About Claire Holland

Claire Holland is a Senior Lecturer and Director of the Conflict Management and Resolution Program at James Cook University.

Sovereign Citizens, Violence, and Native Title

Pascale Taplin and Claire Holland

Pascale Taplin is an anthropologist with over twenty years’ experience in community-led development projects and native title research in the Northern Territory and North Queensland. Pascale’s current research interests include disinformation and Australian conspiracist communities.

Claire is a Senior Lecturer and Director of the Conflict Management and Resolution Program at James Cook University.  She is a practicing mediator, conflict coach, workplace facilitator, and conflict management trainer. Her research interests include mediation and conflict resolution processes, interfaith dialogue, coaching and capacity building.

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

Recent media around the tragic shooting of two police officers and a civilian in Wieambilla South-West Queensland suggests that the perpetrators subscribed to anti-State Conspiracy theories (sometimes called “Sovereign Citizen” beliefs). Scholarship on the Sovereign Citizen narrative in America clearly demonstrates that these narratives cause social harm and can lead to violence. For example, Sarteschi (2021) in a narrative review with implications of violence towards law enforcement plots 74 instances of violence, many fatal, perpetrated by Sovereign Citizens against American law enforcement officers between 1983 and 2020.

In relation to the tragic events in Wieambilla, Joanne Grey, a scholar with the University of Sydney, is reported as saying that research suggests that people who have a distrust of institutions and are looking for someone to blame, may be more vulnerable to conspiracy theories (Baker, 2023). Elements of conspiracy theories are often adopted into the narratives of individuals who feel persecuted or harmed by governments or legal systems, as they may provide ‘victimhood narratives’ to explain perceived persecution or harm. This blog will highlight a current example of conspiracy narratives in the native title sector. With increasing numbers of people being drawn into anti-State and Sovereign Citizen conspiracy beliefs, it is critical that there is increased investment into understanding the societal drivers of these narratives.

Conspiracy Narratives and Native Title

Anecdotal evidence from native title practitioners suggests that Sovereign Citizen narratives are becoming increasingly common in the native title sector. Anti-State and conspiracist thinking disrupts the progress of native title claims by casting native title practitioners as agents of an evil, illegitimate corporation posing as government, thus introducing additional conflict, fear, and distrust to native title consultative processes. A forthcoming short reflection paper in press with the Dispute Resolution Review will explore what may drive claimants to bring conspiratorial beliefs to native title discussions, and the responses of practitioners and agencies of the State to such beliefs.

My friend is a dignified old fellow in his 80s, with carefully considered and warm old-fashioned manners. He grew up on a mission in North Australia, where he suffered abuse as a child. He speaks of the mission as a local arm of a far-reaching “Government” or “State” and the forced removal of First Nations people as calculated to enable the theft of their countries. After the National Apology, he formed a view that the government had found compassion for First Nations people and wrote a letter to the Queensland Premier describing the state sanctioned abuse he had survived. The Premier did not reply, or acknowledge receipt of, his letter.

Now my friend holds to a different set of beliefs. He says he is not an Australian citizen – which explains the lack of response from the Premier. My friend believes he is a “Sovereign Citizen” or a “SovCit”, under no obligation to observe Australian Law. He believes all government funded employees – including me – work for an illegitimate corporation which has run out the real Australian Government and is now intentionally conning him and all Australians for profit. In his view, he has discovered “the Truth”.[1]

The Sovereign Citizen (SovCit) movement, has been described by the Anti-Defamation League (2012) as among “…the most problematic domestic extremist movements in the United States”, and which counts among its founders white supremacists and violent extremists. SovCits thinking originated in the US, but is now transnational, having provided some impetus for the Australian “Freedom Rally” or “Canberra convoy” to Old Parliament House in February (Roose, 2022).

Any relationship to the longstanding Indigenous sovereignty movement in Australia is very recent, and in our view is not benign. Jack Latimore (2022) in an article in the Age says that alt-right SovCit actors co-opt Indigenous agendas, and have attempted a calculated “hostile takeover” at the Tent Embassy. Latimore calls the deliberate use of emotive political phrasing to capture Indigenous audiences “Blackfishing”.

In the reflection paper “Contextualizing belief in conspiracy theories: A case study in Native Title” Taplin will argue, that rather than acknowledging First Nations’ sovereignty and on that basis entering into inclusive dialogue about recognition, native title keeps structural power, including the power to judge certain types of cultural legitimacy in the hands of ‘experts’ in positions of authority. In this way, the native title claim process arguably perpetuates historical policies of State coercion and control. This birds-eye view exposes the structural issues that lead to disillusionment, and thus may make people vulnerable to conspiracist thinking. Taking a close-up view, Taplin speculates that the uptake of belief in conspiracy theories may be in part, a function of individual responses to those structural issues. She further argues that in the land rights / native title space, seeded from epistemic mistrust, belief in conspiracy theories fills the gap between the intention and the reality of the land rights movement in Australia.

Some of the native title practitioners Taplin has worked with trivialize claimant-come ‘bush lawyers’ who expound Sovereign Citizen narratives. Some give these people short shrift as a lost cause, at the same time disregarding the legitimate complaints that may well seed the issue. This is not a helpful response, and further alienates practitioners from clients. This only increases the risk of social harm. There are systemic drivers lending momentum to the uptake of conspiracy theories.

Conspiracy Narratives and Violence

In an analysis of the relationship between belief in conspiracy theories and violent extremism, Basit (2021) observes that both conspiracy communities and violent extremist groups narrate “… an ‘us versus them’ world view where a sharp in-group and out-group distinction, punctuated by distrust and polarization, exists”, and further that “conspiracy theories are linked to threat perception, prejudices and negative attitudes about powerful outgroups.” Unfortunately, the recent police and citizen killings in South-West Queensland demonstrate the potential for violent action to stem from Sovereign Citizen narratives in Australia. Until now, Australia had been relatively unaffected by radicalized, violent Sovereign Citizens. The question moving forward is how do Native Title practitioners, and other stakeholders, engage with Sovereign Citizen beliefs.

Learning how to manage, negotiate and/or navigate through multiple worldviews is increasingly going to be an essential skill for police and practitioners working across fraught legal, cultural, and historical contexts. Further research is required for a deeper understanding of the phenomena of Sovereign Citizen conspiracy beliefs in Australia. A practice note is forthcoming: Taplin, P (2023, in press) Contextualizing belief in conspiracy theories: A case study in Native Title, Dispute Resolution Review, (2), p 1-11, and a research project on contemporary issues in dealing with Sovereign Citizen narratives and conspiracy theories in Native Title anthropology is currently underway.

For engagement with the authors, please email pascale.taplin@outlook.com

[1] Extract from upcoming publication, Taplin, P (2023, in press) Contextualizing belief in conspiracy theories: A case study in Native Title, Dispute Resolution Review, (2), p 1-11.


