Mediation is not just a skill to be used when setting a legal conflict, it can also be used to settle issues before they get to an escalation point of no return. Doing this takes some practice and preparation but yields results that are worth the time.
Mediation is, by definition, a facilitated negotiation and is used to facilitate a dispute between two parties, and the mediator plays the role of a neutral third party.
Mediation is a legal skill, business skill, but most importantly, it’s a life skill.
Mediation differs from negotiation. A negotiation is a transaction between two or more parties where each side has something to gain or lose from the agreement. Mediation is a conflict resolution technique between two or more parties, where both parties agree to come to an agreement. The differences here are subtle, but important. A negotiation can occur with or without a conflict to resolve. Mediation occurs because there is a dispute to intentionally find a solution to in order to better the relationship between the two parties. If you are mediating your own dispute, and it is not a legal dispute, as this is not possible due to legal necessities; it is imperative that you can and do remain neutral. This requires you to purposefully view your dispute at each step outlined below as a third party would see it. This is a skill that not everyone initally has, but with some practice it is achievable.
The Mediator’s job is to provide hope. It’s the hope that the two parties can and will come to an outcome better than their current situation. This hope is an important part, as it is why the parties have agreed to talk.
If you use yourself as a mediator in this process, you can keep hope as your focal point.
Step 1 — Write out the issue.
Defining the problems brings clarity to it. When you put the issue in writing, using either note in Evernote, a Word document, Notes on your smartphone or an analog pad and pencil or pen, it brings tangibility to the problem. You may be surprised to find the problem was not what you initially thought it was.
Example: There’s an on-going argument between Paul and Sue. Sue wants to take a vacation somewhere exotic. Paul wants a staycation. It’s been this way for their entire marriage. After 15 years Sue is resentful and has decided to stop talk about vacations entirely. This became a mediation once it involved emotion. A negotaiton would have worked several years ago, but there is now an imaginary wedge between the two.
The issue here isn’t the vacation, that’s the sympton. It’s the result of the issue. The real issue here is how time is spent with and without each other. Paul views time has precious and wants to relax and spend his time on vacation with Sue, without distraction. Sue loves adventure. Sue seeks thrills every chance she has and enjoys sharing adventures with others, especially with Paul.
As Sue has approached this issue, she has realized it’s not the “where” of the vacation, it’s the “why” of spending time. The issue is how to spend time so that both people feel valued and fulfilled. In teams in work, in marriage, in relationships such as friendships, individual happiness isn’t as importnat as the happiness of the team together. What makes great relationships work is the synergy.
Step 2 — Write out three alternative outcomes and rank them.
List out you potential solutions to your problem.
You can also rank them A, B, and C.
Sue’s potential solutions are as follows:
A) Go to Egypt alone.
B) Go on a cruise with Paul.
C) Stay at home with Paul.
With an eye towards synergy and using a mediator’s view, the best possible outcome, in rank order are B, A, C for Sue and B, C, A for Paul.
Step 3 — Logistics.
This is the hardest step. Decide when and where to have the session.
I’m calling it a “session” because it’s not a discussion and it’s not a negotiation. It’s a time when you both will be ready to talk about this issue. You know the other party well enough to determine how best to approach this issue. You may need to give the other party time to think about this and not just casually bring it up. But rather say, “I have an important discussion that I need to have with you about [insert issue here] when would be a good time for you?” Words are powerful, be cautious in how you phrase this — you don’t want it to seem that you are giving the other party an ultimatum, but instead, you want to have a healthy dialog about your options on the issue at hand.
Back to our example of Paul and Sue. Sue is conflict avoidant and often shuts down when she feels threatened. Paul is a very matter of fact and will often state exactly how he feels without filtering it. To build up the courage of having the conversation, Sue needs to make sure that Paul is in the right frame of mind and prepared to have the discussion. Sue also needs to express to Paul what she wants out of the discussion. This is about the issue of time, not the vacation. She could start with telling him she enjoys spending time with him and needs a way to spend more time with him during their vacation, which is very important to her and would like to talk to him when he has ample time to dedicate to the discussion. The best time to have this session for them is out of the house, away from the hustle and bustle of their normal schedule and activities. She asked Paul to suggest the time and place, which gives him a feeling of partnering in this discussion, rather than this being sprung on him.
Step 4 — Have the session.
Come to the session without the baggage of what has worked or not worked before, and ask your partner to do the same.
Be ready for this to be an emotionally and possibly time-consuming activity. Don’t rush this process.
Be well rested and ready for the discussion.
Paul has suggested the location and time, a local coffee shop where they both enjoy visiting on a Satruday morning and the shop was quiet and they found a perfect spot to sit, out of the way of anyone else who could overhear . Sue and he arrive, together ready to have the discussion about the issue at hand, which is about how their time is spent. The session took more than two hours and it covered a lot of issues. The discussion started with the discussion of this year’s vacation, but quickly Sue was able to bring the discussion back to the issue of time.
As in our example, Sue was able to bring the discussion back to the issue at hand by using her practiced skill of looking at the situation with the eye of being a third party. Without this ability to look at the discussion as a third party, it is very easy to get pulled back into past disagreements. This takes practice and dilberate work.
Step 5 — Write down the outcome.
In an actual mediation with a third party facilitating the discussion the mediator will record the agreement for the parties. As you serving as your own mediator, it is important that this step is not missed, leaving the end result to memories which can become hazy with time.
Writing the agreement is the most important part and often the difference between a lasting agreement and one which occurred but did not result in a sustainable settlement.
Sue and Paul wrote their agreement down on a napkin, from the coffee shop and then put it on their fridge at their house, as a reminder. They agreed that their relationship was more important than the “what” of the vacation. The vacation, having become a symptom also was a way to become the solution. Paul agreed to going to Egypt with Sue this year. Sue agreeded to take two long weekends with Paul, staying at home this year.
This material derived from a Master’s level class at a local university in Nashville, TN where I’m fortunate to teach as an adjunct regularly on mediation, training third party neutrals.