Archive for ‘Improvisation’

January 17, 2016

Active listening skills for phone sex operators and other lessons from the theatre

“The cross pollination of disciplines is fundamental to truly revolutionary advances in our culture.”

– Neil deGrasse Tyson

This year our youngest daughter turned 19 and we are now parents of three adults.  They are all at university so it’s not as though all of our responsibilities have ended, but …  We are definitely free to make plans on our own in a way that hasn’t been possible since the eldest two (twins) were born.  It is possible that this freedom has gone to my head – just a bit.  As a former theatre student who attended plays very frequently in my pre-parent days, I upped our theatre-going dramatically this year in response to the excitement of that freedom!  We moved from season subscriptions at two theatres, to a year in which we saw close to an average of one play a week (an average which is skewed by seeing 30 plays in 10 days at the Vancouver Fringe Festival.)

Now theatre, by its very nature, tends to focus on conflict.  Critics since Aristotle have explored the ways in which plays develop around central conflicts; while playwrighting courses teach that nothing kills the entertainment value of a show quicker than characters agreeing about everything!  As a consequence, plays tend to lend themselves to examination through a conflict resolution lens: What is the source of the conflict? How do the characters negotiate? What might a conflict resolution professional take away from the interaction?

While I tend to view most popular culture through a conflict resolution lens – if only to identify great examples for teaching purposes – I realized this year that I have underutilized plays as options for engaged discussions with fellow conflict resolution professionals.  The realization hit me after I watched Tonya Jone Miller’s amazing performance in The Story of O’s at the Vancouver Fringe.  I’ll write more about the play below, but the play and her performance reminded me vividly of how interconnected some of the skills she was displaying are with conflict resolution practice.  As a result, I was inspired to come up with a list of the top plays for conflict resolution professionals that I saw in 2015 – with the hope that others will join me in discussions of even more such plays in 2016.  (To that end, I’ll be organizing a CoRe Speaker event in September specifically focused around plays seen at the Vancouver Fringe Festival. Details to be announced on the CoRe site once the Fringe schedule is announced.)

Jolts for Mediators

My top four plays for conflict resolution practitioners in 2015 were:

1. Tonya Jone Miller’s A Story of O’s

a_story_of_osI didn’t go to A Story of O’s with an expectation of insight into my own profession.  The program description in the Fringe guide told me little beyond the fact that the play was a monologue about sex phone work based on the performer’s real life experiences. It sounded like something that could be entertaining or dreadful; but it was only 60 minutes long so worth the risk given it fit the rest of my schedule for the night.

Instead of my best case – entertaining – the show was sensational! And much of what impressed me was directly related to Tonya’s demonstration of incredible skills in active listening, spontaneity, trust building (with the audience and with her phone sex clients) and empathy without judgment.  The majority of the show was scripted, but one could readily extrapolate, from the snippets of calls that Tonya performed, just how attentively she was listening to each client and continuously checking her understanding of their interests.  That she was so explicitly concerned with finding empathy without judgment with each caller resonated with me: as mediators we all occasionally struggle with a tendency to judge a party’s approach to negotiation, their behaviour leading up to the conflict or within the conflict, or even their objectives for resolution. Tonya demonstrated an empathy that many conflict resolution professionals must work to achieve.

The show also contained a truly brilliant snippet of improvised monologue based upon audience suggestions for a “weird” desire.  In that segment, of course, we witnessed Tonya’s amazing skills in spontaneity, listening and awareness of audience cues, “accepting offers” (in the sense of “yes, and-ing…” ideas and contributions from others in order to build on their ideas rather than rebut them), and storytelling.  I’d hire Tonya as a mediator based purely on that performance!

If you have an opportunity to see the show – or anything else she creates – you should! And then let me know: I really need someone else with a conflict resolution lens to discuss the show with!