The lawless ones: The resurgence of the sovereign citizen movement. (2012). Anti-Defamation League ADL100 Special Report. (2nd ed.) https://www.adl.org/sites/default/files/documents/assets/pdf/combating-hate/Lawless-Ones-2012-Edition-WEB-final.pdf

Barker, J. (2023, December 13). As a principal, he was feted for his success. Now he’s linked to two police killings. Sydney Morning Herald. https://www.smh.com.au/national/queensland/as-a-principal-he-was-feted-for-his-success-now-he-s-linked-to-two-police-killings-20221213-p5c601.html

Basit, A. (2021). Conspiracy Theories and Violent Extremism. Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses, 13(3), pp.1-9.

Latimore, J. (2022, January 8). Blackfishing’: Alt-right pushes to co-opt Aboriginal Tent Embassy to cause. Sydney Morning Herald. https://www.smh.com.au/national/blackfishing-alt-right-pushes-to-co-opt-aboriginal-tent-embassy-to-cause-20220105-p59lzj.html   

Roose, J. (2022, February 15). How ‘freedom rally’ protesters and populist right-wing politics may play a role in the federal election. The Conversation https://theconversation.com/how-freedom-rally-protesters-and-populist-right-wing-politics-may-play-a-role-in-the-federal-election-176533

Sarteschi, C.M. (2021) Sovereign Citizens: A narrative review with implications of violence towards law enforcement. Aggression and Violent Behavior (60)https://doi.org/10.1016/j.avb.2020.101509


Contemporary Conflict Mapping

Contemporary Conflict Mapping

Claire Holland* and Rikki Mawad**

* Claire Holland is the Director of the James Cook University (JCU) Conflict Management and Resolution Program. She is a senior lecturer and researcher in Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) and conflict resolution processes.

** Rikki Mawad is a Conflict Management and Communications Consultant, and a lecturer in the JCU Conflict Management and Resolution Program.

This blog post discusses new perspectives on conflict analysis and conflict mapping. The authors invite commentary around a more contemporary conflict mapping matrix that integrates modern perspectives and practices.

Why Map Conflict?

 At its most basic level, Gary Furlong, author of The Conflict Resolution Toolbox: Models & Maps for Analyzing, Diagnosing, and Resolving Conflict, states managing conflict effectively is a two-step process:

  1. Assessing conflict
  2. Deciding what action (or inaction) to take to address it.[1]

Assessing conflict, also known as conflict analysis or “conflict mapping,” is a process of reviewing a conflict context through a third party/neutral lens by following a logical, structured review process. The mapping acts as a guide for the intervening party to design a process that meets the parties’ substantive, procedural and psychological needs.[2] The overarching aim of conflict mapping is to increase comprehension and clarity of the situation and facilitate appropriate and well-considered conflict management or conflict resolution strategies.

When there is lack of clarity or poor understanding of the conflict and time pressures to make decisions, people and systems tend to react to conflict rather than respond. This has the effect of escalating conflict rather than moving towards resolution or positive change. Due to time pressures, lack of resources, and lack of access to support systems, for many individuals and organisations there is limited scope for reflection on the underlying causes of the conflict. Adequate consideration of underlying conflict causes can inform choices on how to respond to a person or situation, and the likely impact of those choices on future interactions or occurrences. Mapping a conflict prior to an intervention is a key step in setting the intervention up to succeed. Conflict mapping and making considered choices may end up saving individuals and organisations time, money and energy by identifying the best forum and appropriate practitioner or intervention team at the outset.

Existing Approaches and Perspectives on Conflict Mapping

Models of conflict mapping, such as Shay Bright (PhD) The Conflict Mapping Chart, list specific elements for consideration. Bright, drawing on the Wehr Conflict Mapping Guide[3] and Sandole’s Three Pillar Approach,[4] leads the reviewer through the six key pillars of a conflict framework, which includes identifying and analysing:

  1. Conflict parties;
  2. Conflict history;
  3. Conflict context;
  4. Party orientation;
  5. Conflict dynamics; and,
  6. Conflict intervention.[5]

Under each heading, it is possible to include additional models and maps for analysing, diagnosing and intervening in conflict. Furlong highlights eight models for analysing conflict: 1) The circle of conflict; 2) The triangle of satisfaction; 3) The boundary model; 4) The interests/rights/power model; 5) The dynamics of trust; 6) The dimensions model; 7) The social styles model; and 8) Moving beyond conflict.[6] These conflict analysis models are often also considered in light of overarching conflict theories such as negotiation theory, mediation and practice frameworks, human needs, conflict transformation, theories of change, and peacebuilding.

The mapping process involves considering theory, research, and understanding of conflict to provide greater clarity about the conflict situation, understanding of the needs, interests, goals, and resources of different parties to the conflict, and awareness of options for interventions to move towards resolution or engage in effective ongoing conflict management. As Daniel Druckman states in his seminal text Doing Research: Methods of Inquiry for Conflict Analysis, there are aspects of both art and science in the field of conflict analysis and resolution.[7] While maps, charts and tools can be scientifically followed, the ‘art’ of interpreting and applying information is a learned skill. A contemporary conflict matrix that expands Bright’s model with a seventh and eighth pillar aims to increase the factors for consideration in conflict analysis, allowing greater opportunity to identify and design appropriate intervention strategies that accommodate the realities of the parties and structures in which the conflict exists.

Building on Bright’s Framework: Pillars 7 and 8

Pillar 7: Multidisciplinary Knowledge

The authors suggest that there is merit to adding a seventh pillar in Shay Bright’s Chart, Multidisciplinary knowledge, which is to bring in elements of neuroscience, emotional intelligence and trauma-informed approaches to managing conflict at an intrapersonal level through to a transnational level. What is currently lacking is a clear and structured conflict analysis chart that includes consideration of party’s psychologies, worldview formation, self-analysis, and additional models analysing cultural considerations and emotional states – particularly for enduring conflict that involves ongoing uncertainty for parties. Many established conflict theories use a rational mind approach that focuses on individualistic and neoliberal response to conflict. The majority of well-known and cited authors in the conflict management and resolution field are US based researchers who, while having worked globally, often bring an Anglo Christian, male perspective to conflict mapping and interventions. An unintended effect from potential unconscious bias, is that key elements of a conflict that relate to elements such as gender, race, religion, and sexuality may not be properly considered in both the mapping or intervention. Clear articulation in mapping tools for greater cultural and emotional intelligence in conflict analysis and intervention design are important for a more holistic analysis. If outcomes such as true party self-determination are important, then consideration of resolution options that are co-designed with the parties to that conflict, culturally appropriate, and representative of the party’s actual needs, interests and priorities, will arguably be more sustainable.

