The Space Between the Parties: A model for understanding the magic of mediation

Just for a moment, let’s put aside all of the talk of anger management, neutrality,
opening statements, ground rules, communication skills, the pros and cons of humor, and
strip mediation down to its bare essentials. Can we think for a minute about the heart of
mediation, what it is that enables the parties to leave the hearing mutually satisfied?

To me, the key component of a satisfactory mediation is when the parties are able to
access a space that lies somewhere outside their individual egos and between them where
the solutions ultimately lie. I call this space the “Between.” The Between is
that altered space which lies in neither “camp” and is in both camps at the same
time. This kind of talk may be new to you–maybe you have not articulated it in quite this
way before. But if you are an experienced mediator, I’ll bet you know what I am talking
about.

When I first began to mediate community disputes about 15 years ago, I remember reading
the brief case histories ahead of time and thinking fretfully to myself that I couldn’t
see a resolution. I would scare myself, thinking that if I couldn’t second-guess a
resolution, there wouldn’t be much hope of finding one. Experience has shown me that such
fretting is a waste of energy–I have become both less sure of outcomes and more sure that
the process itself yields results, not me.

Since I am a philosopher as well as a mediator, I went in search of answers to the
larger questions of what mediation is and how it works on a meta-level. I had done enough
investigation into traditional methods of “resolving” disputes in the legal
system to be convinced that further polarization and animosity were often the end results
of that adversarial set- up. But I wanted to know what made mediation different, what made
it “work.” How do two parties go from the center of conflict, where the only
possible point of view is their own, to something qualitatively different?

So first I experienced the alchemy of the shift; and then curiosity forced me to try to
explain it to myself. What was this “magical” shift and why hadn’t I been taught
that such a thing existed. I had been taught about science and about God. But this shift,
though it had elements of each of those, seemed to fit into neither category completely.

At the same time that I was practicing mediation, I was working on my Master’s thesis
in philosophy. In that thesis I critiqued the predominant Western worldview on which our
institutions and thinking are based which originated just before Plato-the view that the
world was split up into two distinct camps and that on one side were the “good”
things, like mind, men, immortality and reason; and on the other were the “bad”
things, such as body, women, mortality and emotion. I was working then toward a philosophy
of the whole, one that included all of human experience instead of bifurcating reality.

At some point my experience in mediation and my intellectual pursuits came together in
another kind of alchemy. I began to use the model I had experienced as a mediator to
experiment with healing these nasty splits that have been festering for so many centuries.
I call my attempt to “bewhole” the world “the Between model.” The
Between model is a different way to see reality; it implies that those things which have
been split apart for whatever reasons, have always been connected and cannot in fact be
severed without losing huge parts of each of them; those are the parts that are shared in
the Between.

What, you might ask, is this “Between?” Think of two overlapping circles
situated side-by-side that represent two individuals. The individuals are separate, yes,
but they are also connected. The Between model provides a way to encompass paradox and to
describe the altered space I referred to earlier. That Between space is more liquid than
solid, constantly changing–you change, I change and our interactions change.

When two parties or “sides” are brought together in a non-hierarchical way
with the understanding that each has uniquenesses and perspectives, we see a different
reality. We do not come together to determine right or wrong,
winners or losers, but to attempt to express, to receive and to respect. If respect and
understanding occur, then it is not essential that the two parties agree with each
other–it is enough that they are able to move into the Between. If we reach a point where
we can let go of ego and enter the Between, we will find the solutions that have evaded
us.

The irony of this is that when we split people or other entities apart, we lose the
most creative, dynamic, fertile space– the richest source of resolution– which is what I
call the Between. So we have to come up with rules and codes of conduct to try to fill in
the gap.

Once we have a way of conceptualizing what mediation is, we can then see all of our
goals in the light of this model. Now we can take our musings about the larger more
philosophical picture and apply them to particular skills and structures that may help a
mediator usher parties into the Between. I will suggest some possibilities but I’m sure
you will have more to add from your own thoughts and experience and I invite you to join
the dialogue.

Role of the Mediator

The attitude of the mediators sets the stage for what is to follow. It helps if the
mediators have a belief in the process-if they recognize the possibility that the parties
really can resolve the dispute Between them. Mediators then must resist the urge to
second-guess and control the outcome. When the mediators believe the parties are actually
connected by shared space–no matter how far apart they seem at the beginning of the
hearing–they can begin to shift their mission away from generating ideas and imposing
solutions toward the creation of a neutral space where each party feels respected and from
which it is possible to enter the Between.

Key to this shift is that parties hear each other and acknowledge that they have heard.
The age-old technique of asking each party to reiterate what the other said can certainly
help here. Once the parties hear each other, the mediators’ role is to keep a
non-judgmental space open, encouraging resolution brainstorming.

Opening statement
Much of the stage-setting is accomplished with the opening statement. Breaking out of the
win-lose mentality and instead looking for the common ground (even if it seems there is
nothing more than that each wants to resolve the dispute) is crucial. It is necessary to
find ways to set the stage for a major change in mindset. How can we shift their mindsets
from seeing each other as part of a dichotomy rather than part of a whole?

I include in my opening statement a recognition that it is common for people to come
into the hearing wanting to “build a case,” to be declared “right”-we
have all been taught to deal with conflict that way. Oddly enough, those very
case-building skills are self-defeating here because they obstruct the progress toward
resolution. I suggest that the parties keep somewhere in the back of their minds the idea
that they are not trying to win or lose but to resolve the dispute in a lasting way. I
also ask parties to keep an open mind as to possible resolutions to the situation. I ask
them to feel free to think creatively about what they need and what they can give–nothing
is too absurd to be entertained.

Ground rules
Usually mediators have a ground rule about mutual respect. But you may want to say more
about it. For instance, explain that it’s in the parties’ best interest- to listen
intently and learn to respect of the other’s point of view. Hard as it may be, it will
help in the search for resolution.

Because listening is key, you may want to include a ground rule that provides a way for
the parties to stop the process if they feel they are not able to hear what the other
says. For instance, say someone is unable to listen because they are too busy building
their case. In such an instance, or in any other which precludes listening, you can
encourage parties to ask for a time out. Plant the seeds that show them that the real
kudos in this process are gained not by building an airtight case, but by listening
carefully and with an ear toward a more peaceful future.

Witnessing the alchemy of mediation influenced my philosophical thinking and now it’s
time for the philosophy to give back and positively influence the practice of mediation.
And the shift from litigation to mediation is a metaphor for a way to approach our world
that is entirely different. A similar shift in mindset is possible in every aspect of our
lives. Often a prerequisite to “knowledge” and “truth” is a
split–from our bodies, from each other and from the environment. By eliminating the
Between, such a rich source of creativity, we handicap our efforts to understand and live
in harmony with each other and with our environment.

I have written a book on the larger subject area which uses mediation as a prime
example of the Between at work. The book, called The Emperor Has a Body: Body Politics in
the Between, was published by Javelina Books in Tucson, Arizona in November of 1998. It is
available through the major distributors and at bookstores in your neighborhoods as well
as on-line at Amazon.com. I invite you to send me your comments on this
article–especially any experiences you might have had entering the Between–or on the
book in general– at mindbody@sirius.com.

                        author

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