2. A Simple Space

This production by the Australian acrobatics ensemble Gravity and Other Myths inspired me to think about conflict resolution themes in entirely different ways.  The troupe of 7 highly skilled acrobats mix games in which they compete against each other to “win” such challenges as most standing back flips in a row with incredibly challenging “team competitions” in which they carry out incredible acrobatic feats that rely on perfect collaboration amongst all members of the troupe to keep everyone safe and in which they all “win” if they pull it off (even if one or another member might have a “starring role” from time to time).

As a whole, the show is a brilliant display of teamwork at its best and most functional, and ways in which competition can be enervating and push teams working together to higher levels of achievement.  Check out the video below for a flavour of their performance – then imagine yourself seated right on stage as they perform only a few feet away!

3. Cock by Mike Bartlett

Cock_video-01-500x155cockfightCock won an Outstanding Achievement Award in the 2010 Oliviers, so there will certainly be opportunities to see it performed by different companies in different cities.  On a simple, structural level, the play showcases interpersonal and relational conflicts in a rapidly changing series of short scenes.  John is torn between a return to a long term relationship with his boyfriend, M, and a new relationship with a woman, W. Staged without props in a circle intended to evoke a cock fighting ring, the play shows moves from one confrontation between characters to another: first John and M engage in a series of difficult conversations, then John and W circle each other in similar discontent.  Eventually we see the combination of John, M and W, only to have John’s father, F, added to the mix.  The production staged by Rumble Theatre in Vancouver maintained the sense of short engagements in a longer (cock) fight as the characters pick at each other in familiar patterns of verbal conflict.  Each scene offers examples of all the ways that speech and body language can exacerbate conflict.  John’s personal conflict drives the play, but the interactions of the characters in snippets of negative discussions offers the conflict resolution professional a complete study in conflict behaviours.

4. Nirbhaya

nirbhaya_1Nirbhaya is a powerful interweaving of women’s stories of sexual violence and abuse. The stories are woven around the central tale of Nirbhaya who died following a horrific gang-rape on a Delhi bus in 2012. (The name Nirbhaya, meaning “fearless”, was used to identify Jhoti Singh Pandey before her name was known.)  The stories invite the audience to acknowledge the existence of sexual oppression and abuse, and the consequences – to individuals, families, and societies – of the resilience of such cultures. The topic of culture in conflict studies is an extraordinarily broad one: plays like Nirbhaya help us to engage in discussions of such difficult and complex topic through the lens of individual narratives, opening up discussions and increasing understanding.

Honourable mentions?

If you are looking for plays that lend themselves to a conflict resolution discussion, then I’d also recommend:

  • The New Conformity – a narrative about social and peer pressures to conform performed entirely through juggling.
  • Small Town Hoser Spic – Pedro Chamale’s one-man contemplation on growing up Hispanic in a small town in northern BC.
  • 52 Pick-Up – This story of a couple’s first meeting through dissolution of their relationship is told in the order in which 52 playing cards are picked up by the actors. Never the same, every performance offers new insights and connections.

And What to Watch for this Year?

I’ve made a few theatre-going choices for early 2016 with the intention of seeking out conflict resolution themes.  If you’re interested in joining me in the endeavour, consider checking out:

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December 6, 2012

10 Great Books for Mediators

“Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.” –  Sir Richard Steele

In the spirit of year end “Best of” lists and gift ideas, I’ve decided to pull together a list of 10 great books for mediators.  This is not a list of books from this year only, nor really a “best of” list – 10 is way too small a number for that!  It’s a subjective list of books that I’ve read for the first time – or have returned to – this year, and that I’d recommend to other mediators to jolt their mediation practice.  The holidays offer the perfect time to read a book you might not normally have time for and consider some new ideas for your mediation practice.  Many of these books are available through CoRe’s  aStore: purchases made through the aStore have the added advantage of supporting CoRe Clinic.

In no particular order, then, 10 Great Books for Mediators:

Mediators Handbook1. The Mediator’s Handbook, 4th edition – Jennifer E. Beer and Caroline C. Packard with Eileen Stief

The revised and expanded fourth edition of this mediation primer was released this fall and it’s well worth a look.  This text is practical, readable, and a great tool for new and experienced mediators.  If you have an older copy, the update is worth the price.