Bringing in the work of practitioners, researchers and emerging thinkers such as Daniel Kahneman[8], Daniel Goleman,[9] Van der Kolk[10] and Brene Brown[11] for example (and to name only a few), gives the conflict practitioner a new lens and additional pillar to mapping the conflict, designing and delivering the best fit intervention. One example of including multidisciplinary knowledge in the conflict mapping process, would be to consider Dr Brene Brown’s grounded theory social research into courage, vulnerability, shame and empathy as a lens to help both people in conflict and third parties assisting with conflict to grow the options for resolution. Brene’s recent work in Dare to Lead for example, is a key asset to conflict managers.[12] Brown talks about harnessing the power of empathy to understand ourselves and others as a way to change perspective and open space for difficult conversations. Brown’s work around rumbling, leaning into hard conversations, and BRAVING are incredibly complimentary for conflict management practitioners and in helping anyone understanding, navigate and more productively work with conflict.

As a way to add to hallmark features of conflict management processes, the BRAVING inventory modernises the conflict theory principles of non-judgment and choice theory and provides a framework for growing connection through empathy and understanding which generates options for transformation and resolution of conflict at various levels and across contexts.

Pillar 8: The Practitioner and the Process

The authors also suggest an eighth pillar to the Shay Bright Conflict Map, The Practitioner and the Process, that looks at the macro and micro skills required of a practitioner for an effective intervention. Along the lines of fitting the ‘forum to the fuss’, it is important to consider fitting the ‘practitioner to the process’. Depending on the outcome of the conflict analysis, there may be a good reason to require certain practitioner characteristics, knowledge or skills. In order to best serve the parties and support a conflict management or resolution process that considers and adapts to the parties needs, interests and priorities, there may be evidence-based and/or practice informed reasons for seeking practitioners who have certain characteristics (for example age, gender, race, or religion) or knowledge and skills (for example, contextual understanding, cultural competency, emotional intelligence, trauma informed practice, working with vulnerability and shame).

Without a high level of emotional and cultural intelligence, the conflict management practitioner designing and delivering an intervention could hinder options for resolution or transformation of the conflict. Practitioner micro skills may also play an important role in establishing psychological safety and meeting party’s needs.

Developing self-awareness and skills building are essential parts of education and professional development for conflict resolution practitioners. Self-awareness is an element of emotional intelligence, as defined by Daniel Goleman. Emotional Intelligence can be referred to as EI or EQ. For the purposes of this blog we will use the term EQ. At its most basic definition, EQ is the ability to understand and manage your own emotions, and recognise and manage the emotions of other people around you. Daniel Goleman first wrote about EQ, and introduced an EQ framework of four generic domains: self-awareness; self-management; social awareness; and relationship management.[13] The five dimensions of emotional intelligence Goleman suggests are self-awareness; self-regulation; motivation; empathy and social skills. The importance of EQ and using EQ in leadership and communication has been increasingly researched and discussed by academics and practitioners over the past 30 years. It is recognised that EQ can be trained,[14] higher EQ positively impacts academic grades and performance[15] and influences conflict styles.[16]

Applying an EQ lens across the conflict map can increase both party, self, issue and other awareness as well as ensure that an intervening party is positioned to de-escalate and effectively ‘climate control’ the process. The less we understand ourselves and our own emotions, the less likely we are to recognise and understand other people’s and the entire conflict situation. This leads to challenges with empathy, general social skills and can also create and escalate conflict.

A lack of EQ in parties and practitioners can lead to conflict escalation rather than regulation and resolution. Without self-regulation, we cannot control or redirect our thoughts, feelings and actions and therefore are trapped in a cycle of reacting rather than responding. The inability to self-regulate then  inhibits our levels of motivation, resilience and achievement and our relationships with others, and could also thwart the sustainability of a negotiated outcome. Once a practitioner understands themselves, their emotions, and their motivations they can work on developing skills to assist others in self-regulation, social skills, communication and emotional management. A growth mindset, recognising that talents and skills can be developed overtime and through hard work, is an important frame of mind.[17] Applying a level of self-assessment on behalf of the conflict practitioner to the conflict at hand, recognition of what the situation may call for based on the conflict map, and recognition of one’s ability and skillset, can help determine who might be the best person to intervene in a certain situation.

In conclusion, there are new opportunities to apply the work of emerging scholars and practitioners from different disciplines into our understanding of conflict. It is important that practitioners remain up to date with new understandings, emerging research, and ideas that can inform the field of conflict management and resolution.




[1] Furlong, G. (2005). The Conflict Resolution Toolbox: Models & Maps for Analyzing, Diagnosing, and Resolving Conflict. Canada: John Wiley & Sons, p 2.

[2] Described by the triangle of satisfaction in Moore, C. (2003). The Mediation Process, Third Edition, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

[3]Willmot, W.W., and J.L. Hocker. 2001. Interpersonal Conflict. New York: McGrawHill.

[4] Sandole, D. J. (1998). A comprehensive mapping of conflict and conflict resolution: A three pillar approach. Peace and Conflict Studies5(2), 4.

[5] Bright, S. (2001). The Conflict Mapping Chart. Retrieved September 1, 2020. Available at https://www.in-mediation.eu/wp-content/uploads/file/ConflictMapping.pdf

[6] Furlong, G. (2005). The Conflict Resolution Toolbox: Models & Maps for Analyzing, Diagnosing, and Resolving Conflict. Canada: John Wiley & Sons.

[7] Druckman, D. (2005). Doing research: Methods of inquiry for conflict analysis. Sage Publications, p 3.

[8] Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan.

[9] Daniel Goleman is a Psychologist, Author and visiting scholar at Harvard University see further http://www.danielgoleman.info/

[10] Van der Kolk, B. A. (2015). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin Books.

[11] Dr Brene Brown is an Author and Researcher at the University of Houston, see further https://brenebrown.com/

[12] Brown, B. (2018). Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts. Penguin, Random House (UK)

[13] Goleman, D. (2011). The brain and emotional intelligence.

[14] Mattingly, V., & Kraiger, K. (2019). Can emotional intelligence be trained? A meta-analytical investigation. Human Resource Management Review29(2), 140-155.

[15] MacCann, C., Jiang, Y., Brown, L. E., Double, K. S., Bucich, M., & Minbashian, A. (2020). Emotional intelligence predicts academic performance: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin146(2), 150.

[16] Gunkel, M., Schlaegel, C., & Taras, V. (2016). Cultural values, emotional intelligence, and conflict handling styles: A global study. Journal of World Business51(4), 568-585; Chen, H. X., Xu, X., & Phillips, P. (2019). Emotional intelligence and conflict management styles. International Journal of Organizational Analysis; de Villiers, J., Marnewick, A., & Marnewick, C. (2019, June). Using emotional intelligence during conflict resolution in projects. In 2019 IEEE Technology & Engineering Management Conference (TEMSCON) (pp. 1-6). IEEE; Rahim, M. A., Psenicka, C., Polychroniou, P., & Zhao, J. H. (2002). A model of emotional intelligence and conflict management strategies: A study in seven countries. International Journal of Organizational Analysis10(4).

