I See Everything in Tie-Dye

My father once said, “Other people see things in black and white; I see them in tie-dye.”

I took this quote to heart. Where lawyers and judges see things in right and wrong, I don’t just see shades of gray. I see motives and interests and history and relationships and hopes and hurts and possible futures. Why? Because I am a mediator. It makes me good at my job.

A little too good.

I took my first mediation class as a peer mediator when I was 12 and never looked back. I have been trained under the best teachers how to actively listen, reframe, build a bridge, explore BATNAs and so on. The problem is that I need to be able to put these skills in perspective.

My daughter got sick the other day at school and they called her babysitter to come pick her up. When the babysitter got there my daughter had been sitting for over a half an hour on the bench in the office covered in vomit. Her hands, her face, her hair, her mouth. Telling me about it the babysitter was furious that they left her to sit like that for a half an hour without even giving her a paper towel or a glass of water. “No school nurse on duty,” they said, “And we are not authorized to attend to sick children.”

My Mediator kicked in. As I was fussing over my poor girl, I pondered, “Well, I can understand where the school is coming from. They have set policies and they don’t want to get in trouble. I’m sure after a few violations they would have had to talk to the superintendent. And they probably didn’t think you would take so long. They are really nice people in the office. I’m sure they didn’t leave her there on purpose.”

The babysitter looked at me like I was crazy. “Clare, they left your daughter sitting in vomit.”

I was instantly slapped back to reality and Mother Bear kicked in. I drove right to the school and calmly explained to them my anger, my daughter’s humiliation, and how I expected things to happen in the future. Red-faced, they agreed that they had made a mistake.

This instance has had me examine my instincts to see the other side. It is a great tool, but when one is seeing things in tie-dye one must also make sure that the brightly-lit, DayGlo, think-outside-of-the-box path is taking you to the ultimate goal.

For instance, I understand that the wife is furious because her husband cheated on her. I could spend all day delving into the emotions she must be going through. I could also spend all day talking with the husband about how he only got married because she was pregnant and how he never really loved her in the first place.

These are both important things to consider, but exploring them is not the goal in mediation. The parties might think it’s the goal: “I am not leaving this room until he knows how much he hurt me!” But as a mediator my job is to have a clearer picture of the goal and help the parties fill in the details. My job is to remember that the goal is an amicable divorce where the children still feel safe and loved. I have to help the parties remember that is their goal too.

I wonder if other mediators have these same tendencies as I look at recent trends. For instance, I have heard the same discussion about certification at probably every conference I have been to in the last decade. Someone will say, “Should we certify?” And then someone will say, “Let’s discuss all the reasons why.” “Let’s discuss the reasons why not.” “How will this affect you?” “How will this affect us as a field?” “Are we even a field?” These are all incredibly important conversations, but it is possible to analyze great ideas to the point of stalling them.

My upbringing, my training, and my default is to see everything in tie-dye. But sometimes when I also define things in black and white, my clients find peace with flying colors.


Clare Fowler

Clare Fowler is Executive Vice-President and Managing Editor at Mediate.com.  Clare received her Master's of Dispute Resolution from the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution at the Pepperdine University School of Law and her Doctorate in Organizational Leadership, focused on reducing workplace conflicts, from Pepperdine University School of Education. Clare also coordinated… MORE >

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