Dancing2. Dancing with a Ghost: Exploring Aboriginal Reality – Rupert Ross

Crown Attorney Rupert Ross discusses his own attempts to understand and learn from traditional Native teachings.  Particularly in conjunction with his second book – Returning to the Teachings – this work offers an accessible and mind-opening perspective on the relationship between indigenous people and the Canadian justice system.  Read this book as a jolt to dominant culture worldview.

250px-Clickclackmoo3. Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type – Doreen Cronin, illustrated by Betsy Lewin

Yes, it’s a children’s book, but I always liked it more than my children did.  It’s a labour mediation between the cows and Farmer Brown, with Duck in the role of mediator!  A great introduction to negotiating for children, and a fun read for adults.  There’s a reason that it was a Caldecott Honor Book.

eao-cover4. Everything’s an Offer: How to do more with less – Robert Poynton, illustrated by Gary Hirsch

This is one of the best books I’ve ever found on applied improvisation.  While the book is written with application to business, its cross-over value for mediators and conflict resolution professionals is obvious when you see that the bulk of the book is made up of “Let Go, Notice More, Use Everything – A Fundamental Grammar of Relationships and Communication”, “Shaping Stories”, and “Improvisation and the Joy of Uncertainty”.  I recommend it highly as an introduction to applied improvisation and a jolt to remind us not to “block” possibilities in negotiation through sheer habit and inattention.

post-its5. Rapid Problem-Solving with Post-it® Notes – David Straker

Definitely not a new book (published in 1997), but one I stumbled upon a few years ago and have found useful for commercial mediation work, in particular, simply because the techniques described have been adopted much more by the business world for strategic planning, brainstorming, etc. and are therefore familiar. The tools work well in large class settings for consensus building regarding selection of special topics for study, and can be applied to many training settings.  If you would like to add some easy visual and/or kinesthetic tools to your toolkit, check out this handy little book for inspiration.

cmc-cover-model-sm6.  Conflict Management Coaching: The Cinergy™ Model – Cinnie Noble

This one is a fairly new book, but one that many in the community have been enthusing over since its release.  Cinnie’s book is rightly touted as “thought-provoking”, “concise, comprehensive and informative” and an “outstanding contribution to the field of conflict management.”  Cinnie focuses here on coaching people on a one-on-one basis to improve their skills for engaging in interpersonal disputes, and the applicability to many mediation settings is obvious throughout.  I find the “synergy” amongst Cinnie’s reflective observations on coaching in workplace dispute, the more and more nuanced approaches being brought to bear in collaborative family practice by divorce coaches, and the increasing use of negotiation coaches/strategists in international business contexts inspiring.

DifinitiveCreativeImpasset-web7. Definitive Creative Impasse-Breaking Techniques in Mediation – ed. Molly Klapper, J.D., Ph.D.

While I would dispute the use of “creative” in the title of this New York State Bar Association 2011 publication, this is a handy reference for the new mediator learning and practicing impasse-breaking skills.  The primary focus is on a very specific style of court-based or “legal” mediation, and emphasizes the mediator’s role in assisting parties to evaluate their case as part of a primarily distributive bargaining process.  Within that sphere, the book offers a useful summary of such commonly discussed topics as using the lawyer as impasse breaker, helping parties to value a case, how to respond to “insulting” first offers, and dealing with the predictable pitfalls of positional bargaining.

Cover-burgundy8. Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up – Patricia Ryan Madson

Yes, it’s another improv book, but it’s also a particularly inspired and inspiring book on mindfulness and presence.  So broadly applicable is the message that the book was a recommendation of Wiser Now: The Alzheimers Disease Caregiver Tips newsletter.  As the author of that review writes, “Improv wisdom is about taking what life has given us and delighting in it to the fullest by connecting with the people who share our space on earth.”  That tells you just why I think this is a wonderful gift book: it offers the lifelong gift of delight.

