I have been corresponding with Canadian psychiatrist Dr Mark Lauderdale after being impressed by some of his writing on the Web.
As a result Mark has kindly agreed to post on a topic that frustrates the heck out of many mediators - glass half empty parties. Without knowing much, I suspect, about transformative mediation or mediation aikido, Mark demonstrates once again the crossover between the our field and the behavioural sciences...
And if you tried to give them a helpful suggestion for their problem, they just shot it down with a million reasons why it wouldn't work? Or, perhaps they simply negated your idea by flatly stating, "I tried that."
How can you succeed with negative people like this?
I worked with a single mother who complained loudly and bitterly about her 9-year-old daughter. It's true that her daughter was a handful, but her mother was decidedly more interested in reporting how bad things were than finding a solution.
She repeatedly fumed in helpless exasperation, "I can't handle her. She won't listen!" Furthermore, the idea of sending her daughter back to live with her father again was "totally unacceptable" and having her live in foster care was simply "unthinkable".
Now, at this point it's easy to get frustrated… but if you do, you'll simply join the ranks of all those people who "didn't understand" and "didn't help" and the complainer has even MORE to complain about.
When I'm dealing with people I recognize that I can't change some one's fundamental personality. Someone who has had years of practice being negative and being a victim of life is not going to give this up in a few short encounters with me – in the same way that you can't stop a river by wading in and trying to prevent it from flowing.
Therefore, I went WITH the flow and listened to her litany of complaints. I became very interested in hearing about ALL of the problems with her daughter's behavior. I empathized, but instead of giving her suggestions right away I asked her to describe, in detail, what she had been doing in reaction to this behavior.
She said that her daughter repeatedly ignored her when she was asked to do things… or she would outright refuse. The mother explained how she would become angry and frustrated and just give up. She agreed that this approach wasn't working.
At this point it would have been easy for me to give a solution, but I persisted, "If you keep on dealing with things this way over the next few months or YEARS, how do you think things are going to turn out?"
I had just given her MORE TO COMPLAIN ABOUT than she had ever really wanted… and she developed a painful expression on her face as she envisioned that terribly unhappy future.
NOW… I allowed her to escape from the uncomfortable situation that her complaining had created by asking the key question, "So, how would you like things to be instead?"
Now, she was motivated. Her desire to think of a positive goal had temporarily outweighed her usual desire to seek sympathy.
She described the well-behaved child she would like to have and, with further inquiry, described the kind of positive and effective parent she would like to become.
I asked her if she would like my help to do that… and she said yes.
Within a matter of minutes she had moved from her position of being stuck in a pattern of complaining about her awful state of affairs to someone with a vision of a positive future who was entering into a working agreement to change things.
I have used this approach successfully to establish working relationships for many types of difficult people and problems.
Mark Lauderdale MD FRCPC is a psychiatrist and author of "Secrets of Dealing with Difficult People", which provides expert ideas, insights and tools for dealing with all types of difficult people confidently and effectively.
Geoff is author of the award winning blog mediator blah...blah... a mediation blog experiment in reflective practice and the Mediation vBlog Project, a kind of mediation genome project by video blog.