Summary of "Bridging Troubled Waters: Conflict Resolution from the Heart"

Summary of

Bridging Troubled Waters: Conflict Resolution from the Heart

By Michelle LeBaron

Summary written by Brett Reeder, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: LeBaron, Michelle. Bridging Troubled Waters: Conflict Resolution from the Heart. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2002.


Bridging Troubled Waters seeks to move "beyond the analytic and the intellectual" and to situate "our efforts at bridging conflict in the very places where conflict is born--relationships." LeBaron argues that Western-style conflict resolution processes are excellent at rationally analyzing conflict, but that they tend to neglect some of the more abstract elements of relationships, which are central to conflict. In this book she presents such concepts as additions to (not replacements of) the analytical tradition of Western conflict resolution. In doing so she suggests we pursue a "relationship based, creative process" to address and resolve conflicts.

To illustrate the principles of this process she identifies "Seven Mountains" of knowledge: Heart Mountain, Magic Mountain, Nobel Mountain, Mirror Mountain, Goldmine Mountain and Invention Mountain. According to LeBaron, each of these seven mountains "...symbolizes perspectives that are helpful in engaging conflict form the heart." The mountain metaphor is referred to constantly throughout the book and is complimented by numerous stories. I describe each "mountain" below and conclude with some of LeBaron's specific insights regarding third-party intervention.

Heart Mountain: Relationship as Resource

LeBaron explains, "Problems do not exist apart from the relationships that give rise to them." Thus, conflict is relational. As such, the resolution of conflict requires a change in relationships. To do so LeBaron suggests we "imagine ourselves as connected by inextricable threads of relationship," as opposed to assuming relationships consist of "disconnection and competition." When we view ourselves as "inextricably interconnected" to others we seek connection, not agreement; humanity, not evaluation or comparison; and we search for a space within ourselves to open that relationship. By valuing our relationships in and of themselves (as opposed to being a means to an end), we can build more open and flexible relationships that are capable of change. From the peak of "Heart Mountain" we can "make friends with" our relationships and leverage them as a resource to resolve conflict.

Magic Mountain: Welcoming Surprises

Conflict consists of a "stuck relationship" in which ways forward are not visible to the parties. As such, creativity is necessary to move beyond the status quo. According to LeBaron, creativity is "...bringing something new into being." Creativity is not individual, but relational (and is thus closely linked to the "heart mountain"). That is, coming up with something new is sparked by our environment and our relation to it. We are all capable of such creativity as long as we are willing to temporarily suspend our judgments and keep an open mind to what we come across. The creative process calls us to attention, invention and change. It develops new ideas, relationships, and processes. It entails "making friends with" surprises and innovating in response to them. From the "peak" of "Magic Mountain," we see new ways ahead.

Noble Mountain: Being Our Teachings

This "mountain" of knowledge is essentially teaching us to practice what we preach. This is important because we need to overcome our own resistance to change before we can "expect such flexibility in others." Further, if you are to engage with your heart, your actions and rhetoric should be congruent with your purpose. But in order to practice what you preach, one must know what it is that you "preach". This entails knowing your purpose, both in the particular context as well as in a general sense. Knowing your purpose will require "ongoing inner exploration" through self-reflection, dialogue with others, and by "watching yourself in the world". Knowing this purpose adds "...focus, fuel, and feelings to our journeys." From the "peak" of "Noble Mountain" we become our own teachers, learning and developing our purpose, and then practicing it.

Mirror Mountain: Transcending Limitations

On "Mirror Mountain" we look at ourselves intently and we seek to recognize the way our experiences, histories and actions impact our lives and perception, as well as those of others. As LeBaron puts it "...what we see outside ourselves is a reflection of who we are inside ourselves." Thus if we are to accurately understand our surroundings, we must accurately understand ourselves. This includes understanding the effect of our life history and its relation to the outside world. It also includes understanding how our actions are affecting others around us.

At the heart of the work of Mirror Mountain are questions--questions we ask of ourselves and those we ask of others. These are questions that "...interrupt negative, stuck ways of seeing, that open the doorway to connections previously unseen." Such questions can be used to implicitly emphasize interdependence, invite creativity, propose new perspectives, interrupt escalation, and focus attention on personal responsibility. From the peak of "Mirror Mountain" we look at ourselves and ask questions in order to transcend limitations both internal and external to ourselves.

Goldmine Mountain: Involving our Whole Selves

From "Goldmine Mountain" we learn to go beyond logical analysis and to use our "whole selves." LeBaron identifies four parts of ourselves often ignored in Western conflict resolution processes: our physical selves, our emotional selves, our imagining selves and our spiritual selves. Though identified as distinct and separate, the boundaries are fuzzy between these parts of our selves. Identifying these pieces of our selves and their relevance to conflict resolution is the work of Part Two of the book and a chapter is dedicated to each.