[17] Dweck, C. S. (2008). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House Digital, Inc.; Dweck, C. (2016). What having a “growth mindset” actually means. Harvard Business Review13, 213-226.

A case for coaching: Measuring effectiveness

A case for coaching: Measuring effectiveness*

Claire Holland** and Tina Hoyer***

*The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Australian Taxation Officer or James Cook University.

** Claire Holland is the Director of the JCU Conflict Management and Resolution Program. She is a senior lecturer and researcher in Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) and conflict resolution processes.

*** Tina Hoyer is an adjunct lecturer with the JCU Conflict Management and Resolution Program. Tina lead the ATO In-House mediation service and is currently a serving Squadron Leader for the Royal Australian Air Force as a Dispute Resolution Manager.

This blog is a summary of the presentation by Claire and Tina at the 8th ADR Research Network Roundtable, La Trobe Law School, La Trobe University Melbourne Australia, 2019.

The Australian Taxation Office (ATO) is proposing to trial an innovative ‘case coaching’ model designed specifically for ATO auditors and objections officers (“ATO officers”) to build and strengthen their dispute resolution skills, tax technical capability and corporate knowledge.[1]  Designing, implementing and choosing to incorporate a coaching model as part of everyday business is a significant investment for any organisation. The investment is not just in terms of direct financial outlays, but also indirect costs, such as staff time, staff engagement (buy-in vs disengagement), and staff experience. Therefore, it is vital the effectiveness (or not!) of a coaching model is measured to determine its cost, benefits and expected outcomes in order to:

  • justify the time and cost to the organisation of implementing a coaching program; and,
  • identify weaknesses and strengths in the individual coaches and the coaching program overall so improvements and adjustments can be made.

Coaching programs are often only evaluated at a superficial level, if at all.[2] That is, evaluation is conducted by way of a questionnaire to gauge the reactions of the participants of the program. For coaching to gain sustainable credibility, it has been recommended evaluation should occur not only to gauge the reaction of the participants but also to measure:

  • Learnings: that is, the knowledge, skills and attitudes that result from the program and which were specified as learning or developmental objectives;
  • Behaviour: aspects of improved job performance that are related to the learning objectives; and,
  • Results: relating the results of the program to organisational objectives and other criteria of effectiveness.[3]

Thorough evaluation of coaching programs is also important to build the credibility of coaching as a profession and to contribute to the research on approaches to formal evaluation of coaching programs. The research will assist with consideration of the adoption of the case coaching model as part of the ATO’s business as usual processes, as well as for the potential uptake of similar internal case coaching models by other large organisations (government and private sector).

How will the case coaching model be evaluated?

The evaluation of the case coaching model will be both on a formative (that is, during the planning and delivery phase of the coaching program) and a summative (at the end of the coaching program) basis.[4]  Based on program logic design concepts[5] and the theory of change[6], the anticipated outcomes of the case coaching for the key stakeholders will be the main focus of the evaluation. The key stakeholders and their anticipated outcomes have been identified following qualitative data collection which captured the views and opinions of ATO senior leaders and potential participants of the case coaching project and the most popular themes extracted.

There were five key stakeholders of the case coaching program identified, being the individual ATO officers coached, the coaches (ie. their managers or technical leaders), taxpayers, the ATO and the overall community. The overarching aim of the case coaching is to ensure ATO officers are well-prepared for their interactions with taxpayers and are approaching the interaction with an appropriate mindset with a view to preventing or resolving the tax dispute.[7] If this is achieved, there will be beneficial short, medium and long term outcomes not only for the individual ATO officers but also the coaches (ie. their managers or technical leaders), taxpayers, the ATO and the overall community (being the five key stakeholders of the case coaching program).

The anticipated outcomes of the case coaching model

(i)                  ATO case officers being coached

In the short term (immediate), the main anticipated outcome of the case coaching is to ensure the ATO officer is approaching the case with an appropriate mindset. That is, ideally the ATO officer should be open to listening to the taxpayer and willing to change their initial assessment/approach to the case, consider other options if appropriate, with a view to earlier resolution of the tax dispute. If these outcomes can be achieved, it will lead to the ATO officer improving their critical soft skills, a sense of satisfaction that they have made the “right decision,” (i.e. it is within the law, ATO policy, and/or has a fair and reasonable outcome), improved technical and corporate knowledge in the medium term (6 months).

Long term (6 months plus) there will be improvement in workplace culture, greater job satisfaction, improved staff experience.

 (ii)                The coach

In the short term, the coach will gain an awareness of any skills gap as well as confidence the “right decision” is being made and the ATO officer is prepared for their interaction with the taxpayer. The coaching is likely to add time however this should improve over time as staff become more experienced as a result of the coaching. Therefore in the medium term, case cycle times should be reduced. The coach should also observe an improved staff experience which is likely to mean less unplanned leave, improved staff performance, increased efficiencies.  All this in the long term will led to an improved workplace culture and overall job satisfaction.

(iii)              Taxpayers

In the short term, taxpayers may feel they have been heard and respected. Through feedback, reports and word of mouth taxpayer statements, other benefits include: feeling the process was transparent and managed appropriately; the outcome was fair (even if the taxpayer is unhappy with the result); improved awareness of taxation obligations; and greater certainty in taxation maters. This will lead to greater taxpayer confidence in the taxation system.

(iv)              The ATO

In the short term the coaching is aimed at ensuring the ‘right decision’ is being made (i.e. it is within the law, ATO policy, and/or has a fair and reasonable outcome). A medium term aim is to resolve disputes at an earlier stage of the within the ATO dispute system, thereby saving costs. Effective coaching may ultimately lead to less complaints and litigation. A benefit for the ATO may also be improvements in the sharing of corporate knowledge; improved staff culture; improved reputation of the ATO; and long term, a more efficient taxation system.

(v)                Community

The long-term goal for the community will be a general feeling of consistency and fairness in the taxation system and community confidence in the ATO.

The case coaching model is anticipated to complement the ATO’s sophisticated Dispute System Design (DSD) and the ATO’s internal use of ADR methods, including in-house facilitation (mediation), the dispute assist program, and independent review. For further information on the model and ATO DSD see the upcoming publication Holland, C. & Hoyer, T. (in press). A case for coaching: Influencing cultural change at the ATO. Dispute Resolution Review.

[1] For further information in relation to the case coaching model will be available in upcoming publication Holland, C. & Hoyer, T. (in press). A case for coaching: Influencing cultural change at the ATO. Dispute Resolution Review.

[2] Gray, D. E. (2004). Principles and processes in coaching evaluation. International Journal of Mentoring and Coaching, 2(2), 1-7.

