Mediating How People Get Along
by Diane Cohen
Mediating how people get along is important in many different areas of mediation. In some cases, the entire set of issues between the parties may be matters of tone, subtle behaviors, etiquette, style and world view. Helping parties deal with these sorts of issues effectively can be the key to many mediation cases, and can add value to the resolutions achieved in a mediation case. It is the essence of parent-teen mediation and marital mediation, and may be central to workplace mediation, divorce mediation, custody and visitation, small business mediation, neighbor disputes, and all manner of mediations among individuals who have a personal relationship.
It may sometimes be possible to achieve a satisfactory result without addressing these issues when there are other concrete issues involved in a mediation case, but addressing these issues in addition to the concrete ones, may provide the transformative effect to the relationship that is so richly appreciated. In addition, how the parties interact in the mediation room can also be an issue, and can enhance or impede a mediation. The following are some thoughts to consider in helping parties address their interpersonal issues.
1. Mediating the way people interact in personal relationships is not necessarily different than mediating concrete issues. Three key differences, however, are that the party with an interpersonal concern may not have understood it or articulated it in concrete terms; one or both parties may not take the concern seriously because it is “only” a matter of behavior; and a party may not believe that a change in behavior is sustainable.
2. Helping the parties think about and articulate a concrete translation of their emotional concerns. When an issue is “emotional”, it may not yet have been understood sufficiently for the party to articulate the concrete thing they want. For example, the party may feel that the other is unkind to them, or disrespectful or rude, but has not unpacked that into the very specific things that the other person does. Interpersonal mediation involves helping the parties think about and articulate their thoughts on matters that they are not used to putting into clear terms. Mediators have the skills to unpack terms that parties use, and can employ them to help parties convey what they mean by “respect”, or some other term. The mediator can elicit examples of such behavior, straddling the line between eliciting examples from past behaviors, while not getting bogged down in determining who was “right” or “wrong” in those past examples. So, the mediator can mine the past examples to understand and help frame the issue, but can maintain a focus on the future.
3. Helping parties take interpersonal issues seriously. When one attempts to raise amorphous or sensitive issues in a personal relationship, it can often be difficult to get the other party to listen patiently, to help develop thoughts on the issues, or to take non-concrete issues seriously. It may even be the case that the party who is concerned about an interpersonal issue is reluctant to raise it, feels embarrassed about it, or feels it is unworthy of real consideration. In the mediation room, however, the parties are more likely to be able to discuss the matter seriously. The fact that they are in a place that is devoted to the resolution of their issues and the fact that the mediator is taking the issue seriously are enough to bring both parties along. At the same time, the fact that the mediator is willing to tread lightly and follow the lead of the parties in how far they wish to take the issue makes the parties feel safe in raising sensitive issues.
4. Helping the parties address their concerns that a change in behavior is not sustainable. A party may not articulate this thought, but may feel it is pointless to discuss changes in how the parties will interact because his experience with the other party has led him to believe that the party’s behavior can not change significantly. It is important for the mediator to help the party articulate this concern so that the other party can respond to it. The parties may ultimately agree that change is not likely or that the parties should have the opportunity to demonstrate change. That is up to the parties, and will be different in each case.
5. Treading lightly on difficult issues. In a recent mediation, one of the parties did most of the talking and the other party was sitting quietly agreeing to most things, but with an air of underlying disquiet. The mediation involved custody and visitation arrangements, and I wanted to be sure that the mother was agreeing of her own free will, and was giving the matter the consideration it deserved. I checked in with her repeatedly, and after one of these interventions, she finally blurted out her anger about having to have the girlfriend of the father attend the child’s events. I was relieved, in a sense, because I now understood that the mother was in agreement with the scheduling issues and that her discomfort was about something else: the girlfriend. After a few moments of discussion about the role of the girlfriend the parties agreed that it was not something that would be resolved that day, and that it would not interfere with the decisions being made at this time.
6. It is not always appropriate to come to a concrete agreement on every interpersonal issue. One needs to carefully and sensitively follow the parties’ lead on whether the discussion should continue to agreement or whether raising the issue alone, or a brief discussion of the issue is more satisfactory for the parties at this juncture. In the foregoing example, after summarizing the issue relating to the father’s girlfriend, my sense was that both parties now understood their own feelings and the feelings of the other more fully, and the reality of the situation. It was not clear that further discussion or agreement on the issue would actually be necessary. I gave the parties room to end the discussion, shelve it for the moment, or continue it. The parties are the ones who should determine which discussions are most beneficial and productive.
