Posts tagged ‘Mediation’

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

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?

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!

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 gcwhite@telus.net.



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