The Monkeys of the Chinese zodiac are known for being fast learners.
One of the goals in mediation is for the parties to learn more about how to manage their own conflicts in the future. Mediation is a proven process for resolving conflict. The lessons of mediation include:
It is possible for anyone in conflict to learn any of these lessons and to apply them in their current dispute and beyond. Being a fast learner can help anyone to manage and resolve conflicts more effectively.
The Goat is the creative animal in the Chinese zodiac.
Creativity can suffer in conflict. In order to be creative, we need to be vulnerable. When we are in conflict, we already feel vulnerable at least on some level. The thought of exposing ourselves even more to our adversary can prevent people from exploring creative options.
Conflict can lead people to feel that the world has narrowed and that there are only two options – my option or their option. In reality these options exist on a spectrum and there are many shades of grey between our preferred solution and the other person’s preferred solution. Exploring the spectrum requires creativity.
Mediation can provide the safe space for people to be creative and explore some of the options along the spectrum. In mediation, when parties are trying to come up with options there is no judgment and no commitment. Evaluation comes later in the process. As everyone has experienced, if you are trying to be creative and come up with ideas, the one thing that is sure to stop the flow of ideas is judgment.
If you are in conflict, then try and be like the creative Goat. There is more than one way to make a cake. Or end a post.
The next animal in the Chinese zodiac is the Horse. According to the Chinese zodiac, one of the strengths of the Horse is their sense of humour.
It can be hard to experience humour in conflict. Without doubt, many times in the mediation session, people are angry, frustrated, upset and perhaps even shocked about their dispute.
Humour is a powerful tool for communication. If, and it is a big “if”, people share a moment of levity then it can create a strong sense of connection. Even if this is momentary it can provide a reset for a negotiation which has become fraught and stuck.
Usually I do not get to see the humour of parties in mediation, however, I remember sitting in a mediation where both parties were exhausted. One party made a suggestion, which was intended to be funny and which luckily the other party responded to in kind. There was a moment of laughter. We went back to the agenda item, but both had renewed energy and I detected a little shift in each of their positions to be more collaborative. At the end they were able to reach settlement.
The lesson is that humour can be a powerful tool, and like all tools, it must be used at the right time. The right tool at the wrong time is the wrong tool.
The next animal in the Chinese zodiac is the Snake. The Snake is known for being goal focused.
In negotiation or mediation, it is easy to understand people’s positions. Positions are tangible, quantifiable and usually preceded by “I want…”. It is usually very easy for people to identify their positions. In 1981, Fisher and Ury wrote their seminal negotiation book, Getting to Yes, which set out to reveal a new way of negotiating. They urged people to understand their interests and those of the other side. Interests are the needs, fears and concerns which drive our positions.
I remember sitting in mediation where a party, Bill repeated his position and became increasingly voluble as he noted that this was a deal breaker. “I want X, or I’m walking”. The other party, Ben was confused as the asset, “X” represented a significant monthly cost and would present an ongoing burden to Bill. No matter how many times Ben tried to explain that this was a bad deal for Bill, Bill reiterated this was the deal breaker.
For Bill, the asset “X” was identified as a must-have and Bill’s sole focus became achieving this position. As this was a mediation and not a negotiation, we were able to have a discussion to try and understand the interests underlying Bill's position. As Bill spoke it became clear that “X” represented security, continuity and legacy for Bill. All of these interests could be met in other ways which were less burdensome to Bill. By using the mediation process, Bill began to focus on his interests rather than his position.
The lesson in this is to stay focused on your goals and not your positions. The first step in negotiation or mediation is to understand what your interests are. What is it you really need? What needs, fears and concerns need to be addressed? If you have capacity you can take the next step and think about what the other person's interests are. Without the initial reflective step of considering your interests, a party can become wed to a ‘deal-breaker’ position that doesn’t actually meet their needs.
The fifth animal of the Chinese zodiac is the Dragon. As well as fiery breath (at least in Western tradition), Dragons are known for their courage and willingness to take risks.
There is often a point in negotiations where a party needs to take a leap of faith. I don’t mean irresponsible risks, but for a party who has prepared their data, sought legal advice and reflected on their own contribution to the dispute, these are calculated risks. A party may need to have belief:
It is not easy to believe in any of these aspects, and yet every mediation, I see parties being willing to take this risk. Taking risks is not easy and yet in conflict parties often need to take this leap of faith in order to change the dynamics and reach resolution.
The third animal of the Chinese zodiac is the Tiger. Tigers are regarded as having strength of character which helps them to handle adversity.
It is not difficult to see why being like a Tiger could assist parties in conflict. Parties can readily identify the costs in time and money which are consumed by being in conflict. However, parties rarely identify the other costs of the conflict: emotional and psychological burden; inability to focus on their business; negative impact on health; negative impact on family; etc.
