Archive for ‘Pattern Interrupts’

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 31, 2012

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: http://www.spirithalloween.com/adults_costume-ideas_witch-and-warlock-costume-ideas/

Cards: http://www.ehow.com/how_2074290_perform-teleporting-card-trick.html

Bendy chicken bone: http://www.wikihow.com/Do-the-Tie-a-Chicken-Bone-in-a-Knot-Magic-Trick

August 9, 2011

Banana writing for mediation?

“I think cheese smells funny, but I think bananas ‘are’ funny.” – Joe Murray

If there was ever a tool designed to promote combinational creativity, it has to be the internet.  And social media makes it so much easier to “stumbleupon” wonderful ideas from entirely unrelated fields that – with a little bit of “yes, and-ing” – can provide a nice jolt of new thinking to one’s mediation practice.  This post was inspired by a friend’s facebook status – just one part of a long, and growing, chain of online sharings and re-interpretations that led me to consider how an idea for making one’s children feel loved at lunchtime could be utilized to good effect in a mediation (or in a strategic planning meeting, board meeting, etc.)

Thanks to Pinterest.com, a not-so-recent blog post in Cute Food For Kids has been making the rounds.  Back in October, Vancouver mom and blogger Tiffany 楊茜茹 showed “How to Draw on a Banana.”  Thanks to the amazing connectedness of everything on the internet, Tiffany’s blog for a very specific audience was picked up first by the slightly more broadly aimed Come Together Kids craft blog, and from there by the much more mainstream and widely read The Bloggess.  And suddenly banana writing is everywhere!  And hence the inspiration to consider its application to mediation.

Banana writing is simple: take a banana, lightly scratch your words (or a picture) onto it with a toothpick or similar sharp object, and allow the letters to darken.  Over the course of an hour or two (depending on the initial ripeness of the banana), the letters will become more and more visible.  You can cover bananas in a fruit bowl so that the words emerge suddenly, or leave them out on the table to see who spots the emerging words first.  Or write only on the underneath layer of a bunch of bananas, so that the words are seen only as time goes on and bananas are consumed.  However the writing appears, it’s a quick pattern interrupt!  and a chance to refocus a discussion on problem solving.

Jolts for Mediation

I imagine a variety of approaches to banana writing in mediations.  Here are a few ideas for how and where to introduce a little banana jolt.

1. The evaluative mediation

The commercial mediation has been dragging on all morning, and it’s clear that parties will be taking a quick working lunch together at the table.  As a mediator who is comfortable evaluating but has a preference for solutions arising from the parties themselves, you take a quick break to come up with a number of possible approaches to resolution and to jot them on the bananas that will sit on the table as dessert.

I’ve commented in many presentations over the years that my preference in making suggestions about solutions is to make at least 3:  it always promotes discussion and brainstorming, whereas a single suggestion tends to limit creativity, and too often polarizes parties further.  So how about three or more ideas on the bananas?  I won’t try to generate ideas for a specific case here, but some ideas that might be used in almost any situation are:

Rock, paper, scissors?

Settlement value = (damages X probability of liability X likelihood receiving full damages) – cost of proceeding”  coupled with a banana that reads: “Do the math.”

Donate the disputed amount to charity?

What is the value of finality?

2. Peace songs

Keeping with the triggering notion of idea generation through social media, it so happens that another facebook friend chose to post a series of links to music that have been formative for her musically and ideologically.  Given that she was born in the early 60s, it will not be too surprising that she has posted a number of peace songs.

So, you’re mediating a family dispute between baby boomers; maybe your bananas have some catchy 60s and 70s folk song lyrics on them?  The parties both are infected by “ear worms” that keep lyrics like  “Imagine all the people, living life in peace…” or “A time for love, a time for hate.  A time for peace, I swear it’s not too late” running through everyone’s head as they discuss parenting plans.

Of course, music can be very generational, and tastes vary considerably.  My favourite artists all have great advice about negotiation in their lyrics, but my personal mission to expand the fan bases of Todd Snider and Marian Call might be more effectively accomplished by playing the music than by including their lyrics on bananas.  In other words, you do need to think about your audience – as always.

(That said, here’s a link to one of my favourite songs about power in negotiations.)

