By in large, therapy has been the restricted domain of counsellors and psychotherapists. My limited understanding of therapy is that it is a construct aimed at changing a person’s mindset or thinking around a specific issue to the point that it no longer poses a problem. Much has been written about the course of mediation being a succinctly different entity from therapy, and while it has been my experience that this is mostly true, propositionally I would suggest that in a crisis, if one were to deescalate the situation by whatever means possible, they would have achieved a therapeutic intervention. This came to me by way of a highlighted situation that occurred recently during the course of my day.
For those readers who are not familiar, Toronto is one of the top 5 largest metropolitan cities in North America. With a bustling community encompassing great cultural diversity, and is a respected hub of civility in a country that is known for its apologies even when they are not wrong. Having said that, as is often the case in any busy metropolitan city, people are always scurrying backwards and forwards without enough time in the day. Gridlock becomes a common-place consideration and tempers flare quite easily, especially in the arena of motor vehicle traffic, where road range is a prominent syndrome.
On this specific day, I was out running an errand and about to engage the public transit to return home. Given the hour, my stomach had other ideas – I was hungry! It came to mind that I could grab a quick bite to eat since I was out. For the longest while I had been eyeing a take-out spot in the area which I had found appealing as they always had a line-up for food. In my opinion, this is one of the best advertisements for where one should eat. Where there is a line, usually the food is good and fresh. Intrigued with the possibility of trying this new dining spot, I made my way to the street.
The intersection was busy that day, as it usually is. There were lots of cars, cyclists, and pedestrians – all moving as fast as they could, many violating the rules of the road including traffic signals and generally avoiding each other as they went about their business.
While walking towards the restaurant and my designated eating place, I saw a crowd gathering and heard a number of raised voices. It was clear there was a commotion ongoing. I noticed a car stopped at the end of the bike lane barriers that appeared to be trying to enter the stream of traffic. That effort was being hampered by a cyclist who stood in from of the car blocking its path, using her bike as a shield.
My initial consideration, as I continued to walk towards my destination, was “this is none of my business.” However, as I walked past, I turned around and observed, as I looked over my shoulder, the car backing up in an attempt to merge with the traffic, and thus to go around the cyclist. I noticed the cyclist was a female, and she moved her bike in sync with the car such she continually placed herself directly in the line of fire. Recognizing the potentially peril this could cause, and the lasting consequences that could occur, after hesitating for a brief moment, I stopped, changed directions and approached the vehicle. I began by addressing both the driver and passenger and asked them to be patient and not move. This was done in an attempt to control the situation to prevent it from escalating or becoming out of hand.
At that time my brain turned to mediation mode, to me this was essentially setting the stage for a mediation and being in control of how the situation unravels. I then turned to address the cyclist who was upset. In an attempt to de-escalate her frustration, I inquired by saying “excuse me ma’am.” Unfortunately her level of anger had risen and the immediate response was a yell to not call her “ma’am”. Calmly, without missing a beat, I then asked her if she was okay – again, her level of angst was too high, because she yelled that she was not, and that I should clearly see that.
In the course of my speaking with her, I could see people gathering around, phones out, ready to stream or post on their social media story. I briefly reflected on the type of world we live in, and how everyone was caught up in publicity and no one was willing to intervene to change the circumstance. It occurred to me the more the cyclist was yelling the more people stopped, and this included other traffic that by now had begun voicing their frustrations and yelling at her for blocking the car since it was impeding their process. At this stage the car continued to block the bike lane – the very thing she was upset about. Some of the other parties frustrated started calling her names, and one person circled behind her and I had a feeling he was going to grab her bike and physically move it out of the way. At this point I took control and intervened. I calmly, but forcefully, asked him not to touch her or her bike as it would not help the situation, especially since the cyclist was still agitated and continued to yell her demands.
As I actively listened to her diatribe, it became clear that she had been one of the people who had campaigned and fought, for 20 years, to have bike lanes implemented in the city. Further, she had been hit by a car on 4 separate occasions, with such severity she had suffered concussions. Finally, and moreover, she had wanted to block the car for 7 minutes until she felt the drive could reflect on his mistake and learn his lesson sufficiently that perhaps he would not park in the bike lane again.
The crowd, only mindful of their own needs, were not listening to her. By in large they just saw someone being childish and ignorant, opposed to someone standing up for their rights to being treated equally. I recognized that the quickest route to deescalate the situation was to have her needs heard and met, especially given I heard her say, “I just want my needs met and until they are met, I am not moving.”
As a member of the BIPOC community, I understood what it felt like to not be heard and to have one’s desires ignored and one’s values trampled on. As such, I could identify with some of her values, wants, needs and desires, and had a clear understanding of what was needed. Having taken control of the situation, I asked everyone to stay back and not approach or try to help. I told them that I understood the situation and I was aiming to resolve it quickly. I was pleased that people respectfully stood back. At this stage, I focused my attention on the driver and inquired as to what had happened.
He indicated he had stopped his car so that his girlfriend could run into a store to buy water. His girlfriend told me they were stopped for less than two minutes. They said they could not understand why the cyclist wouldn’t move so that they could stop blocking the bike lane and did not recognize they did anything wrong. Furthermore, they thought this was an overaction.
By this time, other cyclists either dismounted and/or went around the car to get into the bike lane again. Noting how the situation could potentially become more dangerous, and in an attempt to resolve the issues, I approached the driver and explained that I had given her the opportunity to share her story and feel heard, and I wanted to provide him with the same opportunity. He said he had attempted to apologize to the cyclist, but it did not appear that he had been listened to. I explained to him that, giving her time to speak to she felt heard, it may be more accepting this time, and began the apology process. I appealed to his sense of wanting to do the right thing and to end this stand-off. I indicated to him this was an issue of principle for her. It appeared he understood when he finally leaned his head out of the car and yelled “I’m sorry for blocking the bike lane.” At which her response was “I don’t believe you, but I think you learned your lesson and won’t do it again.”
Just like that, her anger dissipated. She made a motion to indicate she was about to move her bike, and she further said to him, “you have the road for you, I have the bike lane for me. Just as it isn’t appropriate for me to be on the road, it isn’t appropriate for you to be in the bike lane, no matter for how long.” He acknowledged she was right, and she moved herself and her bicycle to the sidewalk and the driver drove off. Fairly quickly the crowd disappeared and I went to get my food.
As I reflected while eating my food, it was evident to me that this was an example of how my mediation training can be applied to most unexpected events in our daily lives. Had I not had the level of training I possess, despite the goodness of my heart, I could have further aggravated the situation. Having the tools in my mediation toolkit at my disposal, as I approached that situation, I was confident that I could de-escalate and achieve some sense of resolution to help the parties. By virtue of my training, I was able to quickly assess the environment, and knew how to ensure my own safety. Based on the amount of training I have, I was able to remain neutral and by way of clarification, to understand the cyclist’s needs. For me, this was a clear demonstration that mediation allowed an opportunity for the individuals to be heard, and that once provided with that chance, their emotionality becomes de-escalated, and the parties are more willing to make decisions that are in the best interests and of the others concerned.
On my way back to the subway, I again passed the cyclist, who was still a little upset. I asked how she was doing, this time the question did not illicit a yelled response based on the camaraderie we developed. She was able to tell me that she was still shaken from the incident, but she felt better, and thanked me for having stopped and helping out. More importantly, she told me that I had restored her faith in humanity and in people’s kindness and willingness to listen. I felt very humbled by that compliment.
I would like to thank Bruce Ally for his helpful editing and revisions of this article.