One of the things that has always drawn me to mediation is the role that the mediator plays in helping parties think meaningfully about what they want in ways that they may never have before. This seems counter-intuitive since a mediation is a discussion between two parties, rather than an in-depth discussion with one party (especially if the mediator does not caucus, as I almost never do).
Why is this the case?
A mediation involving a concrete issue between two parties involves a micro-focus on that issue. A micro-focus allows for an analysis that is more thorough, more meaningful and more nuanced than a larger focus because the issue is more manageable. And despite the fact that it is a micro-focus on an issue, the human mind will understand whether it has significance beyond the issue. The person will subconsciously, consciously or intuitively learn from it. In the course of the micro-focus, the mediator will seek to help the parties understand what is behind their positions so as to help them find common ground. In this way, parties search their assumptions, desires, beliefs, fears, concerns and ideals to come up with answers and understand themselves better so as to decide what they can agree upon. It is this searching and the ensuing self-knowledge which is the road to self-actualization.
When the mediation involves two parties who feel intimate with one another and a mediator whom they trust to be non-judgmental, neutral, respectful of self-determination, and committed to confidentiality, there may be no holds barred. Despite the strong emotions that might emerge, the mediator will guide the parties back to the subject and will not let it stray to the realm of accusation and non-productive anger as open discussions of this type often do without a mediator. Yet the mediator will respect the understanding that the parties derive from their emotions and intuition, and will not reject them as having no place in the discussion. When parties are left to their own devices it can be extraordinarily difficult — even if they have the self-control — to avoid accusation and non-productive anger, to parse out the nuances of what they are saying, to communicate them, and to be willing to hear the other person’s concerns without rejecting them for fear of having their own concerns lost. In mediation, the mediator makes sure all of that happen. The mediator is in essence, an organizing force.
Achieving self-actualization, seeing another person achieve it, having it respected by the other party and the mediator, having it play a role and take concreteness in the form of an agreement is a heady and — yes — transformative experience. Self-actualization may involve the realization that one has great empathy and compassion for the other; it may involve the recognition that one wants to travel a different path than one previously thought, it may involve the capacity to understand the other more deeply and to find meaning in that understanding, or it may simply be a better understanding of what one wants in the particular context of the mediation. It depends greatly on the degree to which a party has self-knowledge before the mediation, the degree to which a party wants to self-explore, the degree to which the mediator helps parties stay focused on their motivations and desires, and the degree to which the issues in the mediation require self-analysis.
Despite the intensely personal nature of this self-analysis, mediation should not be intrusive. A mediator should have techniques that encourage the parties to think about their motivations in their own minds, but only to share them to the extent that they wish to do so. So, parties may internally think a variety of thoughts and gain knowledge about themselves and their self-motivations and goals, but may reduce that to one relevant statement. The relevant statement, in the context of a parenting plan, for example, may simply be that the party no longer feels fixated on a particular position, but is willing to entertain a different type of schedule. The motivations for this change may be unexpressed, but the party may feel transformed by the new self-knowledge. The other party may also, of course, feel inspired and transformed by the change in attitude.
One might ask whether the techniques that a mediator uses can help a single party self-actualize, outside a mediation, perhaps in a coaching or consulting context. Surely, this is possible. Mediation has an advantage, however, in that it has a built-in devil’s advocate in the form of the other party; and it has the concreteness and immediacy of a decision which will actually be put into effect. Ironically, although it is designed to address concerns between two parties, it is ideal for self-actualization.