[3] Gray, D. E. (2004). Principles and processes in coaching evaluation. International Journal of Mentoring and Coaching, 2(2), 1-7.

[4] Grover, S., & Furnham, A. (2016). Coaching as a developmental intervention in organisations: A systematic review of its effectiveness and the mechanisms underlying it. PloS one, 11(7), p 6.

[5] A logic model is a graphic depiction (road map) that presents the shared relationships among the resources, activities, outputs, outcomes, and impact for your program. It depicts the relationship between your program’s activities and its intended effects.

[6] A theory of change shows how you expect outcomes to occur over the short, medium and longer term as a result of your work. It can be represented in a visual diagram, as a narrative, or both.

[7] A main focus of the ATO’s reinvention program

Call for participants – Mediation Research Project

Participants required for mediation research project

Mediator Neutrality, what does it mean to you? Assistance is sought from practising mediators conducting civil law mediations in NSW to participate in academic research. The research project is concerned with mediators’ understanding of neutrality in the context of self represented parties. The study explores mediators’ understanding of neutrality and fairness and how they inform the practice of mediation. The research will also investigate the challenges and opportunities of mediation when parties in mediation do not have legal representation. This study is part of a doctoral research project by Svetlana German (bio below). If you are a mediator in NSW and are willing to participate in a one hour interview Svetlana would love to hear from you!  For further information or to indicate your interest in participating please go to www.mediationresearchproject.com or email Svetlana directly (her details are also on the website)

Bio: Svetlana is currently undertaking her PhD at UTS in the area of mediation and this study is part of her doctoral research. Svetlana is a barrister and an academic. She was called to the bar in 2013 and practiced at 10th Floor Selborne Wentworth Chambers. Svetlana teaches at the University of Notre Dame Australia and holds the Quentin Bryce Law Doctoral Scholarship at UTS. She has a Masters of Law from Columbia University, and science and law degrees from the University of New South Wales. She has practised as a commercial lawyer in Sydney (Allens Linklaters) and is an accredited mediator in New York and with the National Accreditation Mediation System (NMAS) and is registered with the Commonwealth Attorney Generals Department as a Family Dispute Resolution Practitioner (FDRP).

Creating the leaders of the future – we need to broaden our focus on soft skill development in order to achieve organisational success

As we enter what is being referred to as the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’, characterised by its rapidly changing, technology focused and competitive environment, organisational leaders are faced with new challenges when striving to achieve organisational success. According to recent research undertaken by McKinsey & Co across the USA and Europe, we are facing a significant shift in the skills employees and leaders will need to achieve success. Not surprisingly, it is expected that between 2016 and 2030, the hours spent using technological skills (advanced IT skills, programming and basic digital skills) will increase by 55%. This is only part of the picture however as the research also indicates that the use of ‘social and emotional’ skills will increase by 25% in the same period. The types of skills classified as ‘social and emotional skills’ include advanced communication and negotiation skills, empathy, leadership skills, adaptability and coaching, skills that are often referred to as ‘soft skills’.

Whilst some organisations and educators at all levels (primary, secondary and tertiary), have invested a great deal of time and effort in preparing for the technological skill shift, there has been arguably much less focus on preparing for the increased need in ‘soft skills’.

Current research being undertaken at James Cook University (JCU) is focused on gaining a deeper understanding of the skills and behaviours required by organisational leaders to deliver organisational success now and into the future within the Australian context. Furthermore, the research is seeking to identify where there are perceived significant gaps between skills required in future leaders and those being observed in prospective organisational leaders (graduates and junior managers). Early results highlight the importance of ‘soft skills’ and recognise a significant gap in these skills within the current work environment.

Skills required by our future leaders

As part of the research project at JCU, organisational leaders in Australia operating across public, private and not-for-profit sectors were invited to participate in semi-structured interviews and complete a questionnaire. The research participants are working across a range of industries including health, human services, banking, mining, sustainability, higher education and insurance. When asked what skills and capabilities are required in order to lead an engaged and productive workforce, the research participants identified authentic engagement, connection and communication with staff as the most important skills. These were immediately followed by the ability to self-reflect, empathise, remove barriers and support autonomy across the workforce, motivate and stretch staff, create and clearly articulate a vision and purpose and to be able to connect staff contributions to the organisations vision and purpose.

Other important skills and abilities identified included the ability to engage in courageous conversations, deal with ambiguity and create clarity out of chaos, establish great networks to gain broader insights, be adaptable and transparent. Participants also highlighted the importance of creating a culture of ‘team’ where you felt safe, supported and felt your leader had ‘your back’ and believed in you.

Specifically, interviewees stated:

‘I think we know that where people feel safe, valued and empowered and asked to be their real genuine authentic self they come forward with new ideas’

[General Manager, one of Australia’s top four banks]

‘(a leaders) intelligence can be up and down …… I don’t think any of that matters because great leaders get the right people around them and that support enables them to deliver the best outcome.’

[Senior Manager, Organisational Development, State Government]

When asked to identify what skills and behaviours will be most important for the leaders of the future, the top 20 skills and behaviours identified were all ‘soft skills’ relating to either self-management or people management. Interestingly, these outcomes correlate with those identified through a research study conducted by Google that looked at the hiring, firing and promotion data accumulated since 1998, to identify the eight (8) most important qualities of their top employees. The project was titled ‘Project Oxygen’ and it found that out of the top eight skills, seven (7) were skills that would be considered ‘soft’ or ‘higher cognitive’ skills.  The top seven characteristics at Google, according to this research, are:

  • Being a good coach;
  • Communicating and listening well;
  • Possessing insights into others (including others different values and points of view);
  • Having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues;
  • Being a good critical thinker and problem solver;
  • Being able to make connections across complex ideas.

The eighth and final characteristic is subject matter expertise, namely STEM expertise.

Where is the gap?

A recent study by Deloitees involving 4000 Gen Z participants found that 37% experience concern that technology is weakening their ability to maintain strong interpersonal relationships and develop people skills. Deloittes insights paper on “Generation Z enters the workforce” states:

whilst these digital natives may bring an unprecedented level of technology skills to the workforce, there are some apprehensions about their ability to communicate and form strong interpersonal relationships.

Specific concerns include,

Technology has impacted the development of cognitive skills, including intellectual curiosity, amongst the next generation, creating the risk of skill gaps when they enter the workforce en masse. A shortfall in highly cognitive social skills such as problem solving, critical thinking, and communication, could be particularly evident.

The ability to skillfully interact and communicate with others not only contributes to successful relationships but also drives accumulation of tacit knowledge, which is usually passed down through decades of communication and collaboration in a work place. This may include specific information relating to processes, customers and other things, like culture. This type of knowledge is difficult to transfer through the digital realm as it is ‘rooted in context, observation and socialisation’. The Deloitte paper discusses how the communication skill gap in Gen Z may potentially hinder the transfer of tacit knowledge.

