Group Bonding Discussions and Mediation

I have noticed a particular phenomenon in some of my mediations when parties discuss things in a way that may be appropriate in a group bonding experience instead of discussing it in a way that is appropriate with the particular person in the room. A group bonding experience may involve like-minded people who speak carelessly about an issue because they believe they share a common perspective.  They may or may not realize that they are over-generalizing, and they may or may not believe the over-generalizations. That type of conversation may end up being inflammatory in a mediation, however, when care must be taken to speak accurately and fairly.

When people get together with trusted friends and family members in their ordinary lives, they often discuss their personal concerns in ways that follow particular patterns. So, if a group of co-workers get together, they may discuss their work environment or their bosses in a way that is partly true and partly over-generalized. This same phenomenon may take place among other groups who share a common role, such as mothers, fathers, etc.

When we are in these groups we enjoy this type of conversation and it helps us feel connected to others in the group. But it can become a problem in our relationships if we take the conversation and the attitudes expressed too literally and too seriously. It is important that we understand that the nature of the group means that there will be over-generalization and exaggeration, and that in assessing and discussing our own particular lives and situations in other contexts, we must be careful not to over-generalize, exaggerate or ignore the perspectives of the other party or ignore the nuances and specifics of our own situations.

Most people are savvy enough not to discuss the concerns of the workplace with the boss the same way they would discuss it with co-workers, but there are some common ways of talking about general roles of fathers and mothers, for instance, that may develop from old-fashioned attitudes about gender roles or from common societal attitudes that people may forget to question. They may end up believing these attitudes and forget that the other party — the father or mother — may not agree with the attitude and in fact may be furious if they hear it.

In a recent mediation between parents negotiating issues relating to the children, the mother expressed a generalized statement that may be the type of assertion expressed in the group bonding setting, but which was inflammatory in the discussion. She said that whenever the father has the children, “something always happens”.  The father exploded because he felt unfairly accused and also felt that his access to the children was being threatened because he was being deemed to be inadequate, unfairly. I clarified with the mother what her concerns were and conveyed the father’s concerns, and the mother quickly shifted to what felt to the parties to be a more nuanced and appropriate perspective.

Outside of the mediation context, I wonder what effect group bonding discussions have on private relationships. When a person buys into the generalized (and, possibly, biased) attitudes of a group bonding discussion, one sets oneself up for sabotaging one’s own personal relationships. It is important that if one participates in a group bonding discussion that the person not take the generalized attitudes expressed so seriously that they carry over into private attitudes.  Ideally, one would want to have private discussions with  someone with whom one shares an important relationship which reflects the truth and reality of that relationship. That can lead to a true private bonding experience. When one can enjoy both the group bonding experience (to the extent one wants to), and also the private bonding experience, it is truly win-win.

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