Parallel Constructs: Burning Man and Mediation

By Laura Melton Tucker, November 10th, 2009

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Three chairs, shade from the relentless sun, and a kitchen timer.  These are some of the tools of mediator Ron Kelly as told to Timothy Hedeen in the Fall 2009 Conflict Resolution Quarterly article, “Challenging Conventions in Challenging Conditions:  Thirty Minute Mediations at Burning Man.”   Kelly, a San Francisco mediator and educator, describes  setting up a mediation booth in the middle of the dessert at a radical, super-sized arts festival called The Burning Man Project.   Applying core principals of mediation to a fast track format,  Kelly guides his clients through a thirty minute session that is free for the offering.  Kelly offers his services as a gift to the Burning Man community.  Like others, he arrives each summer ready to share and participate in a unique experiment.  I confess that Kelly’s description of his unusual approach to mediation captures my imagination.   I have long harbored a  mediation booth fantasy.  Like Lucy of the Peanuts comic strip, I’d like to set up my own booth in the middle of our local, indoor mall.  I picture myself behind the counter of a vendor kiosk with a sign announcing: “Walk-Up Mediations – Let’s Talk.”  And, to ensure that there would be no need for a “Mediation Antidote” booth beside me, I would  base my approach on Kelly’s interesting and effective model.  Here’s what it looks like.

Participants come to Kelly’s booth voluntarily.  When they sit down, Kelly begins the mediation by turning to the first person and setting his kitchen timer.  Then he says, “For the next five minutes, talk about what’s going on for you.  Speak as open-heartedly as possible.  We won’t interrupt.”  After the first person finishes, he turns to the second person and says, “Without responding to what you’ve just heard, and speaking as open-heartedly as possible, tell us what’s going on for you.”  After ten minutes both parties have experienced something profound.  They’ve been given the opportunity to feel heard by speaking without interruption, AND, they’ve listened to the other person’s perspective.  The middle part of the mediation session is more structured and consists of 4 questions: 1) Do you want to solve this problem?  2) In a sentence can you say what the problem is? 3) Since every problem has many solutions,  can you list multiple solutions to solve the problem?   (Kelly says that if participants are reluctant to brainstorm, he urges them to consider the question like a game show challenge, with 100 thousand dollars for each possible solution.  Lastly,  4) Of all the solutions you’ve just listed, can you choose the one that seems best to you?  Kelly repeats this process with the other participant.  The last part of the mediation weaves together the two people’s responses, as Kelly guides the parties in a conversation exploring how to blend their two perspectives and lists of solutions into an agreement that meets both parties’ needs.  Whether the mediation clients leave with or without a solution, they’ve experienced the process of mediation.  They leave with a blueprint for how to resolve conflict in the future.  All of this in just 30 minutes.

Kelly’ mediation booth is best understood in the context of its unusual setting.  The Burning Man Project is an experiment in community.  Started in 1986, it takes place the last week of every summer, leading up to and including Labor Day, and it happens at the same place, a deserted lava rock lake basin in the desert of Nevada.  Fifty thousand people attend the festival.  At its core, the gathering is about two things: radical self-reliance and radical self-expression.  Self-reliance is essential because of the harsh desert conditions.  No running water or electricity challenges participants to anticipate and bring with them everything they’ll need for the week.  Self-expression gets to the heart of the festival’s purpose.  People gather to share with other “Burners”  their talents and skills.  Through costumes, concerts, readings, art installations and “theme camps,” people express themselves for the betterment and pleasure of others.    “Burning Man Shock” is a term coined by festival goers to describe the opposite of culture shock.  It is the feeling of euphoria that comes over people when they experience the deep connection of this open, experimental community.

Burning Man and mediation are parallel constructs.  Burning Man builds a new community from the ground up – every summer – to enliven the way attendees think about their participation in community.  Similarly, mediation enlivens how people view conflict by building bridges between different perspectives.  Kelly clarifies that despite the formulaic approach of his 30 minutes mediation sessions,  the process of mediation is organic and complex:  “Being present with parties, observing them to know whether they’re sad or angry, or needing more information, or about to walk out –this speaks to the principle that skillful mediation is knowing where the mediation needs to go.  And, it’s the opposite of following a game plan or a recipe….I believe we can train and learn an enormous number of useful recipes, of theoretical understandings, strategies, and specific techniques.  I like to think of basketball.  You need to practice different plays with your teammates, your shooting, your dribbling.  But what’s going to be happening in the split-second decision making of a real game depends on what all ten people are doing in that moment.  This is pretty different than standing and practicing your shooting ability.  Responding intuitively to the patterns of those ten people on the court is what you get from training and experience.  If you have to stop and think about it, it’s probably already too late.”

Kelly’s excellent basketball analogy provides our takeaway:  mediation is about responding intuitively to people in conflict.  An agile mind, an open heart, and attentive presence, are some of a mediator’s best tools.

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