I recently attended a presentation by Kenneth Cloke, author of The Crossroads of Conflict: A Journey into the Heart of Dispute Resolution (and other books). Mr. Cloke is also the Director of the Center for Dispute Resolution. His presentation was for mediators, and he asked the audience of practicing mediators and students of mediation whether any of us had experienced the magic of mediation. Many hands went up, including mine. There are times during a mediation when a corner is turned, the impasse is broken, and the parties shift from argument toward resolution.
Then Mr. Cloke asked if we knew how to create the magic—to make it happen every time. And, of course, none of us did. Not really. We just knew that sometimes it happens, sometimes it seems that we did something that helped, and sometimes the parties get there with little or no assistance from the mediator.
In fact, Mr. Cloke said he didn’t know how to create the magic either. Not reliably. But, he said, there are things that mediators can do to increase the likelihood of the magic happening.
The first time I experienced the magic of mediation was not as a mediator, but as an attorney. The mediator in that case moved the plaintiff employee in a discrimination lawsuit from wanting to be promoted to agreeing to resign, in exchange for a reasonable severance payment and a few other terms. Although most of the work was done in caucus with the plaintiff, the mediator convinced this employee it was in his best interest to leave our company and start working in another field where he could pursue his passion. Hard work for the plaintiff and for the mediator, but I’m sure the man benefited from the change—we are all better off when we work in a job we love with people who think we are doing a good job.
That case was what convinced me of the value of trying mediation in almost any dispute. If a mediator could help an individual move so far in a single day (albeit a long day), then it is worth trying to resolve any lawsuit through mediation.
- During my years as a mediator, when I have seen the magic happen, it has usually been when the parties stop talking to me and start talking to each other.
In one case, two branches of a family realized their family relationships were more important than the money one owed the other. They focused on preserving their relationship, and the plaintiff gave up her monetary claim, leading the defendant to make non-monetary concessions the plaintiff needed.
- In another case, two long-term friends realized that litigation over a transaction between the two of them had gone bad was not the answer. They acknowledged that their friendship was probably over, but they decided it would be better if they just walked away from the dispute. I had proposed that as the only answer I saw—they were beyond being able to agree to the facts—but I was surprised to hear first one and then the other of them agree to this solution.
- And in a third case, parties to a business dispute, who had not previously discussed settlement, were both able to discuss the matter rationally as soon as they got together. My presence was superfluous, other than to require them to be in the same room for the mediation. I wondered why a lawsuit had been filed in the first place.
Sometimes, a mediator can contribute to the magic, but usually all the mediator does is to help the parties look inside themselves and think about what is most important to them. When people realize that their dispute has taken over their lives, when they would rather be focused on other things, then the case can settle.
A mediator mostly helps by listening. A few guiding questions can get the parties talking and thinking. Questions such as:
1. Why is that important to you?
2. What did you expect to happen that would have avoided this conflict?
3. What would you like to have happen now?
4. Why do you care about this problem at this time?
5. Will you ever convince the other side you are right? If not, when will you stop trying?
6. What will happen if you don’t resolve your dispute?
7. What will change if you do resolve your dispute?
8. What are you not talking about that you still need to discuss?
The types of questions that can promote dialogue between the parties are endless. The point is to probe beneath the accusations and judgments that are where the parties begin. Often, these patterns in communication have gone on for years, so it might take time to get beyond them. Still, I wait in every case for the moment when the parties turn to each other. Then, maybe the magic can happen.
Mediators, when have you felt the magic of mediation?