Master’s degree at Tel Aviv University – switching gears linguistically and culturally allowed me to gain a more balanced and nuanced perspective while giving differing opinions the dignity of being heard and considered.

💡 TIP #1: Keep channels open 
From my experience in conflict resolution, a major lesson is to keep the door open to all parties in a conflict. The worst thing we can do is to shame or exclude another party if they have acted up or behaved negatively. By keeping communication channels open, and adding buckets of patience, their underlying needs can be addressed and perhaps resolved.

At my regular shakshuka joint in Tel Aviv.

High-pressure situations took a toll

In 2011, I joined the Singapore office of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD), a Swiss nonprofit that engages in private diplomacy, mediation and peacemaking in armed conflicts. 

When a conflict is brewing or has erupted, governments and armed groups often approach HD to reach out to the other side discreetly or negotiate a ceasefire, away from the glare of the media and other powerful watchers. Most mediation processes are classified, but cases that have been made public include Aceh in 2005 and Libya in 2020. 

My work involved creating backchannels of communication so that messages could be shuttled between hostile sides. It was filled with time on planes, nurturing relationships in the field, and impromptu trips if somebody wanted to meet. I also worked on enhancing the participation of women at the peace table.

💡 TIP #2: Avoid criticism and contempt
One of my biggest takeaways in learning about therapy is to avoid criticism and contempt at all costs in any conflict. When we communicate with others, criticism and contempt are among the biggest destroyers of trust and respect, and they make it much harder to repair the self-esteem and agency of an individual.

Absorbing the high emotional pressure of the situations I worked in took a toll. Reconciling the oddities of my confidential work and the normalcy of everyday life became impossible, and I burned out. It got to a point where I was broken and confused and wanted to get answers about human behaviour and my reactions towards it.

I went for therapy, which made me realise that counselling was a window into understanding the human mind. It made me want to know how to expertly deal with our broken, traumatised minds.

Making lemonade out of lemons

After a detour to develop my expertise in mental health and trauma – I obtained a second Master’s in counselling from Monash University in Melbourne – I moved to Zürich and began a second stint at HD as an advisor in trauma-informed mediation, pioneering its application in several peace processes.

Trauma-informed mediation takes into consideration the difficult experiences and psychological baggage that parties bring to the table. These elements often harm the process because their lasting impact affects how we make decisions and respond to stimuli. By increasing self-awareness, trauma-informed mediation helps to reduce emotional reactivity and allows parties to engage in more thoughtful and reasoned discussions.

💡 TIP #3: Manage your reactivity
To manage conflicts effectively, one of the most important things is to manage your emotional reactivity, which only leads to bad decisions. Working on finding comfort in the discomfort will help you ace getting through a stressful event, whether it lasts for one minute or ten years. 

When the war in Ukraine broke out in 2022, HD was involved in efforts at the national level as well as in the Black Sea Grain Initiative to restart the flow of vital food shipments to get grain back into global markets.

Global funding was diverted to the crisis, leading to certain streams of work becoming deprioritised, including trauma-informed mediation. I was disappointed because we were just at the start of something so promising that the EU and other governments were interested to watch us pioneer.

Still, I decided to make lemonade out of lemons. I’d always dreamt of starting my own company and had now found the right opportunity. With the encouragement of my peers, I founded The Mencius Advisory, offering my services in mediation, conflict resolution and therapy to clients locally and internationally.

Celebrating Mum’s 70th birthday as a family.

A new quest for peace

Mencius is the ancient Chinese philosopher who counselled various rulers during the era of the Seven Warring States. He believed that humans are kind by nature and, more than 2000 years later, that is exactly how I see anyone who is party to a conflict.

No one genuinely wants to be rude or difficult. Rather, everyone responds positively to kindness towards others and within themselves. If we start working on ourselves first, and choose to see others as essentially good, we can bring resolution to conflict and start creating a more peaceful world. (For all the sceptics out there who think I’m a hippy-dippy peacenik, I cheekily propose: Is perception not reality?) 

My clients at The Mencius Advisory include individuals, couples and families who wish to resolve trauma, intercultural conflicts, or other sources of stress. On the corporate side, I advise organisations on intercultural competence, mental health, and dispute resolution. I also support employees in one-to-one consultations.

Starting my own practice has led me onto a path that now seems so clearly right for me. I love supporting people closely, and I feel so lucky to be able to help my clients feel truly seen and heard within their unique identities and resolve their challenges in a process that blends mediation and therapy.

Playing both mediator and counsellor is a rather unique combination, and I am seeing increasing interest in the overlap. Mediation can benefit greatly from the softer skills of counselling, while counselling can be made more effective in certain settings when combined with more structured mediation.

💡 TIP #4: Listen and clarify
Something I’ve learned when wearing both my mediator and counsellor hats is that when approaching any conflict, you need to listen, ask questions and clarify. You end up learning far more about the actuality of the situation from listening to people talk aloud, which if you think about it, is more often about them talking to themselves.

I’ve learnt how, in both mediation and counselling, the quest for peace starts with our minds and souls. If we are not at peace within ourselves in the first instance, no amount of external coercion will be able to force a peaceful resolution with others.

Our world is growing increasingly fractured as divisive voices get louder. War and conflict have starved many populations of resources and opportunities, and the knock-on effects on our climate and society are disastrous. Emissaries and dragomans may have traditionally bridged gaps among us, but there is more work now than ever to be done in finding peace and bringing our people and cultures together.

About Lira

Lira is the founder of The Mencius Advisory, which offers services in therapy, mediation, and conflict resolution. She holds a Master’s degree in conflict resolution and mediation from Tel Aviv University and a Master’s degree in counselling from Monash University. 

Connect with her here.

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