Accepting the need to draw a line in the sand and move forward is a key component of mediation. Arthur Ashe, a great athlete and activist shared these thoughts.
Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.
The last animal of the Chinese zodiac is the Pig. The Pig is regarded as being able to remain calm even when facing trouble.
With apologies to Rudyard Kipling:
If you can keep calm when everyone around you
Is stomping the ground and shouting at you,
If you can remain focused on interests and know which is true,
But understand that others may have interests too;
If you can listen and not shut down your understanding,
Or being challenged, not react with rage,
Or being accused, not give way to accusing,
And yet not forget to act your age:
Yours is resolution and the end of conflict,
And – which is more – you’ll be at peace.
And now for my favourite animal in real life and in the Chinese zodiac, the Dog. I have written previously about what dogs can teach us about conflict. Every day, my dogs teach me more life lessons, many of which involve the importance of access to treats and how to bark at wild boars.
In the Chinese zodiac, Dogs are well known for their loyalty. It is a defining feature. Loyalty may seem to be an unusual quality to look for in conflict, however, it has a role to play. In family mediation, trust and loyalty are gone. However, they still have a place if there are children. If there are children, then the former partners will continue to be co-parents.
This continuing co-parenting relationship demands connection at a time when many people wish the other person would disappear. As a family mediator in Hong Kong, I have an ethical duty to assist parents to focus on their children’s best interests. Research would tell us that ongoing conflict has the most negative impact on children.
As parties are dissolving their adult relationship, it is difficult to remember that the other person remains a co-parent and should remain a team-mate. Whilst your former partner may no longer deserve your loyalty as a partner, they may need to receive your loyalty as a co-parent, for the benefit of your children. I remember listening in a child inclusive mediation as a child consultant brought messages from their children. The children had specifically requested that their parents could be “a team”. Even though the children understood that their parents were separating, they still wanted to be parented by both of their parents. The children wanted to know that they had a team of adults looking after their needs and caring for them. Team-mates have loyalty for one another because they have a higher goal that they are seeking to achieve. Team-mates have loyalty for one another because they are focused on something other than their own feelings. Loyalty can have a place in conflict.
In the Chinese zodiac the Rooster is known for being confident.
In mediation, I often see parties who struggle with their confidence to find their voice. Being confident that you have a right to be heard and that you have the ability to represent yourself is important. One of the criticisms of modern mediation is that the process is based on being able to speak up for yourself. The criticism is that this is not easy or possible for everyone.
I can acknowledge the truth of this and think of parties who did struggle to speak confidently. However, I also think about how each of those people through the mediation process, grew in confidence.
Mediation is a very structured process. The mediator is there to enforce ground rules which require respectful communication. The mediation process itself is based on the idea that each party should have the opportunity to express themselves. This may be the first time that some parties have had this opportunity. In my experience, people do gain in confidence.
Confidence is an important strength in mediation.
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.
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.
Peace is not the absence of conflict but the presence of creative alternatives for responding to conflict -- alternatives to passive or aggressive responses, alternatives to violence.
Dorothy Thompson (1893-1961) American journalist and broadcaster
The zinger leaves our lips and zooms towards the recipient. As the words leave our mouth there may be an instantaneous moment of regret, or it may be that later that day you take a moment to wince at what you said. For most people this is a recognisable experience, the feeling that you have said something in the heat of the moment which was ill-advised or hurtful or destructive. When we are frustrated and angry is reacting without thought inevitable?
Conflict coaching aims to provide skills for people in how to respond in conflict situations rather than react. Riskin and Wohl have identified Six Obstacles that we encounter when we are in conflict.
If these are the obstacles what do Riskin and Wohl recommend? They advocate for the use of mindfulness training to provide space and time for reflective responses. In essence they suggest making use of mindfulness techniques to take a step back from the situation, assess what is happening and your response and then refocus attention.
By assessing our bodily sensations (e.g. increased heart rate, faster and shallower breathing), our emotional response (e.g. anger, frustration, disappointment) and our thoughts (e.g. what are you noticing? Where is your attention?) we can determine, what is happening for us in conflict situations. Just the act of slowing down from delivering a reaction to give time to assess and consider how we are feeling can make a significant difference to how we respond. Next time you encounter conflict, take a moment to assess and consider how you may frame a response rather than reacting.
Whether, people are in family mediation or employment mediation or commercial mediation, they have probably seen trust erode. All the reassuring words in the world cannot rebuild trust. Maybe you don't need to. Maybe the relationship is over and you are able to walk away from that particular burning bridge.
However, if you have an ongoing relationship (co-parenting / employment / commercial arrangements, etc.) then you will need to address the loss or deterioration of trust. If we accept that words are not enough to rebuild that bridge - how do you even start?
Rebuilding trust is a process and it may take months or years. The first steps to rebuilding trust can be taken in the mediation itself. A key way for people to address the loss of trust in mediation is through transparency. Disclosure of information relevant to the mediation can create the conditions in which trust can start to be rebuilt. This can start to challenge the narrative that the untrustworthy other side is hiding something. Transparency is a beginning but it can be a powerful first step.