I look around and see an overload of discussion about mediation and conflict resolution. There is so much writing that it begins to feel that there is not enough focus. When I ask myself what is the simplest message I would want to convey to both parties and mediators, one of the most basic is to help parties question their assumptions.
Why is questioning assumptions so fundamental and what does it accomplish?
First, we make assumptions about what we want. When these assumptions are incorrect, we end up fighting for — and possibly getting — something we don’t even want and will not make us happy.
Second, we make assumptions about other people that may cause us to either trust them too much or not enough — or in the wrong ways — and which end up fostering bad decisions.
When a mediator notices that a party has an opinion about something that is based on an assumption — that this is what he or she is “entitled to”; that this is what society expects, that this is what is typical, that an expert says so, etc. etc. — then the mediator can provide a very useful service by asking the parties to consider in their own minds what they really want. Very often, the simple fact of asking reminds parties that they can invent their own solutions rather than assume that what is “typical” is what they must want.
A related phenomenon occurs when a party assumes the motives and perspectives of the other party. In our society, we assume that we must retaliate against a party who has bad motives, or deprive them of the benefit they want. However, the other parties motives are not always clear. Moreover, retaliating may not be in our best interest when negotiating with that party and may prevent us from coming to an agreement. Instead, the mediator can sometimes reflect back the assumptions of the parties regarding their beliefs about the other party: “so, I hear you saying that you feel that the other party is not a good mother?” “I hear you saying that you feel that the other party did this to hurt you”. Just stating these opinions often helps parties consider that the opinions may be somewhat incorrect or debatable. They often correct them: “well, she’s not a bad mother, she has just been preoccupied lately.” “well, he may not have intended to hurt me, but he did hurt me.” As restated, the opinions lose their force and help parties move past them. Most mediators know about reflective statements, but may not always use them to strategic benefit to question assumptions that the parties may hold.
If the mediator reflects back a statement that assumes a bad motive on the part of the other party — and the party agrees with it — a different scenario can follow. “So, I hear you saying that you feel that he did this to hurt you”. “Yes, I know he did”. The other party will then have an opportunity to respond. The ensuing discussion may help move past this issue, but even if it does not, the mediator can continue to question an assumption. “So, you feel that the other party did this to hurt you. Does that have any relationship to what you are looking to accomplish here today or what you would like to agree to?” Very often, the party will say no, and the issue of motive will be put aside.
Being able to identify the assumptions that each party is making about their desires and beliefs, and then helping the party consider those assumptions carefully (without trying to change their minds), is a skill that will help the mediator go far toward helping parties come to agreements that they can both agree to and both truly want.