Posts tagged ‘Gordon White’

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


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?

May 14, 2011

Adult development theory applied to impasse breaking

“Conflict is a fortunate threat to the integrity of the self.” – Gordon White

On April 29th and 30th, I attended the Northwest ADR Conference at the University of Seattle.  This annual two-day conference always offers an array of thought-provoking presentations.  Often I come away intrigued by the cultural differences in mediation styles between neighbouring jurisdictions, and grappling with ways to apply ideas that work in a different mediation context to my own practice.  Working in an explicitly  interest-based context (which I do in Small Claims Court mediations, for instance), which parts of an evaluative mediator’s lecture on impasse breaking techniques, have potential for rethinking my approach?  Trying to think through how to make a square peg fit in a round hole can be a very helpful process for bringing about new ideas.

Gordon White

This time, however, I travelled to Seattle to be most inspired by a workshop presented by a BC mediator – Gordon White – and it is Gordon’s work-in-progress on breaking stubborn impasses by explicit application of adult development theory that I would like to highlight here as a an innovative and thought-provoking approach to thinking about impasse breaking.

In brief, Gordon described the evolution of his own thinking on stubborn impasses and the connection between his personal experiences and ruminations with the seminal academic work on adult development by Robert Kegan, the William and Miriam Meehan Professor in Adult Development and Professional Development at Harvard University.  I plan to read Kegan’s book, The Evolving Self, as Gordon has convinced me that there is value for mediators in working through this academic text, but for purposes of this blog, I’m focusing on Gordon’s own theories.

Gordon’s starting point is a belief that people develop their selves over the course of their lives, some more slowly than others.  No matter how far along one is in this development, conflict can be conceptualized as a threat to self and the self may respond by reflexively defending its current state.  At the same time, conflict is a growth opportunity that may or may not be taken.  Within this frame, Gordon suggests that “the mediator can assist the self to crack open a door and see or discover a new avenue of development and expression.”

Gordon identifies four avenues of development that provide the mediator with alternative paths of inquiry when negotiations become stuck.  I’ll describe  these in more detail below in connection with a discussion of how a mediator’s choice to focus on each avenue might lead to “jolt”, but in brief they are:

  • Acquisition – sense of an abundant universe or not
  • Directionality – sense of direction
  • Worldview – the beliefs and values through which we interpret and interact with all aspects of reality
  • Identity – how we view ourselves

(NB – The glib naming of these “avenues” below as “jolts” is mine, and is meant purely as a mnemonic aid – not as a trivialization of Gordon’s theory.)

It is important to note that Gordon suggests these alternative paths as options in addition to the normal range of mediator skills, not as the starting point for mediations.  These are approaches to try after one has already tried all of the standard interest-based mediation approaches yet parties remain stuck.  Similarly, the majority of the ideas that he generates for questions that explore development are by their very nature questions that would be confined to private meetings with a party.  So Gordon’s developing model is intended to expand the mediator’s options once they have exhausted other more common tools.

Jolts for Mediation

1. Acquisition (or the “Red Truck Jolt”)

Most mediators can quickly bring to mind a situation in which one party was stuck in the belief that s/he needed something and was so focused on getting it from the other party that s/he could not even begin to think about alternative ways to achieve the same goal.  A story that Kathleen Kelly told me many years ago comes immediately to mind for me as an example of this kind of impasse, and I offer a short version of it here with apologies to Kathleen for any garbling that has occurred over the years.  In essence, Kathleen described a situation in which a plaintiff seemed inordinately fixed on a specific dollar figure.  After a great deal of probing, it emerged that the plaintiff had already spent the settlement money in his dreams – he had picked out a red truck that he would buy with the settlement proceeds.  So naturally, he was unable to entertain any settlement that didn’t cover the cost of the red truck!  And he was definitely not thinking about any other ways he might acquire the truck, such as contributing some portion himself.  The truck had nothing to do with the issue in dispute, but the plaintiff had connected the idea of settlement and a red truck so closely in his mind that he no longer saw them separately: he could only get a red truck if he got at least $X in the settlement.

