Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Mediation 101

So, you might think that, given my part-time profession as a mediator, I'd have this conflict stuff worked out in my own home.  At least, that's what clients occasionally suggest to me - that I'm lucky, in that I must have a conflict-free home.  Hmmm....yeah, right.  I am always quick to reassure people that we have conflict in our home just as much (maybe more!?) as they do in theirs.  After all, the point of being a mediator is, at least in part, to be a neutral third party facilitator to someone else's conflict...and of course, one is not able to be neutral or to have a third party perspective in a conflict that involves oneself.

It does come in rather handy, though, to have certain mediation-related skills.  Tonight, for example, while Geoff was playing with Matthew in the basement, I suddenly heard agoninzed shrieks coming from down below (from Matthew, not Geoff...this time) and Matthew came barrelling upstairs, followed closely by his Daddy.  Matthew was crying and shouting that it wasn't fair and that he shouldn't have consequences....  Of course, I couldn't resist sticking my mediator-nose right into the middle of it and, in no time at all, I rooted out the problem and started working it out with the two of them, using my most basic mediation-101 skills.  Here's sort of how the conversation went after Matthew had calmed down and was able to chat about it in the manner that he is fairly accustomed to: 

1.  First, I asked for Geoff's perspective on what had happened and summarized it back to him as I understood him:  Basically, they were playing soccer downstairs and Matthew became frustrated that the ball wasn't going into the net as often as he'd like; he therefore kicked the ball super hard and Geoff became upset because he was worried that the ball would break something by being kicked that hard.  Geoff gave him two consequences (not sure why two, but I have to let certain things go):  First that they wouldn't play ball anymore (good - a natural consequence); and then that Matthew had to spend some time sitting in the bathroom to think about what he'd done (not so good, I privately thought - given that Matthew had no idea what he'd done wrong).

2.  Next, I asked Matthew for his perspective on what had happened and summarized it back to him as I understood him:  his perspective was that the facts were almost like what Daddy said but that the reason he kicked the ball really hard was only half out of frustration - the other half was him just wanting to play ball.  His further perspective was that when he kicked the ball really hard the last time they played soccer in the basement a few days ago, Daddy didn't give him a consequence...so he was confused and angry about why he got one this time.

3.  Then, I had them (as well as they were able) try to verbalize each other's perspectives.  Sigh - that
took a bit of work on my part to help them.

4.  The next stage was to ask them what they thought they should do about the situation - what resolution could they generate that would meet as many as possible of both of their needs?  This led to a conversation about what consequence would be considered fair (they agreed that simply stopping the game was enough under the circumstances) and a discussion about why Daddy had allowed the hard kicks in the past without consequences and acted differently this time (that was an interesting part of the conversation).

5.  As an addendum, they then had a second (facilitated) conversation about how, now that Matthew is getting stronger, they need to re-evaluate the rules about how hard Matthew can kick the ball. They then came up with and agreed on a plan as to how they would figure out the new rules.  In fact, as I write this, I can hear the discussion going on downstairs as they (unfacilitated) work out the new rules about how hard they can kick the ball in the basement!

By this time you must be wondering about our sanity:  why would we go through this type of 25-minute conversation when a simple solution might suffice?  My five-year-old niece, Madeline, sometimes wonders the same thing; when she and Matthew play together, it's a completely normal occurrence for them that I facilitate conversations between them when they are in conflict:  I help them each express their own perspectives, understand each other's world views (even if they disagree with each other it's important to understand each other's world view at the time an incident occurred), and work out a solution on their own...something that they can both agree to.  On a couple of occasions recently, Madeline has sighed a heavy sigh when it's come time for me to pull them both onto my knees to have a facilitated conversation - and a month or so ago, I heard her telling Matthew in the heat of an argument, something like:  "Matthew, come on, we have to figure this out ourselves or your mom will come and make us talk about all of it."  Said with an air of resignation (and perhaps desperation).  I laughed to myself...and I was thrilled that, as I secretly listened, they did work out their issue.

So why do we do it?  It takes way longer to resolve issues this way than most other ways I know of resolving conflicts...and I don't always have the energy or time to do it.  But the reason I try so hard is because it seems to have better results to help Matthew and the person he's in conflict with resolve their issues.  Tonight, for example, Matthew went from being frustrated for reasons that would otherwise have gone unexpressed to being comfortable with the outcome and, more importantly, having an understanding of what happened.  The same goes for Geoff - he learned something very legitimate about Matthew's perspective on the situation that he would otherwise never have known in the heat of consequences delivered.  They got to engage in a negotiation of a satisfactory outcome, based on needs expressed by both, and who doesn't like to be empowered in this way?

Finally, I believe that the conflicts of today will be similar to the conflicts of tomorrow - whereas now Matthew is in conflict about a soccer situation, in twenty years it may be about how to manage his vacation schedule when it competes with another employee's plans, etc etc.  I hope, over time, to provide him with some of the tools to be able to manage through those conflicts of the future.  While we'll have to wait for a long time to see how effectively he has learned these skills, he already shows promise through his willingness to ask people questions that probe at their understanding of the world.  That's enough for now!

1 comment:

  1. This post reminded me about the episode in the Office where Phyllis uses conflict resolution strategies with Angela.

    Your neice's comment made me laugh out loud. I use the mediator method with my kids, although only occasionally. (As opposed to waving my hands in the air and crying out for peace.) It makes me feel quite proud of myself to act in such a calm manner, but it drives them crazy. But, like you said, it really does teach them longterm skills, and it IS empowering. So I think I'll keep doing it... every now and then. :)