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 …

5 Responses to “Pattern Interrupts”

  1. Can I buy that T-shirt? Love your article, brightly coloured shoes work well too!

  2. What? Doesn’t everyone make a point of either matching their socks to their shirt, or, if wearing something (semi) professional (almost always in shades of grey, black, navy) to break it up with brightly coloured or patterned socks? Love the articles, Sharon. As you well know, many of your wisdoms are applicable to teaching too.


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