Our physical selves consist of the matter that makes up our bodies. Bodies see, hear, taste, touch, feel, think, move and much more. They are the way we experience the external world, and the way we act upon it. Our bodies are constantly sending and receiving messages. By listening carefully to our bodies, we can become more aware of our own emotional and physical states. We can also use our bodies to listen to what others are saying with their bodies, but not expressing through their words.

Additionally our bodies actively affect our emotions and cognition. That is, the way we feel physically affects our cognitive ability and our emotional state. Further, physical states are often relational. For example, when everyone in a room is tired, this will tend to affect your physical state, making you feel tired. As the group becomes increasingly tired, people's minds are likely to become less sharp and their patience is likely to run thin. Physical movement can shift such physical states, which in turn can shift emotional and cognitive states. Thus, group movement can be used to shift relational physical states in an attempt to shift emotions and cognition, and thus change relationships. Our ability to listen to what our bodies are telling us about ourselves and those around us, as well as our ability to intentionally shift physical states with the intention of influencing relationships, is referred to as "somatic intelligence."

Our emotional selves consist of our emotions, which "...are impulses to act...which kick in before rational analysis has had a chance to function." Emotions are "...part of us; they inform us, motivate us, delight us and depress us." Though the rules governing the expression of emotions vary across cultures, the direct experience of emotions is relatively consistent. That is, everyone experiences sadness in similar ways across cultures (despite differing social norms regarding emotional expression). Understanding and acknowledging these experiences in ones self and in others is referred to as emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence can be cultivated by actively attempting to become aware of emotions, both in yourself and in others. This is done by extending, engaging, reflecting and self-care. Extending refers to offering a piece of ourselves to others. This softens relations and encourages others to do the same. Engaging refers to developing genuine and transparent relationships where real feelings are welcome. This encourages emotional expression through mutual respect. Reflecting refers to thinking about the past and identifying emotional states. This helps you to become aware of the effect of emotions. Finally, self-care refers to a general knowledge of your emotional tendencies. What are your emotional limits, hot spots, the ways you can let go of emotional trauma? Cultivating your emotional intelligence does not mean preferencing emotions over rational cognitions. Rather, in cultivating emotional intelligence we seek a balance between the two, which recognizes the value of emotions. As LeBaron puts it, "Emotions...when put into a place where they are neither discounted nor in absolute control, can provide key information and insight to guide our actions."

Imagination, along with "its partner" intuition, makes up our imagining selves. Imagination is "...the ability to create. Surpassing the known..." while intuition is " know with out knowing exactly the process by which the knowing has arrived..." The two are thought to interact, as " through imagination, we loose the bounds of old memories, seeing new possibilities. Through intuition, we discern ways of enacting these possibilities as we live into the new." Thus imagination helps us see new possibilities, while intuition helps us select them. Both intuition and imagination are thought to be necessary to help us overcome ridged memories that have become "...frames that define and limit future events."

Our spiritual selves recognize a "bigger picture" connectedness or as LeBaron puts it, "...we are connected in multiple ways of relationships and meanings..." Due to this interconnectedness, "we cannot dispose of conflict in an us-them way, because we are all part of a relational system of interdependence." Thus, spiritual intelligence involves a recognition of connections between our selves and the outside world (as well as within ourselves). With such recognition comes gracefulness, gratitude, gentleness, and groundedness.

Each of these "four ways of knowing" is thought to complement rational and cognitive ways of knowing. From the "peak" of Goldmine Mountain we learn to use our whole selves in conflict resolution. This includes not only rational analysis, but also somatic intelligence, emotional intelligence, imaginative intelligence and spiritual intelligence. Using all of our intelligences together allows us to better understand ourselves, others, our relationships. It also allows us to communicate with each other completely. Thus, by "making friends" with our physical, emotional, imaginative and spiritual selves, we are able to create the capacity to change conflictual relations.

Invention Mountain: Creative Tools

Much of cultural difference is grounded in the unconscious and thus unavailable to rational analysis. As such, specific "creative tools" are required to access the root of cultural difference. On "Invention Mountain" we learn and develop such creative tools. These tools "...give us a window into each other because they convey not only thoughts but feelings, not only facts but perspectives about facts, not only ideas but values." In Part Three of the book LeBaron provides us with three concrete tools to "...tap multiple ways of knowing" and thus access cultural differences unavailable to rationality. These tools are metaphors, stories and rituals, with a chapter devoted to each.

Metaphors are " with images and information about who we conceive ourselves to be in relation to the images." As such, they are "passages into what matters" and "vivid windows into our worlds." Metaphors communicate directionality, ranking or desirability by making explicit what was otherwise hidden (assumptions, perceptions, judgments and worldviews). Additionally they can shape perceptions, cognitions and assumptions. A rather unfortunate (but true) example of this is metaphors that refer to conflict as "a war" or a "competition," and thus limit the potentially positive effects of conflict.

