Perception and Parts in Mediation

This article is from the Introduction to the mediation training manual by Jim Melamed available here.

Seeking to be an effective mediator is a both challenging and fascinating endeavor. Essentially, the mediator is asked to assist participants who have some measure of disagreement, or at least lack of agreement, to reach sufficient agreement so as to be willing to call the situation “resolved.” In this sense, the mediator seeks to move participants from “the circle of disagreement” to the “circle of agreement.”

Let us more closely examine the “circle of disagreement.” From a systems perspective, one may view conflict as at least one participant declaring that the status quo is no longer good enough. It only takes one participant to declare a conflict. Once a participant declares that they are unwilling to perpetuate the status quo, other involved individuals are drawn in. Once one participant declares a need to change his or her role, all involved are called upon to examine their roles as well.

This “declaration of conflict” by at least one participant that leads to the mediation intervention is much a matter of “perspective” and “parts.” Clearly, conflict is much a matter of perspective. We each do our own idiosyncratic perceiving and interpreting. As organic beings bent on survival (if not thrival), we are always making those choices that we perceive to be best for us and our system. In seeking to make these best possible choices, we tend to perceive our internal competing “voices” or “interests.” It is not unusual for mediation participants to have as much internal conflict between their inner voices as external conflict with the other participant(s). 

For example, in a divorce conflict, a participant might have the following internal “voices” to consider and integrate:

  • A desire for revenge
  • An interest in a future cooperative parenting relationship
  • A desire to express anger and frustration
  • A desire to honor the good parts of the marriage
  • A part that is very scared
  • A part that is eager to be independent
  • A part that wants fairness
  • A part that is excited about new relationship possibilities 

An employee who believes that he or she is being inappropriately discriminated against might, in deciding whether or not to “declare a conflict,” consider such parts, interests or voices as:

  • Can I afford to lose my job?
  • What would be exposed if this thing went public?
  • Will this jeopardize my opportunity for promotion?
  • Should I simply apply for another job?
  • What would happen with my pension benefits?
  • Do I really want to work with a lawyer? 

The point is that those in conflict go through an internal dialogue analyzing their various interests, concerns and, in “declaring a conflict” essentially say “the status quo is not enough; the balance has shifted; enough parts are out of line that I prefer to suffer through the difficulties of creating conflict rather than perpetuate the status quo.”

The author will consistently speak about participants having “parts” or “voices.” For example, in helping a party to resolve internal confusion, inconsistency, or uncertainty, the mediator may become an ally of the participants’ “integrating” part, that part of the participant that wants to participate to make best overall decisions. The mediator will thus help the participant to develop proposals that are satisfying of the participant’s most important interests and voices, and, hopefully, proposals that are acceptable to the other participant(s) as well.

The mediator also learns to speak to the “part” of each participant that is attracted to making progress toward settlement. Participants, again being made up of parts, can be virtually certain to have both a resistant part as well as a part of them that is (given that mediation is a voluntary process) actively attracted to agreement. Rather than viewing participants as “homogenous beings,” the mediator thus learns to view participants as being comprised of bundles of interests, concerns and voices. We help participants when we help them to identify and satisfy their most important interests, concerns and voices.

                        author

James Melamed, J.D.

Jim Melamed co-founded Mediate.com in 1996 along with John Helie and served as CEO of Mediate.com through June 2020 (25 years).  Jim is currently Board Chair and General Counsel for Resourceful Internet Solutions, Inc. (RIS), home to Mediate.com, Arbitrate.com, ODR.com and other leading dispute resolution sites. During Jim's tenure, Mediate.com… MORE >

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