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.