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<xTITLE>Agatha Christie Helped Me Be A More Effective Mediator</xTITLE>

Agatha Christie Helped Me Be A More Effective Mediator

by Elizabeth Kent
December 2014 Elizabeth Kent

Give me a great mystery book and I can get lost for hours trying to figure out “who done it?” Of course, Agatha Christie is the Grand Dame of all the mystery writers, and of all her characters, my favorite is Miss Marple.

So how does reading Miss Marple books complement my mediation skills and techniques? The fictional Miss Jane Marple, more commonly known as “Miss Marple,” was a spinster who lived in the small village of St. Mary Mead. She became involved in a surprising number of mysteries and solved them by using common sense, keen observation, and a knowledge of human behavior that she learned from watching her neighbors. She used parallel stories as metaphors to find solutions and when she shared them readers would have an “ah ha moment.” I call those “Miss Marple moments” and use them in my work. Let me share what I do in case having a “Miss Marple moment” may help you too.

Often, when I am teaching communication skills or am in an intense and emotional session, people appear to be close to a breakthrough but can't quite reach get there. For instance, parties have a difficult time letting go of what they think another party’s perceived intention was when she or he did something offensive. They may say something like “he did “x” because he only thinks about himself and never thinks about anyone else” or “she did “y” because she is lazy and self centered.” You get the idea.

When there is a lot of attribution of negative intention in the air and I think the time is right, I talk about the difference between” intent” and “impact” and how I find it difficult to know the reason that someone did something. Often I say that sometimes I have trouble knowing my own motivations so it is hard for me to be certain about another’s intent. I ask if they have ever experienced that. Then I ask if it is okay if I tell them about something that happened to me. Here is one story that I use:

A few years ago our state went through challenging fiscal times and the office I was working in had cutbacks. All of us were on furlough about ten percent of the time, and we were struggling to continue to deliver services to the public at the same level as before the cutbacks. It was a stressful time.

One day when I was going to work the driver of the car in front of me turned sharply without a signal and cut me off, almost causing an accident. Luckily we didn’t hit each other. I thought some uncharitable and unforgiving things and told myself that he was an idiot. Then it was over and I went to work.

Later that day I ran an errand for work and, because it was a busy day, I did it on my lunch break. I had a lot of things on my mind and almost missed my turn, but I just made it, even though I didn't use a turn signal. The driver in the car behind me honked and narrowly avoided rear-ending my car. Can you believe it? I almost cut him off!

So, did I think of myself as an idiot? No, I thought of myself as a hard working state employee who was struggling to deal with some tough times by working during what should have been her lunch break, and who was a little distracted by everything she needed to accomplish. Kind of funny, huh?

Then we talk about the story. Being cut off is something that almost everyone who has been on the roads can relate to. Usually people are able to separate the behavior from the person. They see the attribution issues – that I was willing to consider someone else’s entire being in a negative fashion (he was an "idiot" and not someone who made a mistake) and that I would let myself off the hook. The last time I used this story, one of the participants shared a quote that went something like “we cannot know what is going on with someone’s insides, only with her “outsides.” Once he shared that and we put it on the board, it was time to move on. Point made and received.

The telling of a story that might help the parties think through their own situation and actions is what I call a “Miss Marple moment.” When does it work to have a “Miss Marple moment” and to share my own story and experiences and what are the elements that make it work? First, the participants need to feel that they are in a safe space. In a mediation, this most likely means that we are in separate sessions. In a facilitation or training, it means that we have spent some time together and that a trust and rapport has developed between us. And they need to trust that I am neutral.

Second, the story needs to be self reflective. The most effective stories are those in which the joke is on me – when I acknowledge my fallibility and am willing to share it with them. That helps them to admit their own mistakes.

Third, the story needs to be something that everyone can relate too, and not too personal. Stories about the office, general family issues, and public places work particularly well. It’s easy to think of a time that I wished I had done something differently when I encountered a perceived sassy salesperson or someone who didn’t seem to hear what I had to say. The other person cannot be the butt of the story – it has to be me and it has to involve me learning a lesson. Often, at the end of the story, and again pointing back at myself, I make a joke about being a mediator and a trainer in communication techniques who has to learn and relearn the techniques that I teach. People seem to get it.

At the end of training sessions and mediations and facilitations, I ask participants to fill out a survey. The survey asks them what was most effective and least effective about the session. Invariably there are positive comments about the personal stories I shared – my “Miss Marple moments.” The participants say that the story helped them to look at their own behavior in a different way or to leave a negative feeling behind. In short, the stories resonated in the way that allowed the parties to see their circumstances in a different light.

I can’t tell you exactly why the “Miss Marple moments” work, but they do. The older I get, the more accepting I become of not understanding exactly why something works, being happy that it achieved my goal, and then pondering it afterward to try to figure it out. After all, I really do love a good mystery.


Elizabeth Kent grew up and lives in Hawaii.  She started work in her early teens, stringing and selling puka shell necklaces.  Since then she has worked in a variety of interesting and challenging positions, including life guarding/teaching swimming, serving as the first female park ranger in the maintenance division at Haleakala National Park, clerking at two federal courts of appeals (New York and San Francisco), practicing commercial law, serving as the Deputy Director at Hawaii’s Department of Human Services, and directing the Hawaii State Judiciary’s Center for Alternative Dispute Resolution.  Elizabeth is a facilitator and mediator, teaches a graduate class at the University of Hawaii in systems design, and provides training in dispute resolution.   She also is an artist, designing wearable art from vintage kimono.

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