5 minutes with Maria Arpa, Conflict Resolution Expert

14 Jul 2020

5 minutes with Maria Arpa, Conflict Resolution Expert

We recently collaborated with Maria Arpa to produce our 'Transforming Conflict' self-guided L&D programme available to all Unmind users. With such a varied and fascinating career, afterwards we grabbed five minutes with Maria to discuss conflict resolution, her Dialogue Road Map, working in prisons, and much more. 


Hey Maria, tell us about your role as a Mediation and Conflict Resolution Expert – what exactly does it involve?

When I first started on this path 20 years ago, I was a volunteer mediator in my local area, helping residents in social housing mediate neighbour disputes. I have worked on over 500 neighbour dispute cases. On the face of it, the problems are all things we can relate to – loud music, noise disturbance, children and young people being boisterous, nuisance dogs, rubbish disposal, inconsiderate parking and so on.

Over time, as I gained experience, I came to see how these issues can be fuelled by other hidden prejudices such as lifestyle, culture, race, poverty, inequality, and powerlessness. And these can be driven by groups, families, and belief systems. Gradually my experience extended into gangs and violent crime and then onto families, communities, workplaces, business deals – basically any place where people are trying to form ongoing relationships, we will find conflict.

The work involves helping those in conflict to find a productive, rather than a destructive, resolution. There are many methodologies for doing this. At its simplest, the process is meeting with the people in dispute separately to build trust and safety, and then assess if it is feasible to bring them to a joint meeting to see if they can hear each other and problem solve. It requires a lot of skill because our prevailing systems in society promote an adversarial mentality towards people we disagree with. At its most complex, the work can involve many meetings, contacting others who are impacted by the conflict, and going through a change process.

You developed the Dialogue Road Map. Can you tell us about it?

The most used model of conversation is the debate, in which we work hard to ‘win’ the argument. This may include going as far as recruiting others, presenting the other person with evidence of their wrongness, or even becoming violent. This perpetuates a threatening use of language in which we label, judge, blame, and use force or blackmail to gain ground – or compete with each other to be the ‘most hurt’.

In my experience, this use of language does not make life better or create healing. At the very core of our being people want to love and be loved, yet when we're in need of love, healing, compassion or understanding, we behave in ways least likely to get our needs met. Where conflict arises, we want to express our hurt or pain, receive some validation and then find ways to heal, and this needs a different use of language which necessitates a dialogue.

The Dialogue Road Map is the ‘how to’ on translating debate into dialogue. Once we are in dialogue we can more clearly express ourselves in ways that are more likely to be received compassionately by the others involved. The Dialogue Road Map has applications in all settings where people expect to have ongoing relationships. Sometimes people can learn it and find better quality communication in their life. At other times it is better to use a Dialogue Road Map Facilitator to help everyone address the issues. Wisdom comes from knowing when it is possible to use it on one’s own and when to get professional help.

You've done a lot of work in prison settings – what was that like?

Where else can you find a group of people in one place for whom the strategies they have used have so obviously not worked? The opportunity to offer something to help people who are at a pivotal point of change is fulfilling and meaningful. Prisons are overstretched and under-resourced places that are based on a retributive and punitive justice system. This does not create the conditions in which people can reflect and change. Hence the high numbers of re-offending.

We train prisoners to become Dialogue Road Map Facilitators so they can help other prisoners who are struggling with issues such as addictions, self-harm, anxiety, conflict, loneliness, and stress. At Dartmoor prison, we have a team of 24 Dialogue Road Map Facilitators helping other prisoners on a full-time basis. We have been working in partnership with the Governor and staff at Dartmoor for almost three years and I am very proud of this project and the changes the men are experiencing.

What's the most interesting conflict you helped resolve?

I have worked with neighbours at war, family breakdowns, gang violence, threats to life, business deals gone wrong, teenage angst, and with people at their wit’s end. Because I am not so interested in a quick fix, I sometimes work alongside participants for a year at a time so we can achieve real change at a core level. The most recent achievement I am proud of is in Dartmoor prison. With the help of the Dialogue Road Map Facilitator team, a man who had struggled with addiction since eight years of age, has now been clean for over a year. He's also now a trained Dialogue Road Map Facilitator helping others.

That is what success feels like to me because I didn’t do it, some people I trained played it forward and he is now paying it forward. My role is providing the training, the tools and belief in their capability.

Tell us a fun fact about yourself...

Giraffes have the biggest heart of any land mammal and they have tall necks so they see a bigger view. Therefore the Dialogue Road Map is all about speaking Giraffe Language. So I collect giraffe statues and memorabilia.

I’m a Maltese Cockney – a rare species: both my parents are Maltese and I was born within the sound of Bow Bells. Cockney is now a dying breed because the area in which Bow bells can be heard has shrunk through noise pollution and big buildings – and there are no maternity wings within the sound as it is now!

There’s a swimming pool directly across the road from my house so I pop across the road with my dressing gown over my swimsuit, occasionally stop traffic as they wonder if I’ve escaped from somewhere, swim, and then come home in my dressing gown.

We've all been there. Thanks so much for your time, Maria!

To learn more about Unmind's range of self-guided programmes, tools and resources, book a chat with one of our workplace mental health technology specialists.

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