5100021_big9. Psychology for Lawyers: Understanding the Human Factors in Negotiation, Litigation, and Decision Making – Jennifer K. Robbennolt and Jean R. Sternlight

Another new book for the list, Psychology for Lawyers turned out to offer one of the best readings on legal ethics I found for my Ethics and Professional Responsibility class this term – a chapter on Ethics that makes psychological sense of the question of how one finds oneself in an ethical problem in the first place and why we all tend to dig ourselves in deeper.  The book provides a great overview of current research into perceiving, memory, emotion, judgment shortcuts, decision-making, persuasion and interpersonal communication and has a full chapter applying these studies to negotiation and mediation.  If you are looking for a great resource on psychology, I’d suggest checking it out.

book_collab_thumb10. The Collaborative Habit: Life Lessons for Working Together – Twyla Tharp

You may have come across Twyla Tharp’s book, The Creative Habit?  The Collaborative Habit is billed as its sequel, but works well as a stand alone book on the power of collaboration. Drawing on stories from the world of dance, the author offers examples of the process of collaboration, its strengths and challenges.  Full of insights, the fact that the book is grounded in a different world (dance rather than mediation) is one of the reasons it connects so effectively: the resonances of shared experiences despite the difference in setting inspires self-reflection without the oft didactic feel of books that are about our own world.

December 3, 2012

Mediation “Bots”

“This Listening Bot has been programmed to listen unconditionally.”

My Listening Bot in the Surrey Provincial Court Mediation Room

If you happened to attend the mediators’ session at Mediate BC’s Child Protection Mediation Conference “Moving Toward Meaningful Engagement” last February, you already know that I discovered my new favourite mediation tool a little over a year ago.  My co-presenters, Julie Daum and Joyce Bradley, QC were characteristically patient and understanding about my growing excitement over Mediation “Bots” and my desire to proselytize their use in any and all mediation contexts.  Of course, the audience was limited to child protection mediators at that session and so there is still a world of mediators who may not have been introduced to Gary Hirsch’s wonderful “Bots” as handy tools for mediation.

Let’s start with what a “Bot” is: Gary’s Bots are tiny, handpainted robots – pieces of art painted on dominoes.  Each one is an individual, but there are categories of Bots that address different needs and “help” with specific functions.  For example, the Joy Bot “has been programmed to Create Instant Joy”.  Each Bot is accompanied by instructions.  In the case of the Joy Bot, the operating instructions advise:

  1. Allow your robot to get to know you by letting him watch you at your desk, kitchen, cubicle, or wherever you spend the most amount of time.
  2. Wait till he notices something great about you (it won’t take long) and then listen while he showers you with compliments and accolades.
  3. Share him with your family/friends and create a domino effect: slowly raising the world’s self esteem.

IMG_0054My first Bots arrived during the summer of 2011 when I was taking a short leave from mediation.  As a result, I first tested my Brave Bot on a week-long driving trip with my 16-year old daughter.  My daughter was preparing for her “N” test, but was experiencing considerable doubt and fear.  One of her earliest driving experiences involved black ice, a steep hill and lots of oncoming traffic, and she had not been able to re-capture a sense of confidence despite many hours of safe driving since then.  I proposed a driving trip through whatever parts of BC she wanted to see in the course of a week and we set off on a mission to gain confidence through marathon driving sessions on scary mountain highways.  What helped her to kickstart this trip was a Brave Bot.  The Brave Bot sat on the dashboard throughout the trip, and accompanied us everywhere.  The trip was a success, and I was sold on the Brave Bot.

While our Bots are still used within the family for lots of personal reasons – like the Get Started Bot I’m using to get going on this blog post! – I now think of Bots primarily as part of my mediator’s tool kit.

Jolts for Mediation

I’m sure you can imagine lots of uses for Bots as jolts for mediators, so I’ll concentrate on the use of Bots with parties to a mediation.  In all circumstances, I’ve found that parties are remarkably receptive to Bots.  While it may seem most obvious to provide Brave Bots to children meeting with the mediator to work out ways to bring their voice to a mediation table – and they can definitely be great for that – adults, commercial parties, lawyers, and others have all been willing to play along with my Bots as I introduce them to shift a difficult atmosphere or create a space to try a different approach to communicating.

