Archive for January, 2011

January 18, 2011

Pattern Interrupts

“It’s been quite a ‘pattern interrupt’, a massive change of the old programming.” Kenny Loggins

Take 3 minutes and make a list of all the ideas for impasse breaking that occur to you in that time.  Then have a look at the list with an eye to sorting the various techniques you’ve come up with into a maximum of 5 categories.  If you’re like me, and like every group of student mediators that I’ve asked to complete that task, then the category that has the most options in it will probably be one that contains all the explicit “pattern interrupt” techniques that you’ve learned or developed.  Take a break, change the seating pattern, silly hypotheticals, start writing on the white board, humour, food and drinks, certainly improv jolts …  All of these techniques, and many more are really about interrupting patterns of communication that are bogged down.  Any negotiation can slip into a repetitive and unproductive pattern.  In the case of negotiations between individuals with a long history together (e.g. family disputes, parent and social worker, estates, and long time business relationships), the years old destructive interaction patterns can make problem solving discussion an impossibility.

Pattern interrupts quite simply interject an unexpected element into the old pattern and create a window of opportunity for restarting somewhere new.  Successful speakers, stand-up comedians, and marketers all use surprise to grab attention and refocus their audience.  Most mediators can expand their range of pattern interrupt tools simply by thinking of them in that way – as means to interrupt, often only briefly, an unhelpful pattern that is emerging.  Most often, we use pattern interrupt tools less consciously than we might.  We choose to try a technique because we think of it as a tool in our toolbox that works when this sort of difficulty emerges.  If we instead think that we want to interrupt the pattern, then we are more likely to come up with new ideas for doing so that are tailored to the participants.  A break may be a wonderful pattern interrupt for some people caught in a loop of blame and self-justification, but it might give others time to entrench themselves further.  Consciously aiming to interrupt the pattern engages the mediator in a more analytical process choice than testing learned impasse breaking  tools does: it encourages the mediator to create something specific to the situation and to keep trying new ideas if the first one doesn’t work.

I haven’t always come up with pattern interrupts in the midst of mediation in the conscious way that I describe above, of course. Many (and in my early mediations probably most) were accidental the first time they occurred; but reflecting post-mediation on what changed the mood or how the parties suddenly seemed to transition into a problem solving approach, I’d realize that something small but repeat-able had created a break in the pattern.  And once I started tracking some of these small pattern interrupts, I found it much easier to introduce them consciously in later mediations.  I also found that I was much more willing to take risks in trying new ideas for pattern interruption in the moment.  After all, every pattern interrupt presents an opportunity to discuss with the parties your perception of a need to interrupt the pattern.  You try something that falls flat?  It’s a chance to talk about why you tried and to bring the parties into a discussion of how to do it more effectively.

Jolts for Mediations

Two pattern interrupts that I have stumbled upon accidentally, and now employ consciously.

1.  Bright colours.  Some stand-up comedians catch their audience’s attention, and create a short window of opportunity for winning them over, by appearing in startling outfits so that they stand out from comedians who have gone before.  Dressing in a goofy manner runs the risk that the parties will think you’re not taking their dispute seriously.  But I discovered that you can get the same effect in small ways.  I’ve taken to carrying an array of brightly coloured pens to mediations.  I know, sounds a bit silly, and perhaps precious, but it almost always gets people talking.  Someone will ask me about whether I really am using green ink to take notes because it’s Saint Patrick’s Day, or make a sneering “nice pink ink” comment.  It often happens near the beginning of a mediation as people are getting organized, but if it doesn’t it’s easy enough to introduce yourself.

Once the subject is raised, there are lots of options for linking it to the mediation process and reintroducing it for a pattern interrupt when it’s needed later on.  For instance, I’ve chatted about the studies on the impacts of colour on creativity and the theories that say purple and orange are creative colours.  If I’ve got several pens, I can then switch pens when things are stuck and explicitly move to my creative orange ink to kickstart a different discussion.

