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It is impossible to walk through a grocery store now without seeing the hot terms natural, organic, cage free, hormone free, etc.  After years of pills and shakes and fads, people are beginning to see the importance of plain ole’ fruits and veggies.  Instead of energy drinks, have a green smoothie.  Instead of caffeine pills, get a good night’s sleep.  Instead of antidepressants, try a walk outside first.

There is a lot of logic behind this movement.  Mainly– go simple.  Go natural.  Back to the basics.  There is a principle known as Occam’s razor.  William of Ockham; (also known as Occam), a Fransiscan friar who lived seven centuries ago, had one deciding principle when it came to science and philosophy: choose the hypothesis which makes the fewest assumptions.  In other words, the simplest rationale is usually the best.  So, when people say eat healthy, that know actually means eat simple, healthy, balanced foods, with simple proteins, grains, greens, and fruits–as opposed to a complex percentage of exact carbohydrates, chemical meal substitutes, and appetite suppressants that have no nutritional value.

So, can we apply Occam’s razor in more areas than our dining room?  People readily see the need to destress, organize, live simply, declutter your life, the importance of saying no to unimportant activities, and take time for yourself.

Yet, when we begin to apply this principle to our conflicts, people bristle.  Look at it this way:  Husband and Wife are arguing over who should do the dishes.  Husband says I leave for work an hour earlier than you; I am exhausted and deserve to relax when I come home.  Wife says I was up multiple time with the children during the night; I am exhausted and deserve to relax when I come home.  The argument quickly escalates and they both try harder to convince each other of the validity of their argument.  “You don’t do anything worthwhile at your stupid job anyway–how can you be so tired?”  “All you do when you come home is sit on the couch–it’s your turn to help.”  “For years, I have been the only one who ever keeps this home clean–I’m done!”

What happened here?  Both sides recognized the problem: dishes in the sink.  Both sides stated their desire: to relax instead of doing dishes.  Neither side acknowledged the other request, instead stepping up their own request.  Since the request was not taken seriously when it was small and simple (“Can you do the dishes tonight?”), then our brain tells us to make the request bigger so that it will be taken seriously (“I have been the only one to do dishes for years!”).  By not acknowledging the little request (please do the dishes) or the emotional vulnerability (I had a long night/day at work and I would like a break), the brain becomes defensive and strengthens our argument by 1) making it bigger, 2) attacking the other person’s argument, and 3) making threats about what will happen if our argument is not taken seriously.

How does this argument end?  The only way to truly end an escalated argument is by applying Occam’s razor: Go back to the simplest explanation.  Both parties are tired.  Return to the initial request, the initial vulnerability, and acknowledge it.  “Hey, I’m tired and your tired–let’s take a break for a few minutes, just heat up some leftovers.  Maybe tackle the dishes together after dinner?”

The same principle applies to protracted, extended commercial, civil, workplace, health care, and family conflicts.  People will often go to irrational lengths to win–spending way more money and time than an outside observer can understand.  When at the end, the only way to end a spiraling conflict is to return to the beginning.  What triggered it?  Does someone just need to apologize and does the other person need to accept the apology and forgive?  Do both sides need to acknowledge their contribution to a project?  This initial knot is typically what every thread is tangled around.  The rest of the mess–the insults, the escalations, the positioning, the threats, looping in unrelated criticisms to bolster the initial attack–doesn’t make sense until you use Occam’s razor to slice through it and understand what caused the initial attack.  Understanding the simplest essence of the conflict helps the rest of it to make sense.

So the next time you are in a conflict that is just bigger than it needs to be–go back to basics.  What am I really upset about?  What is he/she upset about?  Begin with the simplest part of the conflict.  And leave the dishes for later.

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So, suddenly, I am a Doctor Who fan.  I don’t know how it happened, I never used to like the show, but these last few seasons have completely captured me.  The graphics, the writing, the acting, just incredible. 

But there is an additional piece that I think you might find intriguing, too.  

The premise of Doctor Who is that he travels around, saving some poor little species from a big, bad invading planet.  But then he does some thing crazy.  I mean, like out of this world (haha, see what I did there), revolutionary crazy.  He listens to them. 

What??!  

I know, crazy.  He listens to the poor innocent species, and the big bad invading planet, and finds out what they want.  He becomes the mediator, and in every show, through some pretty amazing intergalactic creativity, he helps them find a resolution. 