3. Conflict resolution quotes

The idea of having conflict resolution quotes visible during a mediation, perhaps only as a subliminal message on the pens or notepaper that the mediator hands out, becomes much more overt when the quote appears mysteriously on food!  Check out John Ford’s Conflict Management Quotes as a great place to start the search for ideas.  I liked the Lily Tomlin quote below.  It requires a bit of thinking, and might just lead to conversation; especially if you’re as unpracticed in your banana writing as I am, and you need to help with the reading.

“Forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past.”

4. Pattern interrupts

And let us not forget that banana writing might simply be funny.  The Bloggess speculates on the best phrases to carve into supermarket bananas to startle unsuspecting shoppers.  While I don’t see myself writing “Act natural.  You’ll be contacted soon.” on a mediation banana, I can imagine quite a few things that would strike me as funny if I were a party, and would help me to break out of a pattern of frustrating deadlocks.  What about a quote from television mediator Kate Reed of Fairly Legal?

Coffee, muffins, [bananas], anything that might make grumpy men feel warm and fuzzy inside.

Or a horrible flashback to the old knock, knock joke:

Orange you glad I brought bananas?

Or the punny:

I a-peel to your sense of ________  [Fill in the blank with appropriate sentiment. e.g. compassion, fairness, etc.]

And I’m sure there’s a great banana split joke to be made!

Do add your own ideas as comments below!

April 26, 2011

Taking the “Cake” Challenge in Combinational Creativity

“I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells.” – Theodor Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss)

After more than two months absent from this blog – and from virtually everything else that requires a reasonable degree of concentration  –  I am finally feeling clear enough of the symptoms of concussion to develop and post some new ideas.  Definitely time to “wake up the brain cells”!  And so I’ve chosen to give myself a nonsense challenge in combinational creativity: take the word “cake” and use it a launching point for five “jolts” that could be used in a mediation.  Before I get there, however, a little background on what I mean by combinational creativity…

Compotier avec fruits, violon et verre (Picasso)

Compotier avec fruits, violon et verre (Picasso)

Dr. Margaret A. Boden, OBE, is a Research Professor of Cognitive Sciences who has published many fascinating papers on topics in artificial intelligence and creativity.  She identifies three ways in which humans generate creative ideas – ideas that are “new, surprising, and valuable”.  Most relevant to this blog entry, we create through combinational creativity – the generation of unfamiliar (and interesting) combinations of familiar ideas.  (Boden also studies exploratory and transformative creativity, both of which I will look at in future postings.)  Combinational creativity surprises us by connecting things and ideas that are not normally linked.  Collages, Bizarro cartoons, and metaphors are all examples of combinational creativity.  Each combines things in ways that are unexpected, creating thought-provoking, humourous, and surprising results.

Creativity trainers encourage the use of combinational creativity to stimulate new ideas for businesses or new perspectives for problem solving.  For example, the exercise that is sometimes known as Random Input, asks participants to use combinational creativity to break through roadblocks in their thinking.  (And yes, Random Input is one of the 5 Jolts!  It’s the process I’m using to write the blog, after all.)  In this technique, you select a random word or image as a starting point for brainstorming.  Open the dictionary, newspaper or novel at a random page, and choose a word that is unrelated to your topic.  Concrete nouns work especially well.  It happens that I started out my Random Input exercise with an image that caught my eye – a cake!  You can see why it screamed creativity to me in the second jolt below.

“Cake” Jolts for Mediation and Mediators

1. Random Input

I’ve described the basic concept of Random Input above, and I’m sure that you can imagine lots of ways that it can be used in a mediation, even if it is more commonly used as a brainstorming tool for teams.  Consider, in particular, how you might use it as a “deal mediator” – someone who is acting as a mediator in the development of a business transaction or the development of an estate plan, etc.  Random Input can be fun, stimulating and a great team building exercise for groups that are not trying to resolve a problem, but instead trying to develop the best possible deal.

A few resources for Random Input:

  • MindTools – A useful educational website with lots of brainstorming ideas.
  • Roger von Oech’s Innovative Whack Pack – Small Claims Mediators have seen my Pack at an Impasse Breaking workshop in 2009.  Von Oech has created a deck of cards with different creativity strategies on each.  Instead of choosing a word, choose a strategy and try to apply it.  And he now has a Creative Whack Pack iPhone app.