7. The Silent participant. Taking the same example again, one can see that this is also an example of a silent participant: someone who is not completely forthcoming about her thoughts and ideas. In this particular case, the participant was agreeing on all the major issues, and my concern was to be sure that she was agreeing meaningfully. In other cases, it could be the opposite: that a party might be disagreeing without fully explaining why, and may need to be drawn out. What underlies both situations, however, is that the participant is feeling emotional in some way. My feeling is that the parties are entitled to decide whether or not to share these emotions. The mediator’s job is to make sure that whatever issues are being discussed are being discussed and agreed to meaningfully. It is not the mediator’s job to probe into feelings that are not being voluntarily shared. On the other hand, it is important for the parties to know that they may, if they wish, open up about issues that are inchoate, unformed, vague, amorphous or interpersonal, and to try to develop them in the room so that either a new understanding of the situation can be reached in the mind of each party, or so that the concern can be developed into a concrete matter that can be resolved between the parties.
8. The self-righteous participant. In the example set forth above, the father was extremely polite and charming at first, and the mother was quietly fuming, even as they agreed to many matters. After the mother spoke up about the girlfriend’s participation in the child’s events, the father turned to her and took on a scolding and angry tone. He wagged his finger and told her they needed to be adults. At that point, summarizing the views of the parties illustrated to the father that there were two perspectives on what was appropriate under the circumstances and implicitly conveyed that there was no right or wrong in the situation. This helped him back off from an accusatory approach that was likely to make the mother more angry and defensive.
9. The angry participant. An angry participant can also be self-righteous, silent or unclear, or all three. The key to dealing with the angry participant is to help him articulate clearly and specifically what he is angry about. At the same time, helping the other party articulate what he is angry about will give the parties something practical to discuss and resolve. Anger can simply be a symptom of the frustration of not being able to get one’s point across. When the mediator helps to foster meaningful communication, the anger can dissipate.
10. The unclear participant. At the same time as my summarizing caused the father to back off from his accusatory tone, it may also, paradoxically, have caused the mother to now think about the accusation being made. Was she in fact being childish? What is childish? She seemed to be considering whether she really had a justification for not wanting the girlfriend to come to events. The mother needed time, space, and privacy to re-evaluate her thoughts. It seemed clear to me, however, that a shift had been made in the thinking of both parties.
11. Saving face. I am often aware, during a mediation session, when one party has pushed for a particular view of the situation and the other party has pushed hard in the other direction, that it can be difficult to backtrack. If the mediation continues in a linear fashion with one party arguing that the girlfriend should attend events and the other arguing that she should not, it can be very difficult for either party to change his mind, simply because of human nature. No one wants to appear to be giving in. It does happen, of course, that parties will suddenly say that they now agree with the other person’s perspective, or that they have decided to drop their objections. But some parties find it very difficult to capitulate. This is even more likely the case when one party has been rude, accusatory or self-righteous. Giving in at that point makes the party feel ashamed. Two things are important to allow the parties to change their minds, if they wish. The first is to help the parties see that there are two (or more) valid perspectives and that it is not a matter of right and wrong. Changing that dialogue clears the air and allows one party to capitulate from the high ground and without shame: in fact, with pride. The second is to allow the topic to be shelved, temporarily or permanently. This can be accomplished by asking at an appropriate moment: Is this something that we should continue discussing now or should we come back to it later? Later, one can decide when, how, and whether it is appropriate or necessary to ask the parties again whether they wish to resume discussion of the topic. Allowing the parties to change their minds gracefully or to come back to the topic in a new way of their own choosing, can facilitate the way to a change in position without losing face.
In sum, mediating interpersonal matters is a wonderful way to help parties repair their relationships, resolve their disputes, and move on to a more peaceful, enlightened, and transformative place within themselves and in their relationships. The mediator would do well to consider methods of mediating sensitively, being careful to assist the parties without treading upon the prerogatives of the parties to choose the issues they wish to discuss, and the duration, timing and depth of the discussion.
Originally Published August 2009 at mediate.com