“We’d really like you to be there, Dan!”
“It was so delightful to have you there, Dan.”
“We should hang out more.”
“You’re my best friend.”
“Dan, you really know how to talk to people.”
“Thank God for you, Cousin!”
“Great talk, Dan. Thanks.”
I wasn’t always so well-liked. I’ve always had friends, and I think I’ve always had decent people instincts, but I’ve also rubbed people the wrong way at times. Over the last few years, though, it seems like everyone enjoys my company. And I think it boils down to my clarity about empowerment and recognition.
Mediating, I’ve learned about a couple things that people universally prefer: One, respect for their autonomy; and two, a sense of connection. People I’m with now receive both of those things from me consistently, which provides me with those two things, as well.
The first thing we get clear about in a transformative mediation training is how it feels to be in conflict. We’re reminded that one of the things that makes conflict distressing is the sense that something is being done to us against our will. The other party fired us for no good reason, or they divorced us over our objection, or they’re preventing us from receiving money they owe us, or they’ve sued us. The lack of the power to stop these things from happening offends our expectation that we have control over our lives.
As mediators, we help turn that diminished sense of autonomy around by constantly supporting our clients in making their own decisions about everything. They get to decide whether to mediate, when to mediate, with whom to mediate, whether to say something, what to say, how to say it, whether to listen to the other party, whether to disagree with the other party, how to disagree with the other party, whether to suggest a solution, what solution to suggest, and whatever else they want to do, with very few limits. They get to decide just about everything we have the power to let them decide. The mediation process itself changes their level of autonomy. When they’re in mediation they’re in control.
It turns out that people’s desire for autonomy persists outside of conflict, too. People like to make their own choices pretty much always. So in dealing with people who aren’t my clients, I have let go of any desire to force, persuade or advise my people to do anything. If a friend declines an invitation to dinner, they hear from me, “ok, no problem, let’s try again soon.” If a friend hires a lawyer, and I think it’s a bad idea, I share my concerns only if they’re interested, and I maintain the attitude that it is entirely their choice and I will not hold it against them. If I’m playing with a child, and the child is doing anything that is not dangerous or not likely to destroy valuable property, the child gets my support for following their whims.
We also get clear in transformative mediation training that part of what’s so distressing about conflict is the sense of alienation, the sense that there’s a wall between us and the other party, the sense that we can’t understand how they can behave this way, and we also know they are misunderstanding us. So as mediators, we allow the space for people to ask each other questions, and tell each other things; and we help make it easier for them to understand each other by repeating things they’ve said or asked.
In the rest of life, too, it turns out that a sense of connection matters. So when I’m with my people, I listen to what they say, I leave space for them to talk, and I observe without judging. The people I’m with know they’re being seen. And when they are interested in understanding me, I speak openly about my feelings, thoughts, and stories. And when they’re not interested in listening, I don’t share those things.
But What About Me?
If I’m so focused on providing other people with support for their autonomy and a sense of connection, aren’t I neglecting myself? Not really. Paying attention to others’ autonomy and connection actually takes pretty good care of me, too. Paying attention nonjudgmentally to people is a great way to feel connected; and telling them about myself when they’re interested is especially helpful. And as long as I do these things with awareness that they are entirely my choice, and that I could also choose not to, my sense of autonomy is fully intact. And, when I prefer not to, say, get together with a friend, I simply don’t do it, unless they have an especially strong need, in which case, I take that into account, and make my choice. And if I don’t feel like following the whimsical child out to the swing set, I let him know that I don’t want to do that, and that he gets to decide what we do that allows me to sit on the couch. So I generally provide attention and support for autonomy, but not always.
And now people enjoy my company, which gives me a great feeling of strength, which frees me up to be attentive and responsive to them, which enhances my sense of strength, which allows me to focus more on them, and so on.