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Mediation Perspectives: Temptations of a Mediator II

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Mediation Perspectives is a periodic blog entry that’s 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 Mediation Support Team, you can sign up to their newsletter here.

This is the second blog on temptations of a mediator. The first blog looked at temptations mediators need to resist that pull the mediator in one direction. This second blog looks at temptations that pull you in different directions, thus all the topics have an “or” in the title.

6. Use sloppy and blunt or complicated and indirect language

Language is difficult. To help the parties communicate, mediators should be trained in the use of language. However, it is still very easy to get sloppy. For example, we might get tired and stop reflecting on the different meanings of individual words. Words are symbols and their meanings are never one hundred percent clear. When avoiding difficult issues, mediators may also try to smooth things over with indirect or complicated, academic language. When one tries one’s hardest to reach a consensus, one can be extremely tempted to use language that everyone can agree with and that has little meaning. Some of the skills we learn as mediators even push us down this path.

Simon: “For example, in one mediation, one participant said: “the other person is the problem”. I went into a long convoluted reformulation, trying to separate the person from the problem and get to the interests. When I had finished, the person simply stated “that is not what I said”. From Ben I learnt the benefit of letting the sparks fly in a mediation process (under certain parameters as parties need to feel safe), to allow for some harsh, direct words, and in some cases when people are in denial, even to bring out things more clearly and bluntly.”

Nevertheless, some mediators who tend to the “blunt” end of the spectrum may also be tempted to ask a question that deals too directly with the elephant in the room, with a subject that is causing an impasse, but the parties do not want the issue raised. This can relate to the wish to move ahead quickly, but it can be detrimental to the process if the parties are not ready for this move.

Some people are naturally more blunt, others more indirect. The key is to figure out if one is a rather blunt speaker or more of an indirect speaker, and to counter-balance our natural habit so we can be more aware and choose the style that best matches the specific person and context.

7. Keep the lid on things or keep things heated up

For reasons similar to those for using indirect language, we may be tempted to avoid conflict flaring up in a room, seeing our role to calm things down so the parties can deal with the conflict rationally. But conflict is often about emotions that need to come out for things to move on. Emotions are like flags that show where the core issues are. And to move on, one needs to get to the core issues. As much as we need to practice being comfortable with silence, we also need to be comfortable with emotional tension and conflict.

The flipside temptation, similar to that related to the use of blunt language, is to allow the parties to keep going at each other.

Simon: “In an interpersonal dispute, I once made the mistake of letting the sparks fly too much, not protecting the party who was being attacked. After the meeting, I got an email that he would not come to the next mediation meeting. Protecting the parties is the role of the mediator, which includes the prevention of finger pointing and the provision of a safe space.”

The temptations discussed here are tricky. The same response to the same problem may not work in different situations. Whether such a response is useful or detrimental will depend on the specific situation and context. Again, knowing ones tendency to be either more of a hothead who is comfortable with letting the sparks fly or a harmonizer can help one realize when we should be cautious.

8. Go too fast, push too much or go to slow

Part of the magic of mediation is that by slowing down the process in the short term, we speed it up in the long-term. If we rush to reach a solution, we often end up with an obvious one, which is also frequently a bad one. The more escalated the conflict, the more mediators may need to be directive. But if they get too directive, push too much, the process can collapse and the mediation can make the conflict worse.

The flip side temptation is to be too facilitative, too laid back, and therefore possibly ineffective. Finding the balance between being facilitative and directive – in relation to the situation – is a perennial challenge of mediation.

Simon: “Learning about mediation from a senior mediator like Ben, I find this quality that he lives and expresses so profoundly one of the most fascinating: On the one hand to be able to be directive when needed and be robust under attack. On the other hand, to be extremely sensitive to vibes and what is going on with people in the room. Ben has both qualities and the intuition of how to use them in a given situation. The two hands – the soft and the hard, the directive and the facilitative, the blunt and the indirect – are both needed, and one needs to know when to use which and in which combination. A tree needs a strong trunk as much as it needs extremely delicate leaves.”

Living in the right now

Resisting these temptations is not easy. Further, we especially need a keen intuition of the moment, to be in the “right now”, when facing temptations that can lead us to do too much of something, such as being blunt or directive, or too much of the opposite, to be indirect or indecisive.  To do this, mediators need coping strategies, ways of maintaining some degree of inner peace while in the midst of the storm of conflict. Everyone has different approaches on how to do this.

Ben: “I have written about some of the ways I find useful in my book “peaceweaving”. The idea is not for anyone to copy this blindly. Instead, my hope is that you will be inspired to find your own, individual way that helps you gain inner peace, live in the now, and avoid some of the temptations we discussed above.”

Partly contradicting what we have said so far, we are also convinced that another useful rule is that: “It is a sin never to sin”. Only by sometimes succumbing to temptation will we experience its flavor, will we learn and grow.

To see the first part of this blog, click here.

About the Authors

Ben Hoffman is a specialist in negotiation, mediation and peacebuilding and founder of the Canadian International Institute of Applied Negotiation.

Simon J. A. Mason is a senior researcher and head of the Mediation Support Team at the Center for Security Studies (CSS) ETH Zurich.

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