In Mediation…Shifts Happen

By Laura Melton Tucker, March 31st, 2011

Listen to this entry.

One of the great mediators of our time, Marshall Rosenberg, says that when someone speaks to us in an upsetting way, we have three choices:  we can take the words personally (ex: “He is out to get me!”); we can pass judgment on the speaker, (ex: “My boss isn’t nearly as smart as he thinks he is.”); or, we can listen empathically (ex: “This guy seems really rattled.  He must be getting pressure from above and that’s what I’m hearing.  I feel for him.  I think I’ll cut him some slack.”). When we hear with empathy, we recognize the other person’s feelings, which allows us to hear, speak and act with compassion.

Before a mediation, I never know what quality of communication to expect from people who come to my office.  Sometimes the pre-mediation interview gives me a hint of the intensity of the conflict, but not always.  More often than not, I am struck by how kind my clients are to one another. How is this possible, I wonder, when there is so much stress around the transitions that bring people to mediation?  Whether talking about dividing assets, sharing custody or modifying visitation schedules, couples in conflict can feel raw, addled and defensive.  Once they begin to talk about what’s going on, what Rosenberg calls “what is alive for them,” I often see couples move into “deep listening.”  Rather than respond defensively, they start to hear one another empathically.  This is when recognition happens.  Recognition is more than recognizing others for their attributes and contributions – though this is important, too.  Transformative recognition happens when participants recognize the other person’s perspective, which leads to understanding and the possibility for compromise.

A recent mediation I conducted illustrates the power of empathic listening.  A couple was trying to agree on a visitation schedule.  They had resolved all of their other issues.  The sticking point was how many weeks the dad would be able to spend over the summer with his son.   As an employee of a school district, the dad was hopeful that a certain number of non-congruent weeks would provide him with the parental bonding time he missed out on during the school year.   The mother was unrelenting in her decision to limit visits.  The dad didn’t personalize the mother’s resistance, nor did he express judgment.  Instead, the mediation process and his gentle questioning led her through an inquiry process that identified her biggest concern – the child’s exposure to a few people who she believed were potentially threatening to their son’s well-being.  Once this information came forward, the child’s father was able to meet her request by promising not to allow these people access to their son.  Once the father identified the mother’s fear about their son’s safety as the underlying issue, he was able to address her concern with compassion.  The conflict dissolved before all of our eyes.

As a mediator, I rejoice over these kinds of moments.  Compassionate interaction between people in conflict is heartening and inspiring.  The takeaway is that mediation can resolve conflict in a dignified, respectful exchange that is marked by open dialogue and compassionate communication. When these types of conversations take place, transformation is possible.  Shifts happen.

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