Similarly, many wrongful dismissal claims have an acquisition aspect to them: the plaintiff may not be focused on financial issues, but on receiving some form of recognition or acknowledgment for good work over the years.  The nature of such disputes can cause a plaintiff to lose sight of all the other people who might provide that recognition and to insist upon receiving it from the defendant.

In both of these examples, one party is stuck because they are so hung up on what they expected to receive from the other party that they can no longer value alternative suggestions.  Gordon suggests that we think about asking questions that go directly to a party’s sense of dependence on a set outcome and that open up the possibility of self-sufficiency.  In terms of adult development, such questions follow the path of development from a dependent and isolated self to one of greater awareness of one’s own abilities.

e.g.  from Gordon:

“You are wanting X from him.  What are the ways in which anyone might acquire such a thing?”

In the red truck scenario, perhaps one could ask “If you were to leave here with $Y (or some creative non-monetary settlement), how else could you find the remaining funds to purchase your red truck?”

2. Directionality (The “Six Feet Under Jolt”)

Gordon notes that “conflict tends to distract disputants from their important intentions.”  In the context of a stubborn impasse, questions that help a party to think about those intentions or to contemplate bigger picture plans may help parties become unstuck on the smaller details.  Family mediators, for example, will have come across the person who is afraid of the great uncertainty facing them on separation and avoids thinking about that uncertainty by focusing on the minutiae of their conflict.  An ex-spouse might insist on repeating over and over what their former partner did wrong or failed to do and be unable to move into a future-focused discussion because of a lack of conscious directionality.  

Gordon offered us several possible questions to consider using in such circumstances, and I am repeating them all here (with his permission) because they each helped me to think of several more questions that might have a similar impact in the right context.  They could be risky questions to ask, and will sound to some like therapeutic questions, but the intention is not to engage in a counselling discussion, but rather to dislodge the blocked thinking that prevents a party from looking forward.  Each question is clearly a “jolt” to a person focused on rationalizing their own perspective on the underlying conflict.

Six Feet Under“What matters most to you?  What do you want people to say about your life at your funeral?”

“What are the most important directions you are taking in your life at this time?  How come that matters to you?  How much clarity do you have?”

“What tiny doubts or uneasiness might you be having about your direction?”

“What are your current life concerns and what are you doing to address them?”

3.  Worldview (The “Fraser Crane Jolt”)

We all have deeply held beliefs – frequently unconscious – that impact our decision-making in conflict.  These “worldview” beliefs often present as black & white thinking – I’m 100% right, so he’s 100% wrong.  When we are locked into unconscious, mechanistic thought patterns, we can’t imagine more complex worldviews and miss out on opportunities for creativity.

This type of thinking permeates all kinds of disputes, but an easily recognizable example of worldview “blindness” is television’s Dr. Frasier Crane.  Over the course of many seasons, Frasier’s constant disputes with friends, family members, and strangers arise from his stubborn refusal to examine his worldviews.  He engages in every dispute, no matter how small, from a “principled” perspective: in other words, “it’s the principle!” and he will go to extraordinary lengths to maintain his view of that principle.