The following 8 Bots are my favourites for mediation and form a permanent part of my “Mediator’s Toolbox”, but I encourage you to explore others as well. We could all use a Bot for something.

Listening Bots Listening Bot

The Listening Bot’s instructions tell you that the Bot has been programmed to listen to you without interruption, but for mediations I don’t share these instructions with participants.  The Listening Bot box says enough – this Bot is for Listening, and for my purposes is programmed to model listening and to help parties listen carefully and without interrupting.  This is the one Bot that I own multiples of since there’s usually more than one person who needs to be listening, although I expect that it would be quite possible to utilize a single Listening Bot as the opposite of a talking stick (or perhaps in conjunction with one?).

Zen Bot

The Zen Bot is a wonderful mood setter.  When everyone needs a break to regroup, the Zen Bot takes up its position in the centre of the table.  Alternatively, the Zen Bot can certainly be shared with a single participant in a caucus to help find enough calm to rejoin a difficult conversation.

Yes Bot

The Yes Bot is a tricky creature to use in a mediation, but opens the door to discussions of the improviser’s understanding of “Yes, and…” as it applies to listening in conflict.  The Yes Bot is programmed to offer unconditional permission, which does not necessarily translate directly when working with parties in conflict.  The idea of accepting an offer in the improvisational sense, however, can be an interesting discussion in mediation that may lead to greater willingness to engage in problem solving.  If we “accept” what the other person is saying, and that they believe it – even when we have an entirely opposed view of the situation –  we create the potential for future-focused discussion and can move away from our tendency to listen only to rebut.

Given that a discussion of “Yes, and…” deserves a great deal more development than is possible within this post, I’ll simply flag the incredible usefulness of the Yes Bot, and promise a full blog post on Accepting Offers in the new year.

Brave Bot

The Brave Bot certainly offers the learning mediator support in being brave enough to ask difficult questions.  Mediating itself feels remarkably risky when you are gaining experience, and, of course, one’s growth as a mediator depends on one’s willingness to risk learning new skills and using them.  Within a mediation in which the Bots had been introduced, I’ve used the Brave Bot to tell a participant that I am finding it difficult to raise a challenging subject matter with them, but feel that we need to discuss it before we can continue.  The use of the Brave Bot in that instance was simply a means of being as transparent as possible about the difficult nature of the topic.  Brave Bots can certainly be provided to parties as well – likely in caucus – to encourage discussion or support participation in a difficult setting.  And Brave Bots can be a means to encourage and solicit the voice of the child in a mediation.

Time Bot

The Time Bot has helpfully been programmed to “Stop Time” which allows you to “erase the evidence of [a] mistake or repeat an amazing moment over and over again”.  I like the idea of a “do over” or “mulligan” that the Time Bot permits for mediators and parties alike.  I’ve often shared with learning mediators Tom Northcott‘s wonderful advice when he was mentoring in the Court Mediation Program that “there are no mistakes in mediation, just great recoveries”: the Time Bot offers a wonderful tool for this recovery!  “Let’s just wind that back and start again…”  Similarly, the chance to repeat great moments fits well with the mediator’s efforts to underline points of agreement when possible.

Decision Bot

The Decision Bot has been programmed to help one decide.  While not everyone will want or appreciate a point of focus for decision-making, once a few of the other Bots are out in a mediation, this one may just appeal to a person trying to balance possibilities.

Inspiration Bot

An impasse-breaking tool if there ever was one, the Inspiration Bot can facilitate brainstorming, inspire the generation of lots of ideas, and act as a pattern interrupt as the mediator asks parties to transition from a storytelling, past-focused discussion of what happened to a future-focused discussion of what can be done now.

Caffeine Bot

The Caffeine Bot offers everyone a boost when needed, and can act like an Inspiration Bot for tired folks who need to perk up!

 

 

October 10, 2012

“This too shall pass”

Jessie, Jeannie and Jean

“This too shall pass.” 