Of course, pens are only one tool for talking about colour.  The colours in the mediation room are a natural topic of discussion, too.  “We seem to be going around in circles.  I wonder how much that’s because of the beige walls?”  Check out Color: Meaning, Symbolism and Psychology for some talking points about colour and look at your mediation surroundings from that perspective to interrupt your own patterns of thinking.

2. Bad food.  Most mediators see food and drink as an important aspect of “hosting” a mediation.  The “breaking of bread” sets a tone for cooperation in so many cultures that sharing food in mediation is a natural means of creating a collaborative atmosphere.  Naturally, as the “host”, the mediator will strive to please the parties with the food as a means of setting the mood.  Well, a few years ago I discovered, quite inadvertently, the great potential of really bad food to bring people together!  I was asked to mediate at the last possible second in an emergency child protection matter.  I was quite ill (which is why I’d been the one mediator they’d been able to reach at home) and tried to say “no”, but was talked into meeting the parties in 2 hours time because of the impossibility of finding someone else within that time frame.  Well, I wasn’t very interested in the food myself, and I was rushing to get there, so I stopped at the one drive thru place on the way – a donut shop.  Their selection of muffins and fritters had been wiped out by the earlier crowd, so I ordered an assortment of donuts and headed off the to mediation.  The participants were rushed too, and frantic about getting things done in a hurry, so emotions were high and even before we started the lawyers were anxious and aggressive with each other about what their clients needed to see happen right in the next two hours or else.  The pattern of communication was dreadful before I even walked into the room.

Well, the second I opened the box of donuts, the focus shifted.  Everyone in the room hated donuts and especially hated my selection and the choice of donut shop.  One of the lawyers was the first to complain out loud, but others quickly chimed in.  I was grumpy enough that my response to the donut attacks was, “Well, I can see this mediation is going to be simple.  Everyone already agrees that the worst thing we have to deal with today is my choice of donuts!”  From that point on, the bad donuts were an explicit point of agreement, and teasing me about the donuts was a fall back for everyone whenever the conversation was difficult.  When we’d reach a bit of an impasse on a point in discussion, someone would blame the donuts and announce that we’d be doing much better if the mediator were X with his renowned fruit platters or Y with her home-baked cookies and muffins.  Of course, the truth was that everyone was using the attack on my donuts as a pattern interrupt tool and placing blame for any difficulties on the donuts, not on the other party!  And it worked brilliantly to dissolve tension.

Now, I don’t go out of my way to have bad food at mediations, but …  I probably don’t worry quite as much as some of my colleagues about ensuring that the food is setting a mood of comfort.

And one that I’m wondering about:

3.  Socks! Do you notice people’s socks when you’re in a business-y setting and everyone is dressed somewhere between business casual and suits?  Not usually.  For the most part, socks are chosen to blend with the outfit.  But there are people who wear statement socks.  Amongst mediators, Paul Taberner, a past president of CoRe, comes to mind immediately when I think about socks.  Bright colours, dynamic patterns, his socks draw your eye, and are a pattern interrupt.  I’ve never thought to ask Paul if he consciously uses his socks in mediations, but I’m thinking he could…  And that suggests that anyone could.

I received some great socks for Christmas this year, and while I may keep the “Zombie Love” socks for a pattern interrupt in my classroom, I can imagine lots of ways to make use of the “Calfinated” knee socks from Sock it to me to break a pattern and create a space for a shift.  And a quick online search shows that there are dozens of vendors for “peace” socks!  I may just turn my mind to designing the perfect mediator sock collection …

January 10, 2011


“Creativity arises out of the tension between spontaneity and limitations, the latter (like the river banks) forcing the spontaneity into the various forms which are essential to the work of art or poem.” Rollo May

The notion that limitations can generate spontaneity will be familiar to most mediators.  How many times have you said, “We have only X minutes left in our scheduled time …” only to see the parties shift from a determined positional stance into a problem solving approach?  Suddenly, they are able to throw out spontaneous suggestions and ideas without hesitation.  In fact, limitations can be freeing; if you know there isn’t time to do an excellent job, then you can’t be judged (or judge yourself) too harshly for a mediocre job.  Permission granted to be less than perfect, and suddenly it is much easier to brainstorm without self-censoring or immediate critique of others’ ideas.

