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Mediation Perspectives Blog: Applying Mediation and Negotiation Techniques at the Family Dinner

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Mediation Perspectives is a periodic blog entry provided by the CSS’ Mediation Support Team and occasional guest authors. Each entry is designed to highlight the utility of mediation approaches in dealing with violent political conflicts. To keep up to date with the with the Mediation Support Team, you can sign up to their newsletter here

During 2016, our mediation perspectives blog covered a variety of topics. We wrote about avenues for Research on Mediation; we honoured deceased mediators; we considered the value of Early Warning/Early Response mechanisms; we looked at national dialogue in Colombia, and we even wrote about the role of meditation in mediation. As the new editor of the Mediation Perspectives blog series, I’d like to round up the year with a more every-day focused blog entry – which should be read with a healthy dose of humour. So, here is today’s question: How can basic mediation techniques help you to avoid fighting at your Christmas Family dinner? (For those who don’t celebrate Christmas, this question is of course applicable to a wide range of big family gatherings.)

The day is here, guests will arrive in a few hours, you’ve set up the table and the decorations, and now you want to sit down to watch a bit of TV and to relax while waiting. The smell of cooking from the kitchen is tempting, and why not pre-taste tonight’s dinner? You go to the kitchen where your wife is busy snipping and steering (Yes, “wife”; if we are honest, in most families it’s still the women who do the cooking, right?) and you help yourself to a spoonful of stew. You smile at your wife, say “just needs a bit of salt”, and walk back to the living room. Or so you thought, because she now starts screaming at you, calling you a lazy bum and threatens to throw the stew out of the window if “monsieur” doesn’t like it. You turn, look at her and say: “What? Throwing out the stew, are you crazy!”

Well, don’t!

The first point in any mediation and negotiation handbook[1] is don’t talk positions, talk interest. Cleary, “throwing out the stew” is not the real goal of your wife here. So, reflect on the why instead. Why does she threaten to throw out the stew? Why does she call you lazy? Might it be that she thinks it’s unfair that you’re sitting around while she still cooks? Might it be that she is stressed with cooking, still wants to shower before the guests arrive, and doesn’t have enough time? Might it be she does not think her contribution to the family dinner is appreciated enough? Or does she not like to stand alone in the kitchen? So, her interest might be to be appreciated, or to have more time for herself, or to have company.

So, instead: smile, give her a glass of wine, and take a knife and start helping her to cut the carrots. Sharing a glass of wine while cooking together seems much nicer than fighting, right? And on the plus side, as you are two people cooking, you finish earlier and you both have enough time to get changed before the guests arrive.

Fast forward a few hours: The dinner is finished, and so are a few bottles of wine. Oh, oh. The Cognac glasses are filled and all your aunts and uncles and siblings and cousins are sitting around the living room, chatting about the weather and the new neighbours. Until, of course, that one older uncle brings up politics, and of course you want to, need to react. How can this be left unopposed in your house? So you go ahead and say: “I’m not surprised that and old crank like you thinks like this. But intelligent people like me of course know better. Let me explain…”

Well, don’t!

Another basic negotiation and mediation guideline is separate the person from the problem.  I’m not saying you shouldn’t enter the discussion. Discussions can be interesting, stimulating and, truly a lot of fun. The key is to make sure it’s a discussion, and not an argument. So, avoid the personal, and repeat to yourself that your uncle is not a mean and bad human being, he just has a different opinion on this issue and maybe some of the values he holds dear are different from yours. So, disagree about his position, but don’t blame him from thinking differently.

Instead: Smile at him and say: “I was hoping to discuss with you, uncle. It is always interesting to engage with you”, and then continue with, “What do you mean by…?” or “But I have to disagree, in my opinion….” By opting for these approaches, you can make it clear that you disagree, but still appreciate your uncle as a person. You avoid a fight, while giving both yourself and your uncle the chance to be heard.

And so you start discussing politics. Other family members listen and weigh in, and eventually the discussion goes in another direction. Half an hour later, after having just finished the story of how your sister got engaged, your father turns to you and says: “And you, still no children! Actually, still not doing anything proper; living in this small flat in that city far away. When are you finally getting serious in life?”

It’s obviously one thing not to take your uncle’s political opinion personal. It’s a completely different thing, however, when your dad criticises your life choices, while your sister smiles knowingly, and your aunt nods approvingly. Now, this is personal! And you shout back, “Just because I didn’t want to study medicine, like you wanted me to. Yeah, you never liked that, did you?”

Well, don’t!

Repeat to yourself: interests, not positions; and separate the person from the problem.  While your father is clearly indulging in a personal attack, there’s no need to get personal with him. The problem is not your dad. And by the way, what interests are behind his personal attack?

Before you answer, it’s important to think about a third piece of classical mediation advice: create options for mutual gain. For example, is it possible your father doesn’t like you living so far away because, being retired now, he had hoped to spend more time with you and to have grandchildren to look after. And you, why do his accusation bother you so much? Maybe you feel you never had a chance to show your father why you like the job you have, rather than having gone in medicine. So your dad’s interest is to spend more time with you, and to have a meaningful task during his retirement. And your interest is to explain your choice of profession, to show what you do is valuable. Well, wouldn’t it be mutually beneficial if your dad visited you and you showed him your office, where just “by chance” he would run into your boss who would tell him how great of an employee you are? And maybe you don’t have kids, but your old buddy from high school does, and they surely would be happy if your father would look after their kids a few hours a week, right?

In the end, despite these three mediation “tricks” I’ve recommended, it is possible that your real family dinner will end differently. Maybe people will be shouting, people will feel hurt, and your brother will make one of “those” comments. And your mediation “tricks” will not change it. Well, if that’s the case, I can only recommend that you to fill up your glass of wine, grab a few cookies, lean back, take a deep breath and try to look at it from a distance. The family dinner will be over soon and you will return to your normal, calm life. You won’t see them until the next family gathering. But if you are really honest with yourself, you will actually miss them. Not despite the shouting and fighting, but also because of it. Its family, probably the only people you can passionately fight with, deeply disagree with – and still madly love.

Happy and peaceful holidays to you all!


[1] The points raised in this Blog Post are taken from „Getting to Yes – Negotiating an Agreement without Giving In” by Roger Fisher and William Ury.

About the Author

Jonas Baumann is a program officer in the Mediation Support Team. He is working within the Mediation Support Project (MSP) and within the Religion and Culture in Mediation (CARIM) program. He further coordinates the Mediation Support Network (MSN).

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