Parties need to find ways to help them cope with being in conflict. I have seen parties use many means of handling the stress:
All of these are ways to help handle adversity and can provide parties with the boost they need to be able to manage their dispute. At the end of the day, whatever helps a party to stay focused and clear-headed is beneficial. The ability to handle adversity sometimes means knowing when to ask for help and being brave enough to ask.
The fourth animal of the Chinese zodiac is the Rabbit. The Rabbit is viewed as patient and not easily discouraged.
Both of these are excellent qualities for a person in conflict, however, I would like to focus on patience. I can think back to many discussions with parties where they felt extreme frustration at the pace of mediation. In particular, the frustration is often directed at the other party.
One challenge faced by mediators is matching the time perspectives of each party in the mediation. In family mediation, separation leads to a grieving process as a person processes the end of the relationship, the loss of identity, the evaporation of a planned future, and the inevitable disruption of the pattern of life. For some parties this grieving process may be abbreviated and may start during the relationship. This can mean that by the time they arrive at mediation, they have grieved for the losses and are ready to move on with their new life. For the other party, they may have only begun their grieving process. This leads to a mismatch in their time perception.
For the party who has finished their grieving process, the mediation may feel slow and ponderous. For the party who is still engaged in the grieving process, the mediation may feel hasty and rushed. As a mediator, I need to work with both parties and ensure a process that is respectful yet has forward momentum. If this seems to be the dynamic at work then I often explain this to the parties to help them understand what they may be experiencing. Often this conversation helps both parties to understand a little more about themselves and the other party. A little understanding can lead to increased patience with the process and with the other party. Injecting patience into a mediation, is a little like adding more oxygen to the room.
The second animal of the Chinese zodiac is the Ox. In the Chinese zodiac, the Ox is known as hard-working. Hard work can be a hard sell.
One aspect of mediation which is obvious but rarely considered is how much work it is for the parties. Modern mediation is based on a philosophy of party empowerment. Parties cannot be empowered if third parties are making decisions for them or coming up with all the answers. It would be lovely if everyone could come to mediation and be highly negotiable, primed in interest-based bargaining and seek win-win outcomes. However, I have yet to experience that mediation session.
In reality, parties often need to prepare information and seek data, and put together their mediation homework. Homework is just the beginning. Parties may have to seek further information or specific legal advice in order to inform discussions. This work is critically important as parties need information/data to make informed decisions.
During mediation, parties often need to work hard to create options and to consider proposals. I have been in mediations where both parties turn to me and say “what should we do?”. People can feel stuck and exhausted. As a mediator, I can help by calling a break, moving to another issue or reframing the question. I cannot make the necessity for hard work go away.
In intakes (pre-mediation sessions) I often warn people that mediation will be hard work and that they will need to dig deep. The reward for that hard work is a resolution to the dispute, moving on with life and not remaining mired in conflict. On that basis, I think the hard work is a good investment.
In the Chinese zodiac, each animal has been blessed with specific strengths and skills. What does each animal have to teach about how to manage conflict? This week the Rat. Rats are quick-witted and curious.
The first casualty in war may be the truth, but in conflict, one of the first casualties is curiosity. This may occur long before raised voices or awkward silences. At some point we cease being curious about why the other person says or does something. We begin to feel that we “know” the motivations and intentions driving other people's behaviour. Suddenly, the meaning and intention behind another person’s word, tone, or look is revealed to us. We cease to be curious about what the other person’s intentions or beliefs may be, as we feel that we already know.
I remember being in a commercial mediation where the business partners had started working together in a positive and productive manner. A few years in, one of the partners moved away from Hong Kong and communication which had been in-person became limited to emails. As a result of time-zones and distance, communication became increasingly difficult.
Over time, each partner began to interpret emails in a negative manner and miscommunication became the norm. By the time I met the partners, each person told me that the behaviour of the 'other' was deeply suspicious and was prompted by bad intentions. Rather than be curious about what interests might underlie behaviour, each party “knew” exactly what was going on in the other person’s mind.
During the mediation, each partner was able to describe from their perspective what had prompted some of the more controversial emails. It became increasingly clear to each partner that they had made incorrect assumptions about the motivations and intentions of the other person. As they were able to communicate directly with each other during the mediation, they began to become more curious. They started to ask questions rather than make assumptions. They became curious.
The business relationship was over; however, they were able to work together to end their relationship amicably and discreetly. By re-igniting their curiosity each party was able to put to one side their pre-conceived judgments and be curious. Their curiosity allowed the parties to ask questions, learn new information and work collaboratively to resolve their issues.