  • Tarot cards – Books, magazines, newspapers …  Anything can be used to find a random word, of course.  But images are fun too, and can lead to even wider interpretations.  Tarot cards are a handy size to carry, and the 22 cards of the Major Arcana can be especially evocative.
  • And, it’s easy to create your own Random Input toolkit.  A bag of miscellaneous objects, a collection of photos from magazines, or a simple word list – all will work to inject a new and random element into the group’s brainstorming work.

2. Battlestar Galactica Cakes

This was the image that caught my eye and made me think – CAKE! – as the trigger word for my contemplations.  It’s a glorious example of combinational creativity, of course – while the combination of baking and popular culture is growing these days, it is still surprising when one stumbles upon such a fabulous example.  This one comes from Kandy Cakes in Cambridge, Ontario, but I spotted it on the fascinating blog Between the Pages: Where pop culture and food meet.

I’m naturally thinking about what kind of cake I’d bake for impasse breaking purposes?  Anything this intricate would be a jolt, but I am decidedly not so skilled with the icing application as this, so would have to be more creative about type of cake instead.  Here’s my top 5 list:

a) Flourless chocolate cake and b) wacky cake:  Both of these cakes offer the opportunity to discuss creativity.  Flourless chocolate cake works as a metaphor for problem-solving – you really don’t have to include all the same ingredients in every cake, and there may be excellent reasons to leave some out (the guest with wheat allergy might stand in for the party with any number of interests that run counter to a “standard” way of resolving a problem).  Wacky cake, aside from having a great name, is a different variation on the non-standard ingredients idea – in this case, the cake is made with ingredients one doesn’t expect in a cake: no eggs, but there is vinegar!

c) Devil’s food cake – clearly the food for the devil’s advocate.

d) Marble cake – All of the flavours manage to work together, even if they never really blend.

e) Upside-down cake – Why don’t we look at this in an entirely different way?  (Maybe an accompaniment to a session of reverse brainstorming?)

3. You Cut, I Choose

Wikipedia calls “You cut, I choose” a “two-party proportional envy-free allocation protocol” which is quite representative of the considerable scholarly literature on the concept of fair division of a limited resource that starts with a discussion of the classic sibling rivalry over the last piece of cake.  (Between the innumerable articles on cake cutting and the ubiquitous DR references to expanding the pie, it may be time to question the eating habits of DR scholars.)  Here are just a few resources on the eternal question, all of which are specifically focussed on the topic of impasse breaking.

I haven’t read Robertson and Webb’s book Cake Cutting Algorithms, but the publisher writes that “[t]his book gathers into one readable and inclusive source a comprehensive discussion of the state of the art in cake-cutting problems for both the novice and the professional. It offers a complete treatment of all cake-cutting algorithms under all the considered definitions of “fair” and presents them in a coherent, reader-friendly manner. Robertson and Webb have brought this elegant problem to life for both the bright high school student and the professional researcher.”  Given how complicated the math is in some of the texts I’ve looked at, I may just check out a book that can be read by bright high school students!

I have read Brams’ and Taylor’s Fair Division: From cake-cutting to dispute resolution and would recommend it only to readers who are comfortable with math.  That said, the basic premise of most of the chapters is simply described at the beginning and is itself a reasonable talking point for discussing fair division options.  The book itself might be a good “prop” in specific business negotiations, much the way von Oeck’s list of creativity strategies works by asking parties to think about using a specific technique.  Thinking about why or why not the technique might work refocuses parties on criteria for settlement rather than specific points of dispute.

Both of these books are available through CoRe’s aStore.

The Cake Cutting Problem on mathematics-in-europe.eu – a short and sweet overview of the fair division problem.

4. Cake – the Band

I’m planning to write a post on music in dispute resolution at a later date, so I’m just going to touch on the most obvious points about Cake:

  • The band combines multiple musical genres to create its unique sound (ska, rockabilly, jazz, country, rap…) and so could be viewed as the musical equivalent of marble cake as a metaphor for conflict resolution.
  • Any musical interlude has the potential to act as a pattern interrupt, of course, but the music video for The Distance is itself a wonderful example of combinational creativity!  And it even has a business theme going on.

5. Make Mine Chocolate

This one is simple chemistry: caffeine and serotonin are the most commonly identified sources of chocolate’s mood altering chemistry.  Caffeine, of course, increases mental activity (and wakefulness in a long drawn-out discussion); and serotonin is described as having a similar effect to Prozac – calming and relaxing.  Make your afternoon snack chocolate cake in one form or another  for a relaxed, but wakeful discussion.


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 …

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