When used positively, metaphors can promote constructive communication, inform worldviews, build safe places for relationships, acknowledge creativity and enhance process mutuality. They promote constructive communication by setting a positive tone, communicating meanings or emphasis, revealing symbolic issues and clarifying communication. They can inform worldviews by making the meta-level visible, connecting diverse parties, and empowering weak parties with information. Safe places are built through metaphor by surfacing existing conflicts, suggesting alternative perspectives, enhancing empathy and understanding, and conveying questions/objections with out losing face. Metaphors acknowledge creativity by inviting imagination into the process, guiding assessment, and unlocking impasse.

Stories are a second creative tool. Stories provide our lives with meaning, and can inform us of others points of view (and they of ours). But in order to do so, shared stories must be "big enough" to contain the feelings, experiences, roles and contradictions within ourselves and between each other. Further, some stories or parts of stories should remain private, as they are contextually inappropriate. Sharing appropriate stories will enhance our relationships by engaging attention, stimulating empathy, providing contextual information, conveying messages indirectly to save face and by engaging in deep listening.

Though representative of our perspective, stories should be viewed as dynamic cultural products, rather than absolute representations of reality. When viewed in this light, stories are changeable. This is important because "conflicts are not changed when stories remain the same." Rather, individual stories should change and mutual stories can be co-created with a mutually-acceptable future in mind. Resolving conflict will require alternative stories with a corresponding shift in perspectives, attitudes and relationships.

The third tool LeBaron provides is ritual. Rituals are "a space and time apart" from the status quo in which the senses and emotions are engaged in an effort to emphasize symbolic relations. As LeBaron put it, ritual "Involves shared intention to suspend ordinary ways of being with a specific purpose and boundaries related to time, place, participants and focus." They are used as a way to mark meaning, as a tool for transition or as a vehicle for creating community.

Such rituals may appear organically or be intentionally created. When intentionally creating a ritual, one should involve all parties in their design and should make them appeal personally to everyone involved. Rituals can be powerful tools towards transition, but if they do not personally touch the parties involved, they will be ineffective. Often this is the case with rituals based entirely on technology, financial concerns or formal institutions.

Rituals, stories, and metaphors are powerful tools for relating to people on the symbolic level, where meaning is made. On "Invention Mountain" we creatively adapt and develop such tools as resources to assist in bridging conflict. These tools should be tailored to contexts and personal to the parties. By using such creative tools we can access the root of cultural conflicts in ways that rational approaches cannot.

Circle Mountain: A Wholistic Approach

When on "Circle Mountain," we look back at the previous six mountains and integrate what we have learned. We acknowledge where we have come and how we have affected our surroundings. We notice our interconnections within ourselves and outside of us. We keep an open mind to new knowledge's and wisdoms. Finally, we take one last look, turn around and re-climb the other six mountains, this time taking a different path and learning new things about ourselves, others, and the process of conflict resolution.

Third Parties

According to LeBaron, "as we intervene in conflict, we become part of the relational system that includes parties and their representatives." In other words, third parties become part of the conflict relationship and thus they, also, should "climb" each of the seven "mountains" of knowledge listed above. But in doing so, they should climb "...local Buck Hill before setting out for Everest..." That is, successful mediation takes practice, and third parties are wise to begin with more easily resolved conflicts before tackling those that are most intractable.

During this practice mediators should reflect on their experiences and discuss these with other mediators because as, LeBaron put it, "Learning does not come from just being in the vicinity of an event...(it) comes from engaging with others and having experiences; it comes from dialogue, reflection, and individual's work directed toward integration." Additionally LeBaron suggests that mediators create of portfolio or a "...multidimensional collection of materials from practice..." This portfolio will aid in reflection and conferences with other mediators. Finally, LeBaron stresses that a third party must attend to the secondary effects of conflict mediation. Conflicts are stressful on the minds and bodies of mediators. As such, it is necessary to have time away from conflict to decompress and to have sets of practices, which aid in letting go of the conflict (such as yoga or meditation).


Bridging Troubled Waters uses stories and metaphor as tools to illustrate the relational nature of conflict, as well as the creativity necessary to resolve it. In doing so, she addresses the necessity of self reflection, purpose, and building the capacity for change, using all aspects of ourselves. She also reminds us that successful conflict resolution requires that all of this knowledge be integrated and continuously pursued. Finall,y she provides some specific advice for third party interventio

LeBaron believes that the field of conflict resolution should move on to the "next wave" of theory. She believes this wave should include knowledge such as her "seven mountains" which goes beyond the contemporary focus on rational analysis. According to LeBaron, this new approach would bring our "...creative, authentic selves and the capacity to love others to the work and play of conflict resolution training and intervention" Bridging Troubled Waters is an attempt to embark on such a "new wave".