In using Nonviolent Communication in my work, I often think of the mediation beginning in the initial phone call. This idea of mediations building or accreting with the addition of parties is not all that different from the practice of one of the better known institutional mediation providers, which uses case managers who receive the initial call from one party, often an attorney, requesting mediation. The case manager often mediates the agreement to mediate, and only when the parties agree to mediate is the “mediator” identified.
However, in what I call an accreted mediation each step of the process from the initial contact onward is seen as an opportunity to “mediate” the substance of the dispute. The way I conceive of “mediate the substance of the dispute” is for me to help each party name their needs, hear the needs of the other party, trust that the other party has heard their needs, and find strategies that meet everyone’s needs. Thus, the conversations where we work on naming needs, including the very first conversation, contribute to resolution in and of themselves. I’ll clarify first a little about what I mean by this definition of mediation, then discuss a case study of an accreted mediation using Nonviolent Communication (NVC).
Mediation using NVC
When someone who is not an attorney calls me for help with a dispute, they often have never used a mediator and they don’t exactly know what it is they want. In this context my first step typically is to help them clarify what needs of theirs are not getting met in the conflict. People in the midst of conflict are often focused on everything but needs – the story, the history with a person, and strategies. One of the key distinctions I hold as I talk to someone in this situation is to differentiate their needs from the strategies they may already be thinking of. The focus on particular strategies is often a source of conflict in and of itself.
An important first step is for the person, either by him or herself or with the help of someone like me, to name and to experience the effect of naming the needs that are going unmet in a particular situation. In the terminology that has evolved as part of NVC, helping a person clarify their needs is a way of helping them meet their need for empathy — that is, to be heard as to what their needs are.
In addition, in this first step of helping them name the needs not being met, I seek to make clear the distinction between needs and strategies. Another distinction I hope to communicate is that needs are universal and are not tied to a particular person or strategy. Not until the person has named and connected with the needs they are seeking to have met, and they have a similar qualitative kind of connection with the needs of the other party in the conflict, do I find it works to talk about strategies. At that point, the inquiry shifts to what strategies might meet everybody’s needs.
Strategies at this initial stage include whether and how they want my involvement; I may coach them in communicating with the other party, they may request that the other party has a conversation with me, or request that I mediate a conversation between the two parties. What often happens in these situations is what I have begun calling “accreted mediations” – I begin with this one person and other parties are added as the process unfolds. In the rest of this article, I will use a case study of one instance of an accreted mediation to explain what I mean by this term and highlight the use of skills learned from practicing NVC to approach these situations. The case study example is in italics and my comments follow in regular text.
Accreted Mediation Case Study
In this case study, I never met any of the participants in person – all sessions took place by phone.
I received a call from Adam, who was referred to me by a colleague. Adam and his wife were in a long-distance business relationship with another couple, who Adam had been friends with since college. He told me that the other couple wanted to dissolve the business relationship. He didn’t really want to but if it was going to be dissolved, he wanted the dissolution to proceed amicably without a lawsuit. He stressed the importance to him of keeping the personal relationship intact. Initially I wasn’t clear what he wanted from me – communication coaching, mediation, and legal advice were all possibilities.
I spent the first phone conversation with Adam helping him clarify what needs of his were not being met in this conflict. Often in conflict situations the unmet needs have to do with respect, being heard, trust, consideration, or caring. Being universal, each party to the conflict shares these needs, though the needs going unmet in the conflict may be different. For example, the need for respect may be uppermost for one party and for the other it may be the need to be heard. Both parties share the needs for respect and to be heard.
Adam expressed that the business was in a growth phase and had not reached profitability as planned and he and his business associates had different explanations for this situation. His needs included understanding the factors contributing to the current state of the business. He also needed clarity and certainty to make decisions around his family’s finances and children’s school schedules. He felt sad and confused about not having the connected relationship with the other couple, but also wanted to protect himself and his family. When he had articulated his needs, we switched to thinking about what the needs of the other couple in the conflict might be. It wasn’t important that we know for certain at this point; educated guesses can serve the purpose of this step, which was to focus Adam on thinking at the level of needs. We then discussed the ways I might be involved, including coaching him on communicating with the other couple, role playing interactions with the other couple, and acting as a mediator between him and the other couple.