Here’s how: 

1) He doesn’t own a gun.  He doesn’t use threats or manipulation, but rather always finds a way to help people be motivated to figure it out on their own. 

2) There is no good guy and no bad guy.  This is a pretty powerful realization for a show.  With pretty powerful implications for all of us.  As a culture, we really like there to be a bad guy, a reason why things went south, a scapegoat, someone who started it, leaving us feeling pretty clear and blameless and dang good about ourselves.  But what if . . . shudder to even say it . . . we are all a little good and even (deep breath) a little bad?  What if the big bad invading planet got kicked out of their world and they just need to rest while they move on to the next planet?  And what if that poor innocent little species is actually behaving pretty poorly?  What if people could take responsibility for their bad behavior and reinforce the good behavior, what ramifications could that have?  Could we stop wasting time blaming and start fixing the problem? 

3) He has two hearts.  Ok, I realize that we might have some physical limitations in following this example, but go with me on this.  What if we tried to have two hearts when we are working to resolve problems?  What if we advocated truly deeply and passionately for all of our clients, instead of trying to stick to a neutral process?  What this means for us as conflict resolvers is that we really care, we are interested, we are curious, we want to know why things happen, and we really want to help make things better. 

So, unfortunately, I don’t have a super time machine, but I do have a new set of ground rules which I think my clients will appreciate: 

1) I don’t use a gun.

2) There is no good guy and no bad guy here, only a bad problem and good ideas. 

3) I have two hearts.

So, go forth into the galaxy, my friends, and make some peace!

“He abandoned me.”

“She gave up.”

“He always turns his work in late.”

Do you know those phrases and accusations that are so laden with emotion that when you hear them, it feels as though the air was sucked out of the room? There is so much emotion in that statement, that the show cannot continue until some of that toxicity is dealt with.

As mediators, one of our greatest gifts is to reframe people’s issues. We hear the emotion and the values underneath a position, and reframe those in a way that the other party can hear.

An impediment to reframing–or any worthwhile communication–is showstoppers. Showstoppers are words that have inflated the conflict so much that it feels immovable.

For instance, let’s say a client has become frustrated. He is exhausted and under pressure at work and at home. His coworker, Sheila, has turned in her report late, again. He begins telling other coworkers about how Sheila is untrustworthy because, “She turns everything in late.”

The heart of the problem is that your client is feeling frustrated at this moment because the report is late, and your client will have to scramble to make up the time. Voicing that frustration to Sheila would be a productive behavior–difficult, but it allows Sheila to improve. Voicing the frustration to himself would also be productive to your client–at least then he is aware that he is feeling frustrated. Instead, your client protects his feelings of frustration and directs them at making Sheila the villain. And, to protect himself even more, he needs to make Sheila so big and bad that no one could blame him for the way he reacted. It is not just that she has turned in a report late 3 times, but she ALWAYS turns in a report late. And it’s not just that she was late because she spent extra time editing, it is late because she is UNTRUSTWORTHY.

Now these comments have inflated the conflict to be so big that it is difficult to make progress.

Our job is mediators is to push away some of the baggage. We can reframe the frustration and show clients how much we value their feelings. Yet, at the same time, we must also hold them accountable for their inflammatory, showstopper words. “Instead of saying her reports are always late, could we talk through some specifics?”

When people are forced to discuss details, instead of vague ambiguous references to how horrible another person is, they are accomplishing two things. First, it makes your client realize that maybe the other person isn’t horrible, but they did mess up a few times. Second, it makes the other person realize that yes, they have messed up, but at least now they have something concrete to either apologize for or try to improve upon in the future.

So, what do we do when hear those showstoppers in mediation? We realize that our clients have some significant values that they are trying to protect, and it is our job to push off the extra baggage so that we can safeguard the underlying emotion. Knowing those values are heard and safe is often the only way to help our clients and make any true progress in mediation.

After all, though our clients are coming in war-torn and weary, if we can be of any help, the show must go on 😉

I will always remember my first course in college: English.  Father Herzog at Gonzaga, who looked disarmingly like Santa Claus. By that point I knew how to write. Not to mention it was an Honors level course, where we all scoffed at a measly 5 page book report.  The result?  We all flunked.  Every one stared in disbelief at a shining red “F” at the top of that page.