One of the motivating ideas behind this blog was a desire to test my belief that limitations can increase not just creativity, but also productivity.  In this case, the limitations imposed by a weekly blog – the need to produce different ideas quickly and frequently within a relatively contained format – should, if the theory works in practice, promote spontaneity in the production of short written pieces.   And certainly in the world of applied improvisational theatre, spontaneity is the key to generating more ideas.

Spontaneity is not, however, something we find natural in most circumstances.  From our earliest days, we are trained to control our impulses.  As we get older, we learn that we should evaluate our thoughts before expressing them.  The more serious and business-like the setting, the more self-censorship we should impose so as not to make “silly” suggestions or express ill-considered ideas.  Conflict, of course, means  even more self-monitoring and hesitation before we speak; the “other guy” will criticize all our ideas so we’d better think carefully before sharing them.

Looking to the world of applied improvisation, we see a number of professionals who have devoted study and practice to solving exactly that problem: improvisers train to develop their “spontaneity muscle” and the tools they use to develop their own capacity to relax their censoring and rebuttal impulses can provide wonderful ideas for application in mediation.  Some of the simplest exercises can be imported in their entirety into a mediation in order to give people a mindset “jolt” by explicitly warming them up for spontaneity.

A fabulous resource for mediators – that doesn’t make it’s way onto mediator resource lists, but should! – is Kat Koppett’s Training to Imagine: Practical Improvisational Theatre Techniques to Enhance Creativity, Teamwork, Leadership, and Learning.  This week’s jolt is adapted from Koppett’s description of the exercise, Word Drill.  I encourage all mediators to explore this book for many other transferable ideas too.

Jolt for Mediators or Mediations

Word Drill (variation for mediation)


It is important to explain the reason for proposing a “jolt” exercise in the midst of a mediation.  The mediator can identify the impasse facing the participants and discuss the need to “shift gears” in order to move into problem solving mode.  “Perhaps this suggestion will sound a bit odd, but …  What if we use an exercise to kickstart spontaneity that is completely separate from the current issues?  If we warm up our creative thinking, then come back to the issues fresh, perhaps we can come up with some new ideas.”

The Exercise:

Word Drill involves one or more persons rapidly throwing out words that have no connection to each other.  Another participant responds as quickly as possible to each word with the very first word that occurs to them.

There are quite a few variations on the format for Word Drill, most of which involve placing one person in the “hot seat” while everyone else fires words at them in rapid succession.  This can work in some mediation settings, especially if the mediator goes first in the “hot seat” to show that it is really not connected to the issues in dispute – it’s not a trick to get people to agree.  Once the mediator has taken her turn, it’s much safer for a party to agree to be in the “hot seat”.

To run this version of Word Drill, the mediator will invite everyone else to take turns throwing words to the mediator, encouraging the participants to be ready to go as quickly as possible.  Participants can think ahead, and should try to throw out unconnected words for the mediator to respond to.  After a few rounds, one of the parties can move into the ‘hot seat”.

A variation that may be less threatening in some circumstances is to have the mediator lob all of the words back and forth between participants.

For example:

Mediator to party 1: Dog   Party 1: Cat

Mediator to party 2: Cedar     Party 2: Snowfall

Mediator to party 1:  School    Party 1:  Reading

It’s important to emphasize that there are no right or wrong answers.  The goal is explicitly to get used to throwing out spontaneous ideas and not self-censoring or critiquing in order to create a mood in which the group can brainstorm effectively on the topic in issue.


  • Start with the mediator throwing out the words, and then shift to a round table approach where everyone passes a word to the next person.
  • When the exercise is flowing smoothly, shift to allow the disputing parties to play as a pair going back and forth, modeling the type of back and forth communication needed in the mediation.


Ask the parties to comment on the process.  What challenges did they face in coming up with words to throw out?  Did they want to find a “good” word before speaking?  How much did they feel like self-censoring?  Did that change as the exercise progressed?  Are they ready to try to bring the same energy to discussing the items on the mediation agenda?