The JCU research results also highlight the critical gaps that are perceived to currently exist within Australian workplaces between critical skills required of a good leader and observed competency of emerging leaders in these skills. Research participants were asked to rank the ‘level of importance’, and then rank the ‘observed general competency’, of skills demonstrated by potential leaders within their organisations. The highest level of discrepancy between ranked level of importance and observed competence of prospective leaders was ‘the ability to manage conflict’. This was followed by six other people management skills, namely the ability to; influence others, delegate, motivate others, negotiate, inspire others, give positive and negative feedback, empower others and develop others.

Research participants observed that the areas where the skill gaps appear minimal include: setting specific goals and targets, self-confidence, passion, optimism, making analytical decisions, innovation and assertiveness.

Why is this relevant for Conflict Management and Resolution Practitioners

Through literature reviews, semi-structured interviews and questionnaires, the JCU research has found a significant overlap between the skills required to be a good leader and the skills required to be an effective CMR practitioner. These skills include:

  • Honesty
  • Self-awareness
  • Comfortable with uncertainty
  • Able to hold multiple perspectives
  • Identify options
  • Behavioural observation
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Understand broader views
  • Empathy
  • Active listening

As such CMR Practitioners will have the opportunity to play a critical role in addressing the gap in ‘soft skills’ and supporting organisations to build, develop and improve on their soft skills within their leadership (current and future) cohorts. This may be achieved in a number of ways including:

  • Practitioner – helping organisations to manage an increasingly high volume of workplace conflicts as a result of leaders not having the capability to manage or resolve conflict themselves.
  • Capability builders– educating and supporting organisations to build the capacity of their workforce, including bespoke training on important skills such as resilience communication, feedback, and other ‘social and emotional’ skills.
  • Taking on leadership positions – as many of the skills are transferable some CMR practitioners may choose to utilise their skills by taking on operational leadership roles.

All research participants were clear on the importance of investing in skill development for their workforce’s. One participant stated:

[Need to invest in the soft skills….] ‘without those skills you are not going to have a very good workplace, you are not going to have engaged staff, it leads to all sorts of issues, so it’s well worth investing in.’

[Senior Leader, Tertiary Education]

Therefore, as CMR practitioners, we may find increasing demand for our services and an expansion in the types of roles that exist for individuals who are competent practitioners and trainers in social and emotional skills.

Claire Holland and Amaya Mo presented on their research at the National Mediation Conference in April 2019, and a publication of the results is forthcoming.

Amaya is the Principal of Zing & Co, a management consultancy specialising in creating, developing and supporting high performing, engaged, happy and resilient workforces. Amaya is also a lecturer and researcher in the JCU Conflict Management and Resolution Program.



Can Mediation transform complaints between pet owners and veterinarians?

Jane Rose, a Veterinarian and JCU Master of Conflict Management and Resolution student shares her views on the opportunity to use facilitative mediation as part of a regulatory and complaints processes prescribed in the legislation governing veterinary practice in New South Wales (NSW). Jane’s blog post focuses on the NSW Veterinary Practice Act 2003 and has been co-authored with JCU Conflict Management and Resolution Lecturer, Rikki Mawad.

Conflict and Complaints in Veterinary Practice

It is not uncommon for mistakes to be made, costs to escalate and communications to break down between Veterinarians and Pet Owners. As with complaints in relation to human health care, disputes in relation to veterinary practice are invariably related to client dissatisfaction with a veterinary practitioner or the treatment outcome. Veterinarians practice in busy, emotionally charged small clinical businesses and have to make decisions in quick succession with little time for effective communication between team members and at times, impacted families. Each practice is a small business, standards can vary, and an external body does not audit the daily delivery of veterinary medicine.

A common example of conflict between veterinarians and pet owners is in relation to costs. While care costs are discussed at the beginning of treatment with pet owners, these can change unexpectantly. It is not uncommon that a patient may respond adversely to a procedure or for a new problem to be discovered and for the owner to not be contactable, leaving the care team to make critical decisions in the moment. The result of this is often a larger bill, and at times, unexpected euthanasia. The human impact can result in an angry and or grieving client, a stressed veterinarian and a possible hearing before the Veterinary Practitioner’s Board.

Prescribed Dispute Resolution Processes

 The Veterinary Practice Act (VPA) 2003 regulates the provision of veterinary services NSW.  The Act requires the establishment of a State Board as the regulatory authority, with one function of the authority being the investigation of complaints against veterinary practitioners. The Board recommends that concerns about veterinary practice are first raised with the veterinarian or clinic superintendent. If complaints are not able to be resolved directly between the veterinarian or the clinic superintendent and relate to animal healthcare, the complainant can raise their matter with the VPA State Board.

When the Board receives a complaint, the matter is investigated, experts may be called to give evidence and then a determination is made as to whether the practitioner has breached the Act and what sanctions may apply.

For matters that do not involve a breach or finding of misconduct, there are is no further recourse other than a separate legal action. Often however, the complaints process has further damaged both parties’. Not only does the complainant still feel aggrieved, the practitioner also still feels attacked and untrusted and there is a lingering fear of litigation.

(Un)Resolved Matters

For those involved in a dispute, the journey to resolution of a complaint is often long and arduous for all parties. For veterinarians, complaints can be mentally and emotionally demanding, and take them out of delivering clinical care and out of their businesses. Like medical practitioners, the fear of litigation has impacted the delivery of animal healthcare, with veterinarians increasingly forced to practice defensive medicine and with pet owners increasingly pursuing legal action beyond the regulatory body. Defensive medicine refers to departing from normal medical practice as a safeguard to litigation. It can involve unnecessary tests being performed, or treatments prescribed to be safe, and on the converse risky procedures, that could benefit patients, are avoided, serving the function to protect the physician.

Through the investigation and determination process, there is little to no scope for either party to present on and discuss their interests or needs, therefore preventing an opportunity for the conflict to be transformed. While serious misconduct must be addressed, the dispute resolution framework used by the Board doesn’t offer any opportunity to restore a complainant’s faith and trust in the veterinary profession or allow for any understanding of a practitioner’s perspective. The lack of communication (directly or facilitated by a third party) between the disputants thwarts any opportunity for understanding, forgiveness, apology and or reconciliation regardless of whether there has been a finding of a breach. When no breach has been found, the process has still further damaged both parties’ relationships and little has been done to address the fact the complainant is still aggrieved and the practitioner still attacked and untrusted.

In the author’s experience, the majority of complaints arise due to miscommunications between client and practitioner, accidental mishaps, communication breakdown with the practice team or sometimes acts of nature where an animal has a grave reaction that could not be foreseen. Given the root causes of these complaints tends to be miscommunication rather than misconduct, the author suggests there is much to be gained by introducing mediation into the VPA dispute resolution process.

