Magic in Mediation

“We simply assume that the way we see things is the way they really are or the way they should be. And our attitudes and behaviors grow out of these assumptions.”  Steven R. Covey

Halloween seems like an appropriate day for reflection on a thought-provoking presentation I was lucky enough to attend last month on “Magic and Colliding Cultures.” Wendy Lakusta and Kevin-Neil Klop teamed up at the CoRe Clinic Speaker Series to provide a “jolt” to the group’s collective assumptions about the connection (or lack of) between magic and mediation, while providing a wonderful metaphor for examining our various cultural blind spots.

When I first told people that CoRe would be hosting a talk on Magic and Mediation (before it had a title), the common reaction was to assume that the talk would be about how mediation can be magical in its transformation of conflict, or a discussion of mediator tools that seem to create magic in the room.  The first challenge to assumptions then was to learn that our presenters intended to explore the ways in which magic uses an understanding of human assumptions in order to misdirect us – encouraging us to follow certain assumptions blindly in order to lead us away from an understanding of the magic effect.  Mediation, on the other hand, seeks to illuminate the assumptions made (often blindly) and to help us to examine those assumptions.

The session’s focus was on cultural assumptions. Culture is a set of shared assumptions (a system of beliefs, customs, values, attitudes and lifestyles); and, of course, the deepest levels of culture include beliefs and values that are never questioned or even stated – they are simply implicit.  It is these assumptions that can lead us astray in judging others: we assume from behaviours, words, silences, etc. that we understand another’s motivations and goals and we judge them against our unexamined value system rather than seeking to understand theirs.

As Wendy pointed out so simply, magic makes use of our tendency to make these assumptions and encourages us to fool ourselves.  As a result, learning a bit about how magicians work is a wonderful tool for examining how to instead make those assumptions explicit.  Wendy quoted from Robert Giobbi who tells us that:

“…[M]agic should be easy, since our spectators fool themselves!  All you need to do is avoid any words, thoughts or actions that interrupt this tendency.”

By extension, mediation can be challenging because we are working against this tendency, asking people (and mediators themselves) to identify and examine assumptions – especially those at the deepest levels of subconscious thought.

Jolts for Mediation

The overall thrust of the CoRe talk was a “jolt” for the mediators to think about assumptions in a new way, but Wendy’s willingness to learn a few magic tricks for the presentation (and success in performing for an audience!) inspired me to think too about the ways that one might use magic tricks within a mediation to provide small “jolts”.  Here are a couple of ideas.

  1. The perfect bubble

Wendy’s “signature” magic trick – “The Perfect Bubble” – struck me at the time as a brilliant metaphor for generating options in mediation.  Watch Wendy recreate her magic from the session in the following video clip.

Now imagine performing that trick at a mediation.  (As always, context is everything, but I can certainly imagine it being easy to do this in any context involving children, and probably a few where adults only are participating.  For instance, a facilitation in a workplace or with a large volunteer staff seeking to develop better conflict management tools might be appropriate.)  You perform the perfect bubble trick and then place the perfect bubble in the centre of the table where it will sit for the entire mediation.

“Mediation is like a search for the perfect bubble.  There might be thousands of possibilities for resolving the issues that brought everyone here today, but some are better than others.  We may need to look at many less than perfect ideas before we find the perfect one.  And it’s possible that we’ll need to try more than once to generate ideas to consider.  Some we’ll barely glance at; others will take a bit more consideration; but eventually we will select one that everyone can agree upon.”

2. Simple Card Tricks

Some of the easiest magic tricks to master (as I know from a phase I went through of studying magic around grades 6 and 7) are card tricks.  So many of the simplest card tricks rely on patterns or counting and can be successfully performed with minimal practice.  What they also have in common is the potential to be used to illustrate the idea that mediation is a process: if you work through the steps – even when it’s not obvious to anyone but the mediator why – there should be an answer at the end.  Mediators may also want to talk about transparency of process in mediation as opposed to the intentional misdirection of magic.  Ultimately, the mediator wants the parties to be able to perform the “tricks” themselves and to understand how they’re done.

3. Mediation Magic

Here’s a trick that I found online and that strikes me as a good metaphor for the magic of mediation.  In the Abraca-chicken magic trick (which would require a little adaption for the mediation context – especially in the suggested patter), the magician “forgot” to bring his rope for the rope trick and so uses a chicken bone.  He is going to turn the chicken bone into a rope with a knot in it, but stumbles over the correct magic words a few times and eventually produces instead a chicken bone with a knot tied in it.

I’d suggest that mediation is often like the Abraca-chicken trick: we start out by wanting to achieve a very specific result (parties bring in positions, of course, but even mediators often see possible resolutions that we can get fixed on exploring rather than continuing to open up new ideas), we make repeated attempts to achieve that result and may stumble along the way, and sometimes those stumbles lead us to an even more interesting result than the one we thought we wanted.

Photo credits:

Witch costume at:


Bendy chicken bone:


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