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To Be Effective, Mediators Should Learn to be More . . . Stupid?

by Michael Jacobs
October 2015

 CMP Resolutions Blog by Katherine Graham

Michael  Jacobs

 Much of current mediation training is consciously ‘additive’, in that it puts forward various  frameworks, theories and models. This article argues, only partially tongue-in-cheek, that training mediators is fundamentally ‘subtractive’ – a process of unlearning in which mediators become ‘more stupid’.

Much of current mediation training is consciously ‘additive’, in that it puts forward various frameworks, theories and models. This article argues, only partially tongue-in-cheek, that training mediators is fundamentally ‘subtractive’ – a process of unlearning in which mediators become ‘more stupid’.

It seems to me that mediation training is mostly about unlearning. Rather than accumulating more information or knowledge, the trainee has to practice selective forgetting. As a trainer, I actively encourage them to become ‘more stupid’.

For trainee mediators, it is often clear where salvation lies

Not surprisingly, this injunction is often greeted first by laughter and then by a mixture of disbelief and confusion. They think I’m making fun of their initial attempts to work with conflictual clients. I explain that stupidity and ignorance are essential assets; in fact, they are one of the few means of combating the almost inescapable desire most trainee mediators have to ‘help sort out the dispute’. This usually entails racing out ‘in front’ of clients and trying to ‘pull them’ to some less conflictual position. Even for trainee mediators, it is often clear where salvation lies. Paradoxically, the success of mediation is often in direct proportion to the mediator’s ability to resist the impulse to coax the parties in the right direction.

There is a strong relationship between solving and salvation

That mediators have this attitude in the first place seems to be linked to the notion of conflict as a ‘problem’ which can be solved. Making the shift to thinking of conflict as ‘problematic’ – insofar as most of us struggle to engage constructively with conflict – is often the most difficult concept for trainees to grasp. After all, trainee mediators often come from backgrounds that reward problem-solving, where being good at your job is about being able to lead others by the hand.

When I tell new mediators they are being far too bright, they just look bewildered

When they start to mediate, trainees quickly become immobilised by trying to ‘figure out’ what they should be doing. They are so often busy thinking about the perfect question or the unlocking intervention that they find it hard to stay focused on the parties sitting right in front of them. They want to demonstrate their competence, to show that they ‘get it’. But as a trainer, I’ve come to appreciate the importance of stupidity. But I’ve yet to find a really coherent model or process to encourage its practice. For one thing, most theoretical constructs are put together precisely to counteract ignorance. On a personal level, I have difficulties remembering such frameworks – and even when I do remember them, they seem to be more about locating where I am in the process, then helping me discover where to go next.

I’m still trying to find ways of supporting stupidity as a practice

My belief being that conscious ignorance, rather than a desire to impose, is a pre-requisite for the process of discovery . And that stupidity, along with humour, paradox, and metaphor, are attempts to outflank all the stuff we think we need to know. One of my current training injunctions is to tell trainees that they have to find ways of saying whatever occupies the space in their heads. This internal space comprises our capacity to listen and attend to what the parties are saying (or not saying). My experience is that if the space between our ears is filled up by our own thoughts, opinions and judgements (the usual suspects), then attention is seriously compromised. Of course, trainees have to find ways of saying things that the parties can actually hear. While it’s quite normal to believe that one side or the other is behaving like bastards, it is only in exceptional circumstances that telling them flat out will prove to be helpful. Trainees need to learn to translate their perception into something along the lines of “I’m really struggling to understand why this is so important for you and I need to hear more.”

Only when parties are willing to talk about themselves, rather than blame the other, is it meaningful

A second approach to stupidity is my suggestion that when they’re mediating, and one party starts to talk about the other (in terms of how bad, evil or incompetent they are) that what they should hear in their heads is basically “blah, blah, blah…” Trainees are somewhat taken aback by this remark, believing that a significant part of their role is to gain a full understanding of the situation. I explain that only when parties are willing to talk about themselves – to make themselves visible – is the static transformed into meaningful words.

Humility is the most tenable position for a mediator

Finally, I find myself strongly encouraging trainees to “walk behind the parties and simply pick up the stuff they drop.” For the facilitative mediator, this is the only tenable position – that of humility. It is also the only real antidote to cleverness and the urge to be a productive problem-solver. Parties will always drop an enormous amount of ‘recyclable material’ in terms of their thoughts, feelings and assumptions. Picking these droppings up, with both empathy and real interest, is for me the essential task of the mediator. One recent trainee put it very graphically by referring to this as the “pooper-scooper approach” to mediation.

Conflict ‘shrinks’ us

It’s not rocket science to recognise that the practice of stupidity derives from a particular and somewhat personal understanding of the purpose of mediation. For me, the purpose of mediation is to help offset the diminishing impact that conflict has on our fundamental humanity. The stories disputants construct in conflict reflect the simplicity on this side of complexity. They feature clear-cut dichotomies of who’s right and who’s wrong. This kind of clarity leaves little room for doubt, ambiguity, mutuality, or interconnectedness – those qualities that life reminds us again and again form the warp and weft of our existence. Nor are those human and humane attributes such as generosity, kindness, compassion, warmth, openness, often accessible to those engaged in dispute.

Mediation offers the opportunity for people to ‘regain’ their fuller human dimensions

In this process of enlargement, size is proportional to stupidity: the more stupid the mediator can be (for stupid read “humble”, “non-intrusive”), the larger the potential space they can help create for the parties to ‘grow’ into.

Make the possibility of being human together in the midst of conflict more and more attractive

As a mediation trainer I’m not in favour of reducing the complexity of life to a seven-step model, even when trainees might find it useful to for me to do so. From my perspective, this just becomes another mental habit from which they need to be weaned. I can only encourage trainees to develop their ‘invitational skills’ – to make the possibility of being human together in the midst of conflict more and more attractive. And of course, like any real invitation, the parties might still say no. This irreducibility of freedom is what makes mediation one of the most fascinating of all professional endeavours.


Michael Jacobs has been mediating for the past 23 years across a range of disputes, including family, community, workplace and civil/commercial. He appreciates the fact that even after all this time, he is still quite capable of making mistakes and getting things wrong – it means that he has more to learn.  

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Additional articles by Michael Jacobs