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From Hatred And Blame To Compassion And Resolution

by Jack Hamilton
December 1997

This article appeared in the January/February 1997 issue of The California Therapist. It is reprinted with permission of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, and the author.

Jack Hamilton
All too often some people thrive only when there is an adversary to challenge. Rather than seeking common ground, some refuse to budge and choose to justify their positions. Rather than settle peacefully, some prefer to score points, as if life were a debate. Hostility sets up barriers between people--marked by judgments, blame and manipulation.

A rabbi who had lost his family in the Holocaust and who had emigrated to America wrote, before he departed Germany, about his feelings toward the Third Reich. Before he left he decided to forgive the German government, and especially Adolph Hitler, because he did not want to "bring Hitler to America."

It's hard to forgive. Hate makes people feel powerful. But by failing to forgive, people stay emotionally handcuffed to the person who caused the hurt--a deeply significant lesson in life that the rabbi understood.

For those who are genuinely interested in setting hostility aside and discovering a way to peacefully resolve conflicts, there is an option: mediation. It involves two or more people who can't agree on a solution to their problem and a mediator. It offers an accepting space where people can tell their stories to a professional whom they trust. A mediator is a neutral who has no stake in the outcome of the mediation, who doesn't take sides in the dispute, and who assists the participants in creating their own mutually beneficial solutions.

The goal of a mediator is to foster a fair environment that facilitates mutual, respectful problem-solving efforts by the parties. To reach that goal, a mediator tries to assist those involved in the conflict to communicate clearly with each other, identify their own needs and then work together to develop a solution that meets those needs.

One of the advantages of mediation is that it tends to be much less adversarial than a grievance or courtroom process. Unlike a judge or an arbitrator, the mediator does not make decisions for the parties involved. Rather than assign blame or fault, the mediator focuses on helping people find a solution.

At the outset of a mediation, the disputing parties are typically caught in blame and hostile feelings toward each other. But if one of the parties withdraws blame and takes personal responsibility for past actions, it immediately changes the relationship--creating the best chance for progress for both persons in the relationship.

When they break the cycle of blame and stop finding fault with each other, they find themselves better able to move forward to resolve the issues that originally gave birth to the mutual hostility.

Mediators are neither counselors nor therapists. Mediators help focus attention on specific problems or issues. The mediator guides those in conflict through a series of problem-solving steps so they can find their own solutions.

For a mediation to realize its full potential for transforming the negative relationship between disputants, the parties need to engage themselves wholeheartedly in the mediation process. This means that all parties agree to:

  • resolve their dispute peacefully,
  • discuss all issues that are relevant and necessary to resolve the situation,
  • express their concerns orally to the other party and demonstrate that they have heard the other party's concerns,
  • accept responsibility for their own behavior and for the part they can play in creating harmony in the relationship, and
  • go beyond the boundaries of their own point of view to reach a mutually beneficial solution.

The following, fairly typical mediation, recently took place in a meeting room at a local community center. The names have been changed to protect the confidentiality of the participants.

The mediator, Ms. Borden, is at the head of the table. Mr. Sanchez, a divorced Latino civil engineer in his early fifties who has four teen-age and adult daughters, is on the left of Ms. Borden. He is sitting upright in his chair trying to appear at ease. Ms. Fields, a divorced Caucasian office worker in her late forties who has two young daughters, is across from Mr. Sanchez. She appears confident with her hands folded neatly in her lap.

Mr. Sanchez brought suit against Ms. Fields, his former fiancee, claiming she owed him for expenses he had incurred in connection with their aborted wedding. Following a heated argument that took place four months after they became engaged, Ms. Fields called off the wedding. Mr. Sanchez claimed that Ms. Fields broke off the engagement and therefore should pay for the wedding and engagement rings and other wedding related expenses. The judge recommended they mediate their dispute prior to their court date.

Ms. Borden begins: Before we start I want to go over some ground rules. Each of you will have an opportunity to give me your account of the events as you experienced them. I want you to be respectful, listen to the other person and not use abusive language. Express your feelings as fully as you possibly can. Later I will ask you to talk directly to each other. One of the main reasons I am here is to help you with the process of talking to one another. I will not take sides nor will I let things get out of hand. When the time is right, I will try to help you work out some kind of agreement. If you cannot come to an agreement, that is all right, but hopefully you will."

