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When Mediating, Look For The Equal Human In Front Of You

“He’s acting like a child.”

When I’m leading a mediation training, the frustration of new mediators can be downright palpable during some of the more intense role plays. When we debrief afterward or when I interrupt to check in with a frustrated mediator and find out what’s going on for him, I hear comments like the one above and like these:

“She needs to stop being so (fill in the blank) because she’s getting in her own way…but I can’t get her to!”

“Well, I guess I can see why they ended up in mediation.”

“If I acted that way in front of other people I’d be mortified. He needs a good kick in the keister.”

“Why are they acting so badly and how can I make them stop?”

I remember wrestling with some of the same behavioral challenges when I was first learning 15 years ago. Fortunately, I had my mother, who died when I was in my mid-20s, whispering gently in my ear in those moments. She whispered, as she had when I was a teenager,

Stop judging. Just look for the equal human in front of you.

If you subscribe to my Conflict Zen blog, then you know I believe strongly that the way we think about conflict has a profound influence on the way we respond to it. So it would come as no surprise that I also believe the way mediators think about about conflict, behavior, and resolution profoundly influences the way we work with clients.

Why harsh judgment from the mediator is a problem

Here’s why the thinking reflected in the new-mediator frustrations above gets in the way:

  • Clients don’t want or need to be judged by the mediator too. They’re (usually) judged harshly enough by the other party and the mediator has no business adding to it.
  • Judging a party harshly focuses your attention on their behavior instead of your own. Big mistake (I’ll say more about that in a moment).
  • Harsh judgment slams your mediator’s toolbox shut and leaves you with the temptation to chide outright or act out your chiding in other ways. No party to a mediation needs or wants their junior high school principal in the room.

What should the mediator do instead?

The trick is in changing your thinking, my friends. In flipping the coin of your thoughts, at first consciously, then later as a natural habit of mind.

Remember, no party who’s acting badly got out of bed that morning and thought to himself, “I want to act badly in front of other people today.” They got out of bed in the morning thinking the same thing you did: “I’m going to try to do my best today.”

The great news is that mediators can let go of playing the Respect Police or Client Wrangler. You can stop playing those roles because they’re no fun, can make things worse, and there’s something so much more elegant you can do instead:

Stop judging. Just look for the equal human in front of you.

When the mediator sees the equal human, you see someone whose gotten hijacked and would be so appreciative of a mediator who helps them find their way back to more graceful behavior. When the mediator sees the equal human, you see someone you can assist instead of feel disdain for. When the mediator sees the equal human, you realize that the mediator’s behavior is what needs to change, in order to help the party back to a place of better balance.

And when the mediator sees the equal human in front of them, you automatically start to wonder instead of judge:

Instead of judging like this… You wonder like this…
What childish behavior! Hmmm…what’s triggering them?
Why can’t they see that the way they’re acting is making things worse? Hmmm…How can I help them make different behavior choices right now?
How can I make them stop that? Hmmm…I wonder what they’d tell me I could do to help them better? Let me find out…

What do you think? Let me know in the comments (if you’re reading this in email, click the article title and you’ll be taken to the web page with the comment form near the bottom).


Tammy Lenski

Dr. Tammy Lenski helps individuals, pairs, teams, and audiences navigate disagreement better, address friction, and build alignment. Her current work centers on creating the conditions for robust collaboration and sound decisions while fostering resilient personal and professional relationships. Her conflict resolution podcast and blog, Disagree Better, are available at… MORE >

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