Variation for Mediator’s own warm-up:

  • Before the mediation, the mediator can warm-up their own “spontaneity muscles” for their role in facilitating by playing a solo game.  Try to make rapid associations of words in your head or out loud without evaluating the associations.  See how long you can stay “in the moment”.
  • While this may be a little “too much” for some, I decided to try recording a series of words with pauses and burning them onto a cd to play in the car on the way to a mediation.  This allowed me to play word drill with random words, rather than with a chain.  Some readers will know that I also tried this out with a recording of a variety of phrases in need of reframing to get myself into a reframing mindset.  I’ve found that a cd that starts with word drills and moves into reframing is an excellent warm up for a mediator.   Asking my daughters to help record ensured lots of variation.
January 1, 2011

Introducing CoRe Jolts

Welcome to CoRe Jolts!  This blog is a fundraising project for the CoRe Conflict Resolution Clinic at UBC.  The CoRe Clinic is a registered charity that provides affordable mediation services and conflict resolution information through the dedicated work of volunteer law students and professional mediators who donate their services as mentors.

The idea for CoRe Jolts has been percolating for just over a year now.  Over that time it’s undergone a few minor changes, but it’s still the combination of a few ideas that I chanced upon together – a moment of combinational creativity (a topic I plan to come back to throughout the year) or just plain fortuity.  As I recall, CoRe fundraising was an ever-present concern: we’d recently learned that gaming funding cuts would have a big impact on our sustainability and we were all brainstorming about fundraising options that didn’t involve calling all our friends every year and begging for money.  I’d just finished a presentation on impasse breaking for the Small Claims Mediator roster and had generated a gross overload of ideas for “jolts” – no doubt inspired by Kat Koppett‘s session “Jolts, Exercises and Frame Games” at the Applied Improvisation Network conference in Portland.  And then I stumbled across The Uniform Project – a creative fundraising and sustainability project in which Sheena Matheiken pledged to wear a single black dress in multiple variations for 365 days to raise money for a foundation she believes in.  Eureka!  CoRe Jolts: weekly “jolts” for mediators as a CoRe fundraiser!  Can’t imagine why I didn’t think of it sooner …

Of course, I can imagine why the idea waited until I was primed for creativity and able to see the combinational opportunities, and that’s what’s behind one of the purposes of CoRe Jolts. We all need jolts from time to time.  Koppett, speaking about training exercises – defines jolts as “short activities designed to change attitudes of mindsets.”  As mediators, we may use the term in the same way in reference to many impasse breaking techniques, but might also apply it to quick means of re-engaging our own creativity.  I’m planning to collect jolts for use in mediation, jolts for mediators and jolts that make me think about any aspect of my work differently – even if only for a moment.

You can expect some common themes in these jolts, especially in the beginning.  I’ll start by sharing what I know best and have used the most myself, so you’ll definitely see jolts about applied improvisational theatre games, jolts drawn from popular culture, and jolts from my teaching practice (I’m jolted several times a term by new perspectives on something I have said dozens of time before.)  I’ll also bring together new ideas from my readings, new experiences and probably lots of ideas that emerge simply from the process of keeping up the blog.  After all, one of the most important rules for creativity amongst improvisers is to nurture spontaneity.  Committing to weekly blogs will serve the purpose of limiting my time for over-thinking and force me to work with whatever ideas I have at the time.  I’m hoping that it will be a lot like improvisation in its benefits – with a little more editing time to eliminate the worst groaners.

This project will work best with collaboration, of course, so please add your comments!  Feel free to riff off anything you see here, but help me in return by providing your thoughts, too.  It’s bound to produce even better ideas!

I hope that mediators and others who like the ideas and resources will donate to support the operations of the CoRe Clinic (or become a member of CoRe).  As well, the weekly “jolts” will be collected for publication as a handy tool to carry into mediations.  That tool will be available for sale with all profits going directly to support the Clinic.

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