Mr. Sanchez: "I did nothing to provoke Ms. Fields into breaking off our engagement. I love her and truly admire her, and I was really looking forward to putting my past behind me and marrying her. I took out an unsecured loan for $5,000 for one reason only--so that I could pay for all the wedding expenses. I admit I argued with her over where we were going to live after the wedding. But I'm a pretty flexible guy--we could have ironed all that out. I tried numerous times to call her to apologize for getting upset with her, but she refused to talk with me. I was totally shocked when I heard that she had canceled the wedding arrangements. She had no business doing that."

Ms. Fields: "When we became engaged, Mr. Sanchez promised me that after the wedding we would live in my house. That meant a lot to me because I didn't want the lives of my two daughters to be disrupted any more than was absolutely necessary. Then he broke his promise. He told me he had changed his mind and that after the wedding we were going to live in his house. When he said that I just knew in my gut that the engagement was off. If I couldn't trust him to keep his word on where we were going to live, I was afraid I couldn't trust him on anything. So I canceled all the arrangements. Since he broke the engagement, he should be responsible for paying for all the wedding expenses.

Ms. Borden, the mediator, helped Mr. Sanchez and Ms. Fields to express their specific issues, concerns, and feelings during the telling of their stories, which enabled them to better understand both sides of the dispute. Then, she had each one in turn speak directly to the other person and restate his or her understanding of the other's point of view. This enabled them to understand the disagreement from the other's perspective and ultimately to take responsibility for their part in the dispute.

Ms. Fields finally told Mr. Sanchez that she still loved him but that his violent temper, which she had not experienced before their argument, had opened her eyes to another side of him. She painfully concluded that the differences between his Latino culture and her own upbringing would be insurmountable if they were to marry. She took responsibility for misjudging him and admitted that it was the main factor that had led to her calling off the wedding plans. Reluctantly, she agreed to pay her share of the wedding expenses.

Mr. Sanchez made an eloquent appeal to Ms. Fields to renew their engagement pointing out that he had been a model fiance prior to their argument and that every couple is going to have a disagreement now and then. But all his efforts to persuade her fell on deaf ears. He finally accepted the fact that his violent outburst had destroyed her trust in him. In the end, he gave up his suit against her and accepted her offer to split the wedding expenses. Although bittersweet, a resolution nonetheless!

Afterwards, on the evaluation forms provided by the mediator, Ms. Fields and Mr. Sanchez generally expressed satisfaction about participating in the process of mediation. They acknowledged that they had had opportunities during the mediation to experience awareness of and empathy for the other person's feelings. They emphasized the humanness of the mediation experience compared to the depersonalized procedures they would have experienced had they gone to court. They stated that communicating face-to-face with the individual who had to absorb the other person's offensive behavior is strikingly different from dealing with a judge in a courtroom.

In a mediation, participants discuss with the mediator whatever issues they consider to be relevant, without having to fear that the content will be judged. They have control over the decision-making in the process and do not face the risk of a decision that is made without feedback or consultation. Furthermore, due to the win-win nature of the process and the resolution of the conflict, they greatly increase the chances of improving their relationship.

In California, competent mediators complete at least 40 hours of training and subscribe to ethical standards set forth by the professional organization to which they belong. Having a qualified mediator, however, does not guarantee a successful outcome. For example, one of the participants in a mediation may be uninterested in resolving the conflict, and may instead, be looking for weaknesses that can be exploited in subsequent litigation--even though communications in mediations are confidential and cannot be used as evidence.

Despite occasional misfires, about 80-90 percent of all disputes submitted to mediation are successfully resolved. In those instances where mediation fails, it may be advisable for the mediator to refer one or both parties to appropriate professionals, such as marriage counselors, for extended therapeutic help.

People go into a mediation holding on to hatred and blame, and to the rightness of their cause, which is emotionally exciting and profoundly comforting. In the end, they exchange these feelings and positions for the healing of wounds and a mutually agreed-upon resolution.


Biography


Jack Hamilton has held positions as an instructor at Stanford University, as a senior research scientist at the American Institutes for Research, as director of executive services at the Institute for Information Management, and as co-founder of The Information Group, Inc. He holds a B.A. from Harvard, an M.A. from the University of California, and an M.A. and a Ph.D. from Stanford.

Jack believes we are at a time in the world when embracing diversity among people and groups is of vital importance. His mission as a conflict-resolution professional is to teach people how to realize their common destiny of coming to a truer understanding of who they really are, rather than what their thoughts about others often lead them to believe.



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