Towards the end of my first conversation with Adam, he told me he wanted to include his wife, Ann, in our next conversation. He discussed the idea with her and she was agreeable. I first had a private call with Ann, similar to my initial conversation with Adam, surfacing her needs. The three of us then spoke by phone more than once. A good portion of the sessions with the two of them were spent naming the needs they had gotten in touch with in the private conversations and making sure they were each being heard by the other by getting them to reflect back what they were hearing from the other. Helping them get connected on the needs level — by hearing each other’s needs–would allow them to be congruent in their approach with the other couple.
With the addition of Adam’s wife, in my mind, this has now become an accreted mediation. The sessions with Adam and Ann constitute a stand-alone mediation – making sure that each party’s needs are heard by the other to their satisfaction. My role was to first make sure both parties were clear about their own needs and hear and reflect back the other’s needs, so the inquiry could switch to what strategies would meet both of their needs. I anticipated that Adam and Ann being clear with each other would yield greater clarity in their communication with their business partners.
After Adam and Ann heard each other’s needs and reflected them back, they found a strategy they imagined would be satisfactory to both – to meet with the other couple, Bob and Betty, with me participating as mediator. I suggested that I talk with Bob and Betty privately first, if they were willing, helping them reach the same clarity that Adam and Ann had reached, and asked Adam and Ann if that was agreeable to them. Adam contacted Bob and Betty and they agreed to talk with me. I had a number of conversations with them in which I helped them each name their needs and hear the other’s needs, after which they found an agreed upon strategy to meet both of their needs.
While it might have been possible to go straight to a joint conference call including all parties, I wanted to offer Bob and Betty a private conversation for two reasons. First, the conversation with all parties was more likely to flow smoothly if Bob and Betty had the same level of clarity going into the conversation as Adam and Ann. Second, in having the opportunity to get to know me, both parties could then approach the conversation knowing that I was on nobody’s — and therefore everybody’s — side. If I had only held private conversations with Adam and Ann, it might have been more difficult for Bob and Betty to know that I was there not to advocate for a particular outcome, but to support both couples to be heard to their satisfaction and create their own outcome that would be satisfactory to all.
In the joint conference call with all of us in attendance, there was a consensus to dissolve the business relationship amicably, without lawsuit. My role in the conversation turned to helping them create a timetable for certain milestones toward dissolution of the business. This included helping them formulate clear and doable requests for the information necessary to finalize the business dealings. In subsequent conference calls, I helped keep them on track and stay in connection if commitments had not been completed as initially anticipated.
At this point in the mediation, I am focusing on helping each party stay clear with their own needs and requests. This can prove a challenging time in a conflict. Both parties have made commitments to follow through on requests; if one party does not follow through on that commitment for any reason, the conflict can flare up, jeopardizing what may be a fragile connection between parties. My first priority in these situations is typically to empathize with the unmet needs and help both parties hear each other’s needs and requests.
In what turned out to be our final conference call, the parties discussed the possibility of Ann withdrawing as a manager and employee in the joint venture. To my surprise, this idea seemed to satisfy everyone, to such an extent that Adam, Bob, and Betty decided not to dissolve the business. I helped them clarify the terms of Ann’s withdrawal from the business and to clarify the respective roles of the others in the business.
Using the insights that I have developed through my training and experience in NVC, I am continually amazed how when people stay focused on their own needs, hear and grok the needs of others in the room, and are confident that others have grokked theirs, the participants develop strategies that none of us would have thought of initially. When people are clear about their needs, trust that their needs are heard by others, and hear the needs of others, then they are connected at the need level. I find at this point that a qualitative shift occurs in the room — body language changes, the way people talk is different, and rather than conflict, collaboration starts to happen. One of our fundamental needs as human beings is to contribute to the well being of others, and this collaboration is a reflection of this basic need. The collaboration is formulated around what strategies meet everyone’s needs – people are in touch with how much they want both their own and others needs to be met, knowing they share similar needs. Without the clarity and connection at the needs level on both sides it is far more unlikely that creative and satisfying solutions – such as the one Adam, Ann, Bob, and Betty formulated — would emerge.
For me the value in accreted mediations lies not only in the final resolution to the conflict; it lies in the communication skills and distinctions that all parties gain access to throughout the process, skills and distinctions that can continue to serve them in all areas of their lives. This leads me to view every step, from the initial phone call on, as an equally important part of the process, as at each step, we are practicing identifying and naming needs, hearing other’s needs, and finding strategies that work for everyone.
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