Something compels me, every once in a while, to ask other mediators what they have learned from mediation that guides them in their daily lives. I always expect them to say that they try to listen to what others have to say and to express themselves clearly; and in both cases, to check for understanding. But mediators always surprise me by saying other sorts of things. I’ve discovered that everyone has a different take on what’s important and also, of course, that even upon reflection, a lot of the experience we have as mediators gets lost when we are the “parties”.
When I have these sorts of discussions with other mediators, I then reflect back on why my learning is not necessarily the be all and end all. For instance, when I try to be clear in my everyday life, and try to understand what others have to say, sometimes it blows up in my face. In an intimate relationship, that sort of behavior can come off as cold and unemotional or rigidly rational. Among mediators, that sort of behavior can appear condescending. And those are just two of the possible pitfalls.
One mediator I know says that he tries to guess at what the other person’s concerns are, and respond to them. My personal experience with that, however, is that many times people guess incorrectly about what the other person’s concerns are, and if they are assuming they are correct without actually checking, then they may be going in a very unproductive direction.
I began to compile a list of things that we could do in our daily lives to improve our relationships and manage conflict better. As I looked at the list, I was dissatisfied, both because the list was undoubtedly incomplete, but also because it lacked unification and organization and would therefore be difficult to remember. For me, learning is all about creating a framework that is easy to remember. I realized that the list could be organized into categories, which would facilitate remembering. After doing so, I was impressed by the fact that there were many things that fell into the category that I call “creating a positive dynamic”. In fact, some of the items in the other categories could also be considered ways to create a positive dynamic. It feels correct and true that a major focus of our efforts in our interactions should be in creating a positive dynamic.
The length of the list and the amorphous and incomplete nature of it point out why destructive conflict is so difficult to manage and avoid and why it challenges all of us, both as mediators and as parties.
Here is my undoubtedly incomplete list of ways to walk the walk in our daily lives. I will continue to tweak the list, and it will probably be an ongoing endeavor:
I. Maximizing understanding and avoiding misunderstanding:
1. Restating/reflecting back the other person’s concerns and checking for understanding;
2. Noticing the reactions of others to things we do and say and possibly changing our behavior and/or checking it out with the other person;
3. Considering how one’s words and the emotions conveyed might be misunderstood and making necessary corrections.
II. Creating a positive dynamic:
1. Choosing phrasing which is less inflammatory
2. Self-reflecting: noticing when we are being judgmental
3. noticing, validating and respecting the other person’s feelings
4. Letting things go whenever we really feel it is possible — as a gesture of love, friendship, self-preservation, peace for oneself and peace for other
5. Being generous in actions, and also in expressing heartfelt positive thoughts toward others whenever appropriate and possible — but being careful to appreciate others as they wish to be appreciated and avoiding such traps as damning with faint praise or stereotyping, to name two possible pitfalls
6. If possible, displaying positive (but honest and appropriate) emotions toward the other
7. Checking our intentions: whether they are positive or mean-spirited
8 . Checking to see whether we are being appropriately selfish and promoting our own interests or being inappropriately self-centered and denying or ignoring the interests of others
· Not getting locked into a particular position — brainstorming; considering options;
IV. Creating space for thinking and for the participation of all:
- Appreciating the value of silence at times
- Avoiding being overbearing; letting go of control
- trusting the ability, capacity, talent and intentions of others — if appropriate
- Welcoming the contributions of others
- Taking time to think and allow emotions to settle
V. Recognizing and rethinking any assumptions that underlie our attitudes
- Looking at the big picture: do we see the other person as he or she wishes us to?
- Do we understand the person’s goals or are we making assumptions?
- Are we stereotyping the other?