While mediating, I try to support parties in making their own choices about how they participate in the conversation. For years, I’ve been doing my best to notice when I have the urge to get my clients to do something differently or to see things differently, and then I try to let go of that urge, and return to supporting them in making their own choices. But those urges to get clients to do something or understand something keep coming.
A few weeks ago, in a workplace mediation, an employee, Eddie, had complained that one of his managers, Mary, had been badmouthing him. Only Eddie, Mary and Mary’s boss attended the mediation. Eddie said he had heard from a coworker, Carl, that Mary had criticized Eddie. During the mediation, Mary explained that she had not, in fact, said anything negative about Eddie. She wasn’t sure how Carl got that impression – perhaps he misunderstood her frustration with a computer program that Eddie had been involved in setting up. She was clear though that she hadn’t even thought anything negative about Eddie, so she was certain that she hadn’t said anything negative about him. Eddie remained convinced that, given what Carl had told him, and also given an ambiguous email that Mary had sent, Mary had been purposefully smearing Eddie’s name.
I hadn’t been in the meeting with Carl and Mary, so I didn’t know what Mary had said. But Mary seemed credible to me and she had been at that meeting. Eddie seemed paranoid and he had not been at the meeting. At one point, as part of my summary of the conversation, I said, “So when it comes to what happened in the meeting between Carl and Mary, Mary, you’re saying you didn’t say anything negative about Eddie. You’re sure of that, because you hadn’t even thought anything negative about Eddie. And Eddie, you’re saying that you heard from Carl that Mary did say something negative about you, and it’s absolutely not possible that that didn’t happen.”
“Absolutely not possible” was me screwing up. Eddie had never said those words. And my using those words was my frustration with Eddie leaking out. I wanted Eddie to open his mind to the possibility that he was mistaken, so I exaggerated what he’d said, to make it more obvious that he was being silly. Predictably, it didn’t work. Eddie remained defensive and rigid. I suspect he sensed I was trying to nudge him, and naturally he responded with resistance.
After that slip up, I caught myself, and returned to being fully supportive of Eddie’s perspective. I consoled myself that it had been a long day and that it was a brief lapse. From that point forward, when Eddie spoke, I reflected him accurately and empathically. And Mary continued to reassure Eddie that she had nothing against him. Another hour of conversation, which included Mary’s boss committing to make it clear to Eddie’s co-workers that management believed in him, and Eddie volunteered to withdraw his complaint.
Evaluating people’s credibility, forming opinions about reality, and developing a preference for what direction the conversation goes apparently run very deep. Practicing transformative mediation requires vigilance around letting go of those tendencies. And apparently forgiving oneself when those tendencies leak through is also part of the process.