 Better Resolution, Regulation and Relationships through Mediation

With mediation often used in human medicine to resolve clinical, bioethical and medical malpractice disputes to save time, money, emotional energy and lost opportunities, why not introduce facilitative mediation into animal medicine? Using a facilitative mediation process as a precursor to or part of a formal process under the Act arguably gives the parties the opportunity to better address the substance of a complaint, create shared understanding of the issues and potentially party-generated more effective options for resolution.

Other jurisdictions have already moved to include facilitative mediation as part of their regulatory regimes. The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) in the UK for example found that facilitative mediation should be employed early in veterinary disputes. It was their recommendation that facilitative mediation form part of the dispute resolution framework as a way to improve client interactions, the delivery of care and to better support veterinarians overall in their work/as a profession.

The majority of complaints raised by pet owners in the United Kingdom, like in Australia, fall outside of the professional misconduct remit of the governing body. In these situations, the RCVS has embraced mediation as a way to resolve complaints and allows concerns, that fall outside of the professional standards remit, to be resolved to both parties’ satisfaction. The scheme has reported success with 78% of cases resolved after being sent to mediation (BVA 2017).  While the UK approach is only in the early stages, it is already showing huge promise as a better, less adversarial, confidential environment for constructive communication between disputing parties that can only add value to the profession (and the clients). In cases of gross professional misconduct, litigation is likely to remain the most appropriate remedy, however facilitative mediation can still assist to work through the parties’ emotional needs and interests.

Reducing the Impact of Complaints through Mediation

In 2016, thirty-three complaints were submitted to the Veterinary Practitioners Board of New South Wales (VPBNSW).  Eight were upheld and the veterinarians were found guilty of unsatisfactory professional conduct or professional misconduct.  The remaining 75% of complaints were dismissed. Moreover, since 2010, new complaints raised against veterinary surgeons has risen from 42 to 57 and since 2007 they have more than doubled ( 25 increased to 57) (VPBNSW Annual Report 2018) Though not all complaints resulted in arbitration, they would still have created anxiety to the veterinarian involved and distress to the pet owner. Whether these complaints were seen as legitimate or not by the board, they were to the complainant and remain real threats to practitioners.

As outlined in the previous section, engaging in facilitative mediation would enable each party to see the dispute from each other’s perspective, potentially reducing anxiety and dis-ease, re-establishment of client-doctor relationship and professional self-confidence and acknowledge the emotional impact of complaints.  The development of solutions to address why a complaint arose could also lead to improvement in clinical and customer standards.


With the suicide rate for veterinarians in Australia reported as four times higher than the general population and double that of other healthcare professionals, the industry is facing both a mental health crisis and skill shortages. With increased dissatisfaction with the current complaints processes and such serious stress on the profession, it is critical that the authorities review the dispute resolution and regulatory processes. Introducing facilitative mediation as part of the process is a clear and low risk opportunity to improve complaints handling, client satisfaction, practitioner wellbeing and the delivering of quality veterinary care in NSW and across Australia.

Mediators Beyond Borders International: Peacebuilders in a world of conflict

This post has been contributed by Rosie Carpenter, a student in the JCU Master of Conflict Management and Resolution, supervised by Claire Holland. Rosie is currently completing an internship as part of her studies with Mediators Beyond Borders International (MBBI) in the “Innovation and Impact” team. She is passionate about helping people to improve their lives, supporting others to accomplish personal goals, manage conflict effectively, and working towards achieving peaceful societies. Rosie has written this post as part of her role in supporting the organisation of the 2019 MBBI Peace Congress.

Are you a Disruptor?  Become a Peacebuilder in a World of Conflict.

Conflict exists worldwide. War-torn countries have communities in which they may not have access to any form of justice system. Within these communities there may be no, or limited access to police enforcement for protection, prison security system, legal representation, structured court system or judges to settle their case. How do these groups form peaceful resolutions to conflicts which arise within their lives?

Mediators Beyond Borders International (MBBI) are a not-for-profit organisation which over the past 10 years have successfully formed a network of conflict-transformation practitioners, mediators and community leaders. MBBI goes into the heart of these communities to educate local leaders with the knowledge and skills used to promote peacebuilding and conflict-transformation, which encourages sustainable positive change into the future.

Disruptors: Being Peacebuilders in a World of conflict is the vision statement for the 2019 International Peace Congress to be held in Bail from 6th to 8th November 2019 at the Bali Intercontinental Hotel and Resort where accommodation packages are currently available.  Registrations for the congress are invited by MBBI for mediators, Rotary peacebuilders, conflict transformation practitioners, organisational leaders, government diplomats, public officials, advocates and academics to join them as trailblazers, changemakers and risk-takers. This year’s event will have a transformative emphasis on LeadershipVision, Innovation, and Implementation.  To become involved within this ground-breaking opportunity to share in the unique experiences and teachings from like-minded people who share the passion for empowering others to strive for peace through conflict resolution.

“We all have different inspirations, but one goal: a better world.” -Ernesto Arguello

The Global Vision for MBBI is “The 2020 Decade of Peace” development initiative which includes innovative projects such as:

  • Women’s Role in Building Peace
  • Innovating Social Change
  • The Asian Perspective on Mediation
  • Youth and Conflict Resolution
  • Equipping our Leaders

“The 2020 Decade of Peace” will be launched at the 2019 International Peace Congress in Bali to progressively introduce global peace through these projects backed by an increase in regional partnerships with worldwide community-minded groups such as Rotary International, the Bali International Arbitration & Mediation Centre and the United Nations. Congress will serve as a catalyst for the 2020 Decade of Peace Initiative, which invites individuals and organizations from around the world to advance mediation, dialogue, and conflict transformation practices as a mechanism for socio-economic change. You will be recognized as a Founding Member of the 2020 Decade of Peace Initiative, and you will have the ongoing opportunity to share your work and be showcased on our international platforms for years to come.

MBBI in partnership with The Bali International Arbitration & Mediation Centre (BIAMC) has fostered transnational relationships within this important region which has experienced surges in conflict as the region rapidly expands into becoming one of the fastest growing global economies. BIAMC is a non-profit service centre which provides elite alternative conflict management and resolution using arbitration and mediation internationally. Using its professional staff with creative and dynamic solutions, BIAMC succeeds with alternative dispute resolution where conventional forms are not effective.  The BIAMC’s core values are YOUFIRST, Young at heart innovation, Out performance through leadership, Unwavering accountability, First class and fast-track service, Integrity without fail, Reverence in diversity, Safeguard community and Transparency.

The MBBI Rotary Partnership Working Group (MBBI-RWG) is a collaborative partnership which combines resources from both organisations to strive towards the prevention and reduction of worldwide conflicts, encouraging peace while progressively healing communities. MBBI will lead this change to facilitate the exchange of innovative peacebuilding practices into the next decade and beyond by collaborating with leaders of communities and providing transformative education to those who are in desperate need of these alternative conflict resolution skills, to build peaceful resolutions.

