Typically, if you ask someone if she is a “negotiator,” she will quickly say “no,” not realizing that a single day in her life provides innumerable opportunities to negotiate. The same is true with mediation – each of us participates in mediation either as the mediator or as a disputing party more often than we realize. Let me provide a true life’s tale.
For several weeks, my husband and I had a minor plumbing problem at home – the toilet (or water closet (“WC”) as the plumber called it) was running. When we purchased our home, we also purchased a home warranty repair policy that allows us to call the home warranty company and if the needed repair was covered, the company would arrange for the appropriate repairman to come and make the repair. We would pay a minor service fee and the remaining cost of the repair would be covered under our policy.
So. . . once the WC got bad enough that neither of us could stand the constant running any longer, my husband called the home warranty company who contacted the plumber. The plumber called and set up an appointment for a Saturday afternoon. Once faced with the WC and the exact problem, the plumber realized he needed to buy a part that he might not be able to get at Home Depot on a Saturday, but only at a plumbing supply store that is open during the week. He went to Home Depot and found his intuition to be correct; he could only get the part at a plumbing supply store. So, he told my husband that he would be back “before 9:00 a.m. on Tuesday morning.”
At about 8:40 a.m. on Tuesday morning, I called the plumbing company to confirm that the plumber was still planning to come as scheduled. The dispatcher knew nothing except to confirm that he would be at the house between 8:00 a.m. and noon. I started getting upset.
Nine o’clock a.m. came and went and no word from the plumber. At 9:15 a.m., my husband called the warranty company complaining that the plumber promised to show, but did not show, the plumbing company knew nothing other than that he would be there before noon and he [my husband] was not going to sit around and wait for the plumber to show up. The warranty company representative said she would look into it and call us back within 20 minutes. She never did.
Like most disputing parties, we were growing angrier by the moment at the perceived misrepresentation by the plumber and/or the miscommunication and lack of communication by both the plumber and the plumbing company. Did the plumber lie to us by saying he would be there at 9:00 a.m., never intending to keep this promise? He had our phone number and never called. His company knew nothing. “Obviously,” we were “taken for a ride.” The plumber suddenly became our “adversary.” Like most parties in a dispute, we assumed the worst about our “adversary,” the plumber.
At ten o’clock a.m., we decided not to wait around the house any longer. We had been lied to. . . and wanted another plumber and plumbing company to handle this repair.
At eleven o’clock a.m., not hearing back from the warranty company, I called the warranty company to follow up on the 9:15 a.m. phone call to see what it was doing to make the bad situation right. I got another company representative. Like a good mediator, he listened (without interruption) to my side of the story. He then asked to put me on hold while he called the plumbing company to find out its side of the story. I said “sure.”
Several minutes later, the representative got back on the line with me and told me the plumber had had an emergency dental problem that morning and had not even told the company about it until he walked into work at 9:30 a.m. That is why the company, too, was in the dark.
Acknowledging to me that I had every right to be upset that the plumber did not at least call us or his employer who then could have notified us of the delay, the warranty company representative set about trying to move forward and resolve the problem; he took a pragmatic approach. He separated the people from the problem, focusing on the problem. The representative asked me if we would be available that evening for the plumber to return and install the part.
At this point – I had an epiphany – the warranty company representative was a mediator, mediating the dispute between the plumber and us. He talked to me separately (i.e. separate session) to see what we would be willing to do in terms of when we could be home that evening (i.e. resolving this dispute), then put me on hold and talked to the company (i.e. separate session) to see what commitment it would make regarding the plumber re-appearing at our house that evening (i.e. resolving this dispute). The representative went back and forth between us (i.e. separate sessions) a couple of times and got a tentative agreement for a 7:30 p.m. appointment.
Like a good mediator, the warranty company representative said he would follow up with the plumbing company late that afternoon to make sure our agreement was still on track. (That is, to determine if other prior plumbing appointments would cause the plumber’s delay). He did so, and at that later time, he said he would again check at 6:30 p.m. with the plumber to make sure we were still on track. In essence, he was a good mediator making sure the tentative agreement became a reality and that there would be no “bumps in the road” to cause our agreement to unwind and thus, our dispute to escalate.
So. . . the plumber came and found he still needed another part. But, this time rather than going through our “mediator”, we were each willing to talk directly to the other. The miscommunication or lack of communication due to his emergency dental appointment had been cleared up. He, indeed, had not misrepresented anything or lied to us; but had just not handled the situation as well as he could have ; a lack of communication. He left his phone number and we gave him ours and he said he would be back by 8:30 a.m. the next morning.
Sure enough – at 7:15 a.m. the next morning, he called to confirm and appeared promptly at 8:30 a.m.
The WC was fixed.
. . . and we all learned a lesson in dispute resolution in every day life.