Comments: The Boundaries Of Engagement

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Pamela  , Kathmandu   09/20/10
Holding a space
Thanks so much for reminding me why I mediate, even when a mediation does not result in a solution or even a postive exchange of conflicting views. I think one of our most important functions as neutrals is opening up an opportunity for parties to think differently about each other, to "see" each other differently than they have been. If parties are unable to come to an agreement during a session, I, like most of you perhaps, always like to end by saying that the opportunity for resolving their dispute does not end just because their session with me is ending. If, after they have slept on it, they wish to contact each other through their attorneys or directly, they can still do that and have one more chance to work things out. In this way, our space holding can continue a bit longer post-session.

Leslie Ann Grove, Spokane WA     09/02/10
Reflection and Paradox
Michael, thank you for your several articles that remind us how important it is to consistently reflect on what we're doing. I appreciate the direction in which this article led my own reflection. The mediation profession is fraught with paradox, starting with the nature of conflict, itself. It isn't easy gaining a modicum of comfort, let alone a professional level of comfort, with paradox. In this regard, engagement and disengagement are tricky concepts. We mediators are interested in settlement, indeed we are judged on our "settlement rate." Yet the more attached we are to settlement, the less the process belongs to the parties, and in my own experience, the less likely a resolution that truly meets the needs of the parties will result. If we don't wrack our brains for ways to "do better," when a settlement doesn't happen, we don't grow professionally. Yet, the more we strive toward the magic that gets the settlement, the more we tend to assume ownership of the process and the more we become attached to settlement as an outcome. Living with paradox requires an awfully good sense of balance!

Mitch , Boston MA   09/01/10
Great insights
First of all, I am loving these comments - Michael and Alan (Sharland) you have become two of my favorite contributors here at - and frankly to mediation - so thanks for being so willing to put it out there. Secondly, Alan's comments about being 'invisible' vs. being 'central' as an intermediary rings true to me. Although I have taken a slightly different tact than that of invisibility. I find that many mediators think of neutrality as they think of neutral colors. When parties enter a room there is nothing neutral about it – chairs may seem neutral but each party has a reason for choosing one chair over another – their spot perhaps? Inanimate objects such as chairs and walls and tables though cannot actively be neutral – they can only play a passive role in the process. Mediators, however, can do neutrality, we can do impartiality. I think of them as highly active states. Most mediators in my basic training classes think of neutrality as being ‘out of the way’, passive, perhaps ‘invisible’ – yet I think it important to think of that role as an active state – a state of doing – In that light an experienced mediator can alternate almost instantly from the role of participant in the process to the role of observer of the process. A highly active (not in a physical or kinetic sense) state that also heightens the mediators ability to be present – in the here and now – as opposed to being seduced by thoughts of where the mediation is headed…such as ‘will this mediation work?’ ‘will we reach an agreement?’ ‘if these idiots only did this they could resolve this thing!’… Thanks for shining a light through your ideas on these topics and through that getting this conversation moving! Mitch Gordon, founder The Center for Alternative Dispute Resolution and Training and Mediation/Resources, and board member for the National Association for Community Mediation (NAFCM).

Alan , London UK   09/01/10
No ownership with shuttle
Hi Michael Where I work in West London we never use shuttle in neighbour disputes...or any disputes come to in my view it means the parties can't take sufficient 'ownership' of their situation and their responsibilities to try to resolve. As a result of shuttle they can easily 'dump' their dispute on you and never take full ownership of the fact that it is their dispute. To me this is reflected in your soul searching as a result of the experience. It is as if you are disempowering them by continuing to take the role of 'expert' or 'intermediary' ie. you are 'central' to the resolution rather than peripheral. A phrase came to me while explaining mediation to some people recently that as a mediator my aim is to become 'invisible' in the process so that ultimately it is just the parties who are resolving the situation. This is impossible using shuttle mediation as you always carry the messages and therefore remain essential and central to the process. And often, I know, the response is 'but if they don't want to meet' ..... to which my response is their dispute not mine. If they wish to resolve it they have to be the agents in achieving that, I can't do it for them. And that may,of course mean just working with one party who then decides to act in ways that resolves the situation in itself. We experience many cases where that happens. Best wishes Alan Sharland and