The real result?  We worked our tails off figuring out how to improve grammar, transition, cohesion, illustrative images, and actually be involved in our writing.

I have been remembering that course lately because as much as I hated going through that process, his honest feedback was the only thing that motivated me to become better.

I am guessing it is the same for chefs on reality cooking shows like Hell’s Kitchen.  They have been told their whole lives by their family and friends that they are incredible chef right up until that moment where Chef Ramsey throws them out of the kitchen.  It hurts.  It’s embarrassing.  But I bet they never serve undercooked scallops again.

So what do we do as mediators?  We all go to conferences and we talk about our natural abilities as mediators, but the reality is we don’t have Chef Ramsey or Father Herzog telling us where we glaringly need to improve.  In the mediation room, we don’t even have each other to point out areas of improvement.  When it comes down to is, we only have our clients.

As difficult as it is, I request every one of my clients to tell me where I could improve (Of course I ask them what worked as well :) )  But I sincerely want to know, from the only people to whom it really matters, how can I be a better mediator?

Although hard to read, this feedback has helped me fix problem areas in my mediator Statement, reframe my own reframing statements so that they can be more effective, and be aware of some of my non-verbals that were giving off the wrong signal.  I offer my evaluation form here as a place to get started.

This is a practice that I recommend we all do as mediators.  We are, after all, never done learning or improving.  Just ask Father Herzog.

About fifteen years ago I went on a college retreat, serving as the alum advisor for junior and seniors from my alma mater.

There was one senior who had been iffy, just strange, throughout the weekend.  Other students said they had always expected he had been involved in some kind of drug abuse, but it had never been confirmed. The final night there he began drinking heavily, which is clearly against policy since a) it was a school event and b) he was underage.  The resident advisor told him he needed to stop drinking and go sleep it off.  The student, who was clearly not in his right mind, walked over to the trunk of his car and pulled out — wait for it– a machete.

That’s right, in front of me, a student pulled out a machete.  I saw him hide the machete behind his back and begin to walk toward the resident advisor who had just scolded him.

I was the only one who saw it.

My mind kept telling me to move, scream, shout, warn everyone.  But I did nothing.  The situation was so foreign to me that I froze while the other part of my brain kept saying, “You are not processing this correctly. This can’t be real.  You must be misunderstanding.”   I froze, rooted to the spot, watching the impending attack.

One mousy girl saw the advancing student and yelled at him to stop.  A tough ROTC soldier guy ran over and pushed him back.  The resident advisor was safe.

____________

I have often thought about this moment when I see scary situations on tv, where the most unlikely hero jumps in and saves the day.  I know now how very unlikely that is.

The reality is that most of us don’t know how we will respond in conflict. The peacemaker freezes.  The mousy girl gives orders.

In a recent mediation one of my clients began viciously verbally attacking her coworker, drudging up horrible sins of his past.  I asked, “What does this have to do with now?”  She said, “I am showing you what type of a character he has.”

I remembered the example of how I had responded in extreme conflict and pulled her into a caucus.  “How we act in our everyday lives, unfortunately, might have nothing to do with how we respond in conflict.  When in conflict, we are actually mediating with an altogether different person than the person we normally associate with.  We are mediating with someone who is ready to fight, flight, or freeze.  A character witness or character assassination may shed light on how we will respond once the conflict is passed, e.g. if we will fulfill the terms of the mediation agreement, but it has nothing to do with how he is responding in this room.  You speak of a drastic power imbalance, where he has always been cruel, unkind, and critical.  What I have seen is someone who truly wants to resolve this conflict in good faith.  I have seen remorse from him and a desire to reach a fair agreement.  I expect that when you reflect on this tomorrow you will be surprised, instead, at how you reacted in the middle of a conflict.”

Thankfully, we had established enough rapport that she was able to hear this advice.

Also thankfully, since that retreat I have never needed to be a heroic Charlie’s Angel.

Let me begin by saying I am not qualified to write this.

None of us are.

I went through my entire list of bloggers today, hoping that someone had written something eloquent that would help us as a field to find the right words to describe how we feel, how we ache, and help us know what to do next.

There was not a single post on Sandy Hook–and since we are a list of communicators, that was strange.