If you watched Frasier, then you’ll recognize the dispute he has with a parking lot attendant in “Enemy at the Gate” (10:2) as typical.  In that episode, Frasier is driving his brother, Niles, on an errand.  As he pulls into the parkade, Frasier realizes that his dashboard clock is wrong and he has to rush to get to work, so he drives directly to the parkade exit and tells the attendant that he didn’t park – check the time stamp.  The attendant demands $2 anyway as the price of any portion of 20 minutes.  Frasier, of course, refuses to pay.  The dispute escalates as Frasier decides to pay $2, but then sit and block the exit for 20 minutes so he gets full value.  He truly expects the drivers lined up behind him to support him in his protest and lectures them on the importance of standing up for principle.  In the meantime, Frasier’s brother tries repeatedly to pay for him or to convince him that he’s made his point and should move on – it’s just not that important a principle.  Frasier, of course, is locked in a worldview where the parking lot attendant’s actions are unjust, rather than limited by his lack of power and authority.  Frasier can’t see beyond his own black and white view of the dispute, and won’t/can’t entertain any alternative viewpoints.  His brother sees the world in more complex terms and places value on both harmony and efficiency, but Frasier can’t imagine other worldviews having validity.  Eventually, Frasier goes to pay his $2 and exit at the end of his 20 minute blockade, but is so overwhelmed by the need to lecture the parking attendant on the “rightness” of his stand, that he overstays the 20 minutes: the parking lot attendant tells him to pay $4 now since he took so much time with his speech.

Frasier’s dispute is trivial, but so very many disputes we see  are based on a similar rigidity of worldview that requires a plaintiff to pursue “justice”, no matter how disproportionate the cost of its pursuit with the potential result.  Small Claims disputes may look the most like Frasier’s dispute, but many larger commercial disputes are driven by the same “principles”.  Child protection mediators see fundamental conflicts around beliefs that parents are simply “good” or “bad” based on highly complex circumstances.  Estates disputes may escalate due to deeply held beliefs that a sibling always has bad intentions.  Worldview rigidity appears in all types of conflict.

Gordon’s identifies several different ways that worldview may come into play in a dispute.  Recognizing that I do not do justice to Gordon’s complex schema for worldview disputes, two examples of questions that one might draw from his work to address Frasier’s parking lot dispute on a worldview level are:

Can someone “have good intentions and produce a bad result?”  What good intentions might the attendant have?  What values might underlie his position?

“What decisions did you make that had some effect on how the situation played out? … Which ones led to less constructive relations?… What could you have done that would have been better?”

4. Identity (The “Pinocchio Jolt”)

We all tend to understand our identity in absolute terms.  “I am an honest person.”  “I am not a violent person.” ” I am friendly.”  Depending on how closely any particular aspect of our identity connects with our values, we may be incredibly uncomfortable with entertaining thoughts that in a specific situation, our own actions have not been honest, non-violent, friendly, etc. Gordon explains that development towards full self-realization “involves developing a more complex identity.”  Intellectually, we may understand that we exhibit contextual variations in all traits,  however, “in the face of attacks we tend to reject the offending party unless we are able to consider what aspects of his or her derogatory characterization of ourselves might contain some truth.”

When Gordon explained this avenue for growth, I thought of the many, many times I have heard parties assert that they “don’t lie!” Clearly this is an important part of identity for the person who feels the need to assert it over and over in the face of conflicting narratives of the conflict at hand.  And very often, this assertion leads to both parties trying to convince the mediator that they are “truthful” and the other person is a “liar.”  Because this was the example that occurred to me, I thought of Pinocchio as an exemplar:  Pinocchio’s nose is a built-in “jolt” to his sense of identity!  If we think of Pinocchio as believing that he is fundamentally honest, then he would resist a characterization as a liar even knowing that he has fibbed on occasion.  Pinocchio, however, runs up against an immediate reminder that in some situations he just might have been less than perfectly honest.  Admitting to a more complex, contextual identity is a part of Pinocchio’s development, just as it would be part of our own.

Gordon suggests that in times of stubborn impasse, a mediator might ask questions that explore identity explicitly as a means of encouraging a party to consider a more complex view of their identity.  Some examples he suggests are:

” What makes it difficult to think that you were unfair?  …  How possible is it for someone to be partly fair and partly unfair, how about 80% fair?”

“How have you not been true to yourself?”

More information?

This is a quick summary of a very complex theory that Gordon considers a work-in-progress.  As a consequence, it offers just a taste of the ideas that Gordon presented.  Fortunately, Gordon offers 1-day Pro-D courses on his method and will be presenting in Edmonton in September 2011.  Watch for notice of upcoming local presentations or contact Gordon directly at

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