“A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a moulder of consensus.” -Martin Luther King Jr.

Play an Active Role in Advancing the UN Development Goal 16:

The U.N. Sustainable Development Goal 16: Peace, Justice, and Inclusive Societies will be actioned at the 2019 Bali Congress.  We need your voice, vision, and experience to represented in this event, so that you can be a part of a collaborative effort to advance a global mission towards peace, prosperity, and positive social change. By attending the 2019 Congress you will develop a collective vision of what 2030 might look like, and what steps we will take to advance this goal of the United Nations.

Partnerships and sponsorships are available for individuals, corporations and governments to expand their business opportunities onto the global stage, building upon the growing economy within and enable this important peacebuilding to continue over future decades. For MBBI gaining future financial funding is imperative to achieve their significant global vision.

To find out more about MBBI and their many global initiatives, visit their website https://mediatorsbeyondborders.org/

Join us at the 2019 Peace Congress! To register visit, https://mediatorsbeyondborders.org/congress-2019/



A case for coaching: Influencing cultural change at the ATO *

Tina Hoyer** and Claire Holland***

*The views expressed in this payer are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Australian Taxation Officer (ATO) or James Cook University (JCU).

** Tina Hoyer is currently on a 12 month secondment to the JCU Conflict Management and Resolution Program from the ATO. Tina leads the ATO In-House Mediation Service.

*** Claire Holland is the Course Coordinator of the JCU Conflict Management and Resolution Program. She is a lecturer and researcher in Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) and conflict resolution processes.

Dispute Resolution and the ATO

The Australian Taxation Office (the ATO) is one of the leading government agencies utilising Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) and has achieved a substantial reduction in disputes proceeding to litigation over the last five years. This is largely due to the ATO’s sophisticated Dispute System Design (DSD) and the ATO’s internal use of ADR methods, including the implementation of initiatives such as in-house facilitation (mediation), the dispute assist program, and independent review. Hoyer and Holland are proposing to trial a coaching model specifically designed for ATO operatives (auditors and objections officers) to build their dispute resolution capacity and improve the way in which they deal with tax disputes. It is envisaged this coaching model will complement the ATO’s toolkit for resolving tax disputes, and influence positive cultural change within the ATO.

Resolving tax disputes earlier saves time and costs for taxpayers and the ATO, and provides certainty for taxpayers. More importantly, if the taxpayers perception of the dispute resolution process is fair, then they are more likely to have a positive attitude toward the ATO and are more likely to meet their taxation obligations voluntarily.

Since 2013, the ATO has been undergoing a comprehensive program of reinvention a central theme of which has been fair, efficient and timely dispute resolution approaches in its interactions with taxpayers. The ATO disputes policy has comprehensive key principles of dispute management to promote a resolution culture based on effective communication, genuine engagement, collaboration, and strategies that are fair and proportionate to the matters in dispute, as well as leading to early resolution at minimal cost. The ATO has been recognised as having an effective DSD and possessing many best practice principles. However, some deficiencies have been identified; one such deficiency being inadequate staff training on conflict management. In addition, the ATO has been subjected to much adverse public attention in regard to its handling of disputes particularly in relation individual and small business taxpayers.

Conflict coaching has the potential to support ATO operatives to develop greater competency, confidence and understanding of choices that they can make that will meet the key principles of the ATO disputes policy.

Can conflict coaching assist?

Coaching is a term used to define a wide variety of activities. In the literature, coaching has been described as a conversation one person has with another to help them move forward or create change. Coaches work with individuals and groups to achieve their desired outcomes and it unlocks a person’s potential to maximize their own performance. Jones and Brinket define conflict coaching as a process for the purpose of developing the disputants (the clients) conflict-related understanding, intervention strategies and interaction skills.[1] Hardy and Alexander, principals of Conflict Coaching International, state that conflict coaching is provided by a conflict specialist whose role it is to assist the client to develop

1)         clarity about the conflict situation;

2)         greater understanding of their own and other people’s needs and goals;

3)         identify and evaluate their choices for moving forward;

4)         develop confidence about managing conflict and achieving their goals; and

5)         increase their conflict management skills so that they can constructively engage in conflict.[2]

The focus of the conflict coaching process is on assisting the individual to become clearer and more confident about their conflict situation. In the ATO context, this includes supporting ATO operatives to analyse their own behaviour and develop a greater understanding about what choices they can make in the situation that could result in a positive outcome for the taxpayer and the ATO in line with the key principles of the ATO disputes policy.

Freedman suggests that when working in complex adaptive systems, such as the healthcare sector, conflict coaching can be used to support conflict transformation or management, rather than focusing on resolution. Orientating the purpose of the coaching is important to ensure the coaching model, and style are best ‘fit for purpose’.  An adapted coaching model drawing on the REAL Conflict Coaching process and incorporating Ury’s 7 step negotiation preparation[3] will be developed and trialed with ATO operatives to determine if coaching is an effective process to support a conflict transformation mindset that results in greater positive tax dispute outcomes for the taxpayer and the ATO.

Orientating Conflict Coaching for the ATO context

To research the effectiveness of this coaching model, a research project will be conducted that employs a holistic approach to examine the model from all stakeholders’ perspectives. This research project seeks to understand whether:

  • the coaching model is effective in ensuring the ATO operative coachees are applying interest-based negotiation skills (considering the taxpayers interests, alternatives, all options for resolution, ATO policy and effectively communicating) when negotiating with a taxpayer;
  • the coaching model is effective in improving the ATO operative coachees’ dispute resolution capacity and if the they will self-assess any changes in attitudes, beliefs or values as a result of the coaching; and,
  • the coaching model can be implemented in other large government and non-government organisations.

This research will:

  • contribute to the growing body of knowledge on one-on-one dispute resolution methods;
  • evaluate the coaching model’s effectiveness in improving the coachees dispute resolution capacity and achieving genuine cultural change; and,
  • provide a basis for discussion for the implementation of this type of coaching model in other large government and non-government organisations.

Holland and Hoyer have recently presented at the National Mediation Conference in Canberra in April and will soon publish a paper outlining their research, Holland, C. & Hoyer, T (2019 – under review) A case for coaching: Influencing cultural change at the ATO. 

[1] Jones T.S. & Brinkert R. Conflict Coaching: Conflict Management Strategies and Skills for the Individual, (2008) Sage, Los Angeles, CA.

[2] Samantha Hardy and Nadja Alexander (2014) Beyond Mediation: How conflict coaching can enhance your practice, Journal on 3rd Asian Mediation Association Confernce.

[3] Roger Fisher and William Ury, (1991) Getting to Yes – Negotiation agreement without giving in, Second Edition, Penguin books.