My thoughts on this?  We are driven to this field for a few reason.  Not for money, not for fame, not for power. Instead we are driven to this field to bring peace in the midst of chaos. To bring guidance in the midst of confusion. To build a bridge when the distance seems unfathomable.

We have learned many tools for doing this: we reframe, we caucus, we refer to BATNAs.

But our most powerful tool as mediators? Silence. We listen. We provide a meaningful, intentional, respectful, dare-I-say sacred space for other people to share.

So since we as a field are not overly communicating currently about this tragedy, I believe that we are listening. We are listening to the pain of each parent. We are listening to the stories of fear, of heroism, of disbelief. We are listening to the story of each life that was stolen, what they were like, their favorite color, their dreams for the future. We listen to the incalculable love a parent has for a child, the love that will never diminish, not even in death.

We listen to people who need to take action, and talk about gun laws and school safety and mental health. Through listening, we know they have space to communicate freely and incite the right people to take the right action.

When we listen we absorb a bit of each story. And as I have walked around these past few days, at the grocery store, the post office, etc. people have changed. They have sobered a bit. They might not laugh as much this week, but they hold their loved ones much tighter.

As a field, we listen. We listen so that we can fully understand what every one of these beautiful souls was like. And in listening, we will never forget.

I recently conducted a wonderful mediation.  Wonderful because of the depth of challenging issues and the willingness of the parties to work through them.

The parties came in with distinct viewpoints on a variety of challenging issues. They had worked together for almost two decades, and history bound them together but also provided ample fodder for grudges.

We laid out each issue and discussed a tentative plan.  They agreed yes, I’m nervous, but we will try out.  We all shook hands and walked away.

I got in my car and sat there realizing I felt unsatisfied.  The mediation went well. There was a meeting of the minds and forward movement.  Some issues were left to be resolved but enough issues were solved that they could continue to work together.  But yet I was missing something . . .

Later that night I was watching a movie and as the credits rolled I realized I finally felt at ease.  The movie had tense drama, suspenseful music, then the hero finally hit on the piece that would make everything right again with the world. Everyone sighed a deep breath of relief, he got the girl, and we could relax.

Now logically I realize that mediation is not a movie. It is not actually Fairly Legal, believe it or not.  I know that in my head, but I was stunned to realize that I have been so programmed for that “Ahha!” moment that I felt the mediation was incomplete.  Inadequate. A failure.

The worst part?  At the end of the mediation I think that my clients felt like a burden had been lifted and I bet my body language did not support that.  I am afraid that in my need for an “Ahha!”, I might have indirectly conveyed to them that the mediation did not go well.  As if one party could say, “I know!  The problem is X!  I’ll stop doing that and now everything will be perfect!”

The reality is much softer, subtler, quiet.  People slowly work through one layer of hurt and distrust, they open a little and discuss more of an agreement, and then begin to think about  the next layer. Forgiveness and collaboration are not an event, I learned, as much as a journey.

The mediation field was just able to celebrate Conflict Resolution Day.

Bill Warters promoted it here  http://ow.ly/ezKZ8

Mediate.com promoted it here

ACR promoted it here

 

I just watched a Fairly Legal episode where a judge is in trouble, and mediator Kate Reed steps in to help.  The attorneys were arguing all around her, but the mediator was able to step in and help everyone in the situation.

Watching this episode in the midst of Conflict Resolution Day buzz made me realize how unique we are as a field. The law field conjures images of lawyers “ambulance chasing” to score a client. The health care field discusses how “nurses eat their young.” Politicians, well, they don’t exactly play nice either.

In the mediation field, however, one person’s successes help us all.  The rise of new organizations such as APFM, the cementing of existing organizations such as ABA DR, the continuing of traditions such as Cyber Week, help all of us.  The prominence of an incredible mediator helps all of us. The success of a mediation firm helps all of us.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of conflict to go around and likely there always will be. Fortunately, it means that as conflict resolvers we are in a field where do not have to compete or “eat our young.” Instead, we get to support each other. The better one mediator does, the better publicity he or she gets, the better word of mouth marketing there is, the more likely the next person in conflict is to look to a mediator.

When one mediator raises their rates, it only raises the bar for everyone. When one mediator gets an advanced degree, it makes our field look more reputable. When one mediator splurges on a fancy office with slick new marketing materials, it makes all of us look more professional. Our job as mediators is to revel in each other’s successes.

