Showstopper Words in Mediation

Fairly Legal Blog by Clare Fowler

“He abandoned me.”

“She gave up.”

“He always turns his work in late.”

Do you know those phrases and accusations that are so laden with emotion that when you hear them, it feels as though the air was sucked out of the room? There is so much emotion in that statement, that the show cannot continue until some of that toxicity is dealt with.

As mediators, one of our greatest gifts is to reframe people’s issues. We hear the emotion and the values underneath a position, and reframe those in a way that the other party can hear.

An impediment to reframing–or any worthwhile communication–is showstoppers. Showstoppers are words that have inflated the conflict so much that it feels immovable.

For instance, let’s say a client has become frustrated. He is exhausted and under pressure at work and at home. His coworker, Sheila, has turned in her report late, again. He begins telling other coworkers about how Sheila is untrustworthy because, “She turns everything in late.”

The heart of the problem is that your client is feeling frustrated at this moment because the report is late, and your client will have to scramble to make up the time. Voicing that frustration to Sheila would be a productive behavior–difficult, but it allows Sheila to improve. Voicing the frustration to himself would also be productive to your client–at least then he is aware that he is feeling frustrated. Instead, your client protects his feelings of frustration and directs them at making Sheila the villain. And, to protect himself even more, he needs to make Sheila so big and bad that no one could blame him for the way he reacted. It is not just that she has turned in a report late 3 times, but she ALWAYS turns in a report late. And it’s not just that she was late because she spent extra time editing, it is late because she is UNTRUSTWORTHY.

Now these comments have inflated the conflict to be so big that it is difficult to make progress.

Our job is mediators is to push away some of the baggage. We can reframe the frustration and show clients how much we value their feelings. Yet, at the same time, we must also hold them accountable for their inflammatory, showstopper words. “Instead of saying her reports are always late, could we talk through some specifics?”

When people are forced to discuss details, instead of vague ambiguous references to how horrible another person is, they are accomplishing two things. First, it makes your client realize that maybe the other person isn’t horrible, but they did mess up a few times. Second, it makes the other person realize that yes, they have messed up, but at least now they have something concrete to either apologize for or try to improve upon in the future.

So, what do we do when hear those showstoppers in mediation? We realize that our clients have some significant values that they are trying to protect, and it is our job to push off the extra baggage so that we can safeguard the underlying emotion. Knowing those values are heard and safe is often the only way to help our clients and make any true progress in mediation.

After all, though our clients are coming in war-torn and weary, if we can be of any help, the show must go on.

                        author

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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