Common proverbial phrase repeated by my mother in her last days

Readers who know me personally will know that I have taken an extended break from writing CoRe Jolts as a result of “jolts” in my personal life.  The three most significant jolts were a severe concussion suffered in January 2011 (and continuing to impact my ability to read and write for several months following), the loss of my mother in late fall of 2011 and the more recent, and shockingly sudden, loss of my sister-in-law in late May.  The concussion had a serious impact on my concentration and focus, making writing extraordinarily difficult.  My mother’s passing had a different kind of effect: during several weeks of alternating hope and grief, anything I began to write seemed frivolous and unimportant.  The shock of my sister-in-law’s death by tragic accident only exacerbated that sense.  Perhaps in the face of such tragedy, a writing impasse is inevitable: whatever I write next seems to need to convey a suitable gravitas.  In other words, I am self-censoring everything against an impossible standard!

Michelle Taylor

Self-censoring occurs in so many other situations, of course.  If we think about our work as mediators, the learning mediator, worried about making “mistakes” and so taking much, much too long to say anything at all, may be the most obvious instance.  If you’re a more experienced mediator, you probably still remember those moments of thinking so hard about how to frame your question so that it is open-ended or reframe neutrally that you momentarily lose focus on what the parties are saying.  That feeling of needing to get it right is remarkably similar to the panic many people report in playing improvisational theatre games for the first time – self-censoring because the first idea that pops into your head isn’t funny enough or clever or …  I remember having the oddest moment of freezing like this in a high school drama class when it came my turn to repeat a series of noises that had been strung together by students ahead of me in line and then add my own sound effect.  Who would think you could actually get so caught up in judging your own sound effect that you would freeze?  But I did!  Realistically, I probably took a half second past the beat to add my completely uninspired noise, but it felt impossible to simply make a choice and get on with it.  I’m not sure what it might mean that I still remember that moment all these years later, except that it was a surprisingly powerful moment of self-censorship and judgment.

Happily, I have learned a few techniques for breaking out of this type of impasse over the years.  I need to – I help law students to move past self-censoring as learning mediators every year in my Mediation Clinic.   In that context, the difficulty of using unpracticed communication skills like acknowledgement of emotion, reframing, etc. creates similar impasses for some students every year.  On some level, it comes down to not wanting to “get it wrong” and consequently doing nothing!  Worrying that my blogging will somehow be too frivolous has remarkably similar results to worrying about a blunder in a mediation role play or in a real mediation – both result in a self-induced “operator” impasse.  This post then is itself an effort at impasse breaking, and focuses on breaking through the self-censoring impasses that can afflict mediators themselves.  And, of course, the same considerations may well apply to parties to a mediation who don’t want to “get it wrong” any more than the mediator does.

Jolts for Mediators or Mediation

1.  The impossible deadline

DockTimer

One of the most common techniques in applied improv work is setting an impossible deadline.  Kat Koppett captures the reasons that setting an impossible deadline is so effective in encouraging creativity in her instructions for the game “Spontaneous Marketing” (See Kat Koppett’s book at the CoRe aStore.):

“Enforcing shortish time limits helps the creative process.  If people feel that they did not have enough time, that does two things: gives them an excuse to not be brilliant, and honours their spontaneous responses without over-evaluating.”

As mediators, we certainly all focus on trying to create a non-evaluative space for brainstorming, but we usually try to do so by allowing generous time to develop our thoughts and contribute ideas.  Instead, try asking for a minimum of 2 ideas from each party in 30 seconds!  And tell the parties that you know it’s impossible to be brilliant in that time: that’s precisely why you’re asking them to try it – to eliminate over-thinking.

And we can train ourselves for greater spontaneity by engaging in many of the same warm-up games as improv performers use.  I’ve written before about variations on “Word Drill”.  You can find instructions for many similarly simple and easily adapted games online.  See for example, the Improv Encyclopedia.