Our job is also to spread the mediation Kool-Aid.  We need to continue to support incoming mediators and their new ways of thinking. This includes recent graduates who are familiar with technology, as well as mediators coming in from different fields who can teach us what worked for them. The more creative, diverse ideas we can get in the field to market and promote the benefits of mediation, the better for all of us.  The more energy and people we can have working to instill mandatory mediation laws, higher quality training, spread awareness of mediation to both individuals and corporations, the better off we will all be.

So instead of preaching win-win only to our clients, let’s preach it to each other.  Congratulations to all of the new Foreclosure Mediation Programs that the states are funding, congratulations Stephanie Bell on recently being hired as a Pepperdine faculty member, congratulations APFM on a wonderful conference, and congratulations to the thousands of other people who are working hard to bring peace to this world every day. The mediation tide rises, dear fellow mediators, and it rises for us all.

 

I can’t tell you how many times people have told me that they are thinking about adding mediation to their existing career because

“I already mediate all the time, anyway.”

This is such a common phrase that I have started to pay attention to the types of people who say it. Predominantly, I head this phrase from social workers and from parents. I believe this is because mediation is so effective because it uses tools that are intuitive.  Active listening, fairness, guiding people to an agreeable solution. These are skills that many people use in their jobs daily.

For those people who feel naturally gifted at these skills then I highly encourage them to continue to study mediation, train, practice, and eventually begin mediating cases.

Eventually.

One thing that I have noticed from watching Fairly Legal is that Kate Reed is so effective at her job, not just because the skills come naturally to her, but also because she is very comfortable with the process.  She doesn’t have to waste time thinking about when to consult an expert, what constitutes as legal advice, what is a break of confidentiality, what is an enforceable agreement, and what are the parties real interests. This shows me that she has years of training and practice which, combined with her natural skills, have created a very effective (albeit slightly wacky) mediator.

People tell me, “Since I mediate between my teenagers all the time anyway, I decided to open a practice and get paid for it.”  This is a cute saying, but I wonder if they really understand the amount of work that it takes to be effective.  Do they understand the amount of time it takes to be comfortable with these skills?  The amount of training and studying until the knowledge become instinctual?  Do they have any idea the amount of marketing and networking it will take them to be successful?  And do they have any idea how much bravery and restraint it will take to confront difficult clients and to withhold their own desires for a case?

These are skills that people can learn. But thinking that just anyone can step out one day and be a mediator slightly belittles those who have spent years working towards it.

I have never heard anyone say, “Since I spend all day chopping vegetables, I was thinking I might as well be a surgeon and get paid for it.”  Or ” I love to look at clouds in the sky, so I think tomorrow I will be a commercial pilot.” Of course not!  Because everyone knows that it will take training and practice.

I think broadening that knowledge to the mediation field will help clients know that seasoned mediators are very effective and often a great alternative to the courtroom, and it will also help rookie mediators know what to expect.

A friend posted a picture recently about one of the most ingenious products I have ever seen: A Fish ‘n Flush.

Fisn n Flush Toilet

 

The Fish ‘n Flush is a toilet, yes, a toilet.  There is a minuscule tank in the back for the flushing, surrounded by a beautiful fish tank. Some toilet engineers one night, looking for a creative way to save water, decided to minimize the flushing tank and fill up the rest of the space with a fish tank. Their idea sky-rocketed. They have appeared all over talk shows, magazine ads, and house designing shows.

It is gorgeous. It is inventive. It is mediation.

Conflict, like, well, like the whole business of a toilet, is seen as ugly. Something you want to hide. You don’t want other people to know about or pay attention to. It might be something that happens to other people, but not you.

But then mediators come in and help clients to transform that ugly ole embarrassing conflict into something creative, helpful, and beautiful. Like putting a fish tank on a toilet.

This concept: turning ugly into beautiful, mourning into dancing, toilet into fish tank, is something that Fairly Legal has mastered. The show Fairly Legal has a kooky mediator, Kate Reed, go into ugly difficult conflicts. Through a variety of creative tactics, she takes this embarrassing conflict and turns it into something beautiful.

Sometimes it’s important to forget the process, forget the confidentiality concerns, forget the certification questions, and remember our true calling: Turn a Toilet into a Fish Tank.