Oh no, please don’t!

“The worst thing that you could do right now is beatbox.”

– The Doubleclicks

stalemateTwo weeks ago I had the pleasure of co-faciliating a workshop on Advanced Impasse-Breaking Tools with long time colleague and collaborator Carrie Gallant.  It was a great chance to reflect on the applicability of ideas across varied contexts since we had a fabulous assortment of participants ranging from collaborative divorce practitioners through corporate tax specialists with lots of variation in between.  What was particularly inspiring to me during the session was hearing the participants readily extrapolate ideas that emerged in one practice area to their own contexts.  What seemed to facilitate these connections was the process of making explicit the intention behind any process choice.  For example, rather than thinking to myself that I should caucus because the parties seem to be reaching a sticking point around making an offer (and that’s what has worked in the same situation with other parties), I can be more responsive to the specific people in front of me if I instead think “Hmmm…  There’s a pattern of resisting that I could interrupt in a variety of ways, including caucusing.  Some of those might have additional benefits, so which one seems best suited to the here and now?”

One topic that generated more discussion during the workshop than Carrie and I had expected was the notion of negative brainstorming – brainstorming what doesn’t work in order to create criteria for what might.  Given the interest from the group in various ways of harnessing negative energy and reactive interpersonal behaviours in seeking resolutions, I decided to post about some ways in which “what not to do?” can be a helpful question.

Jolts for Mediation

1. “What won’t work?” or Capitalizing on the “Listening to Rebut” pattern

Debate2When parties are locked into a pattern of listening to rebut (a useful phrase that John R. Van Winkle uses in Mediation: a path back for the lost lawyer, p. 83), they are not likely to be able to brainstorm ideas jointly.  Rather than reserving judgment, each idea offered will meet with critique and discussion of why it doesn’t work, or silence if the rebuttal impulse is squelched.  The pattern of rebuttal is a strong one in our adversarial culture, and can frustrate attempts at joint problem-solving unless one chooses to make intentional use of the pattern.  Essentially, the mediator, recognizing the pattern of rebuttal, changes the question from “what would resolve the issues?” to “what won’t work to resolve the issues?”  The latter question often generates a fairly energetic list of negatives (e.g. It can’t work if we have to see each other!).  That list, however, can be a great tool for generating criteria necessary for resolution.  (e.g. Any solution will need to minimize or eliminate direct contact.)  Once parties engage with the process of developing criteria from this list of negatives, they are on their way to a solution-oriented discussion, and the mediator can assist the parties to pull criteria and/or interests directly from the negative list.  Working with a white board or other visual aid to generate and translate the list has the added advantage of being a second form of pattern interrupt – it moves parties’ visual focus to the mediator and the lists, disrupting the physical pattern as well as the verbal one.

It’s interesting to note that for participants who work in areas that might be described as dealmaking rather than dispute resolution, this technique struck a different chord.  As one tax practitioner explained it, in his world it is common to describe the perceived barriers to a course of action in order to test whether they are true barriers or simply untested assumptions.  By engaging in a process of examining whether or not the assumed roadblock is a true impediment to the deal, the parties may both discover a more creative approach than if they simply accepted the barrier as absolute.  For that reason, articulating barriers can be a useful exercise where parties are in agreement about what they want to achieve, but are assuming that they can’t get there – or can only get there in one way that isn’t ideal for some reason.

2. Life Goals Analysis

While preparing this post, I was also planning a future workshop on reality checking and hence re-reading (inter alia) John Wade’s 2001 paper on Systematic Risk Analysis.  With musings on negative brainstorming in mind, I read Professor Wade’s discussion of “Life Goals Analysis” a bit differently than I have in the past and realized that the approach he espouses is an interesting variation on the idea of shifting a list of barriers into a list of positive criteria.  In suitable situations, Professor Wade suggests creating a short “life goals” list with a client as a means of emphasizing positive gains rather than dwelling on a negative list of risks.  Where a typical risk analysis approach to client counselling or business decision-making might list the risks if conflict continues, the life goals analysis focuses on the aspects of resolution that might help a client meet broader life goals.  The chart below is clipped from page 21 of Professor Wade’s paper and shows a few examples of how risk analysis might be converted to life goals.

Wade life goals

Professor Wade flags the possible psychological benefit of reframing to positives, noting:

“This switch may find some justification from several psychological studies which suggest that most (not all) people are “risk averse”.  Therefore, any list should express positively what has already been gained by the current offer, not how far the current offer is short of a ‘target’ or perceived ‘entitlement'”.

3. The “I Hate Beatboxing” Jolt

The quotation that heads this blog post is drawn from a song by one of my favourite bands, The Doubleclicks.  As you’ll see if you watch the video embedded below, the song captures the sense of “what not to do” in social situations with awkward pauses, and escalates the question by framing it as “the worst thing that you could do right now” as opposed to just what doesn’t work.  In The Doubleclicks world, “the worst thing you could do right now is beatbox,” but in a mediation, there are definitely worse options.  What happens if you ask the parties – perhaps in caucus – “what’s the worst thing we could do right now?” If you start the list with beatboxing or jumping up and down and squawking like a seagull, then you might at least generate a list that helps break the mood.  You’ll likely also get some ideas that focus on real process choices and that can be used to draw out reasons why the current process is not working as well as it could.  (E.g. Even “the worst thing we could do right now is keep going the way we’re going!” allows for the possibility of a discussion of what needs to change in the process.)

Personally, I can see playing the song itself in a facilitation or classroom setting where things are going awry for some reason and asking “what’s the worst thing we could do right now?”  Just as generating negative criteria can be a method of developing ideas for how to resolve a content problem, generating ideas of worst process choices (or behaviours) can form the basis for jointly exploring new process choices.

Carrie and I have another workshop coming up on November 19th on MBTI Types and Conflict Resolution. The session will be particularly focused on the application of the MBTI Step II tool and will be of interest to anyone interested in type and conflict.  You can see a sample of my thoughts about the Step I tool and conflict on this site.  The session supports the CoRe Conflict Resolution Society and offers 3.5 hours of CPD credits.  For more information, check out our website.  

 

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