And yes, I’m creating an impossible deadline for myself in getting this blog drafted: I’ve downloaded a new timer app (DockTimer) to my desktop that I’m using to kickstart all of my short writing projects.  13:42 left before this is ready to post!  After all, I can always edit later – just as parties can work with their rapidly generated ideas to develop something more polished.  What is most important in cases of severe impasse is simply getting started.

2. Forced accountability

One of my creative heroes adds an extra layer to the forced deadline that has clear applications for impasse breaking: Jane Espenson, an amazingly prolific writer for shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Galactica and most recently, Husbands, was the first to bring the notion of a “writing sprint” to my attention, although it seems that they are a fairly common practice.

In essence, a writing sprint is a focused and discrete block of writing time that is announced to the world (often via Twitter #writingsprint), and serves as an invitation to others to join in.  While the online version has no magic checks on what you really do during your announced sprint, the announcement serves to produce a degree of accountability.

Within the workplace context, groups undertake writing sprints to develop ideas, launch projects and prepare for discussions.  The in-person writing sprint adds greater accountability and can serve as the basis for impasse breaking in a wide variety of settings.  Consider assigning a writing sprint, in combination with a very short deadline, in a mediation setting by asking individuals to create lists of criteria for resolution, negative criteria (what can’t be part of a solution is a useful tool for developing a list of interests), or simply agenda items to discuss if things are bogged down at a very early point.

3. The Obituary as Conflict Resolution Tool

In May of last year, I wrote about Gordon White‘s work in applying adult development theory to impasse breaking.  Amongst Gordon’s many suggestions for working with stubborn impasses is this jolting question to help move parties out of the rut of a focus on minutiae into a recollection of bigger picture considerations:

“What do you want people to say about your life at your funeral?”

Now that is an enormous question that could be crippling in my current state: it could easily exacerbate my self-censoring need to be profound rather than frivolous.  But let it roll around for a bit; don’t try to answer it too quickly.  With a bit of time and reflection, it becomes something quite different – a reminder that there are much more important things in life than the current conflict/impasse/etc.  In fact, it can jolt one to think about what’s really important, or it can jolt one to recognize that the immediate problem is not so overwhelming.  Either way, thinking of the bigger picture is a great way to step back from a mess of crippling detail.

Drawing on the notion of a writing sprint, in the right mediation context, parties might be asked to make a list of qualities they hope will be remembered in their obituary.  Use that list to examine or develop an approach to resolving the immediate problem – especially where there might be common values amongst parties.  For example, a person who wants to be remembered for “kindness” may embrace a conflict resolution approach within the mediation that explicitly engages in “kindness”.  That might include ground rules about specific forms of respectful listening and valuing of others’ opinions, before critiquing them.  Someone who takes pride in “efficiency” might be frustrated by the initial discussion of values, but may well be won over by the possibilities for quicker and more efficient negotiations once the process is tailored to best suit the parties.

4. Death quotes for reflection 

For the mediator seeking personal impasse breaking, an alternative approach to the big picture reflection of imagining one’s own obituary might be reflection on one of the many surprisingly inspirational quotes about death.  In a 10 minute (DockTimer-ed) online search for death quotes, I found dozens that could serve as a starting point for asking oneself “What is truly important?”  Some, such as Paul Tsongas’ oft-repeated comment “No one on his deathbed ever said, ‘I wish I had spent more time on my business,’” directly raise the question.  Others are less direct and may provoke reflection because they don’t mesh with one’s own values.  For example, Errol Flynn is credited with saying, “Any man who has $10,000 left when he dies is a failure.” One might well argue that point, but to do so is to reflect on one’s own sense of what is important.

Here are three more quotes that struck me as possible starting points for reflection – each for different reasons:

No one can confidently say that he will still be living tomorrow.  Euripides

Do not fear death so much, but rather the inadequate life.  Bertolt Brecht, The Mother

A man who won’t die for something is not fit to live.  Martin Luther King, Jr.

What quotes or other reflection devices help you to jolt yourself into a creative, or simply active, state of mind?

January 10, 2011

Spontaneity

“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)

Set-up:

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.

Variations:

  • 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.

Debrief:

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.
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