Friday, October 7, 2016

What’s Next? – Putting a Basic Mediation Trick to Work for You

Having just returned from a meeting of the Association for Conflict Resolution in Baltimore, I have come to the conclusion that we do not do enough with mediation in Iowa. While there are a few individuals with private practices in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, here in the Quad Cities there are very few people who practice mediation at all, and those are largely volunteers. When I teach mediation, both at St. Ambrose University and also in the local schools, most people don’t know what exactly they are in for. So I thought it might be good to have a primer on what this method of conflict resolution is and, more importantly, what are some practical tips you can take away from it that could help in your day-to-day life.

Mediation is a form of conflict resolution where a third party facilitates a conversation between two or more conflicting parties. The mediator does not determine the outcome and the participants are not obligated to participate. Instead, it is an entirely voluntary conversation where conflicting parties, who have been struggling to determine a suitable outcome on their own, are helped toward that outcome by someone who won’t weigh in on what they think should be done. Mediators create structure, they provide organization to a conversation that might otherwise be emotional and sprawling, and they help participants identify the goals that they see as desirable. Ultimately, it is keeping the participants' focus on that self-determined goal that creates the structure. 

The reason why this is useful for people in conflict is the number one practical tip mediation can offer you. When we are in conflict -- or more generally, when we are in a situation we don’t like -- it is very common for us to focus on what we don’t want rather than on what we do want, what outcome would be acceptable as the next best alternative. We had an outcome in mind, an obstacle to that outcome has presented itself and now all we can see is the loss of the ideal situation for which we were aiming. There is a term in German that I think beautifully captures this condition: weltschmerz. The despair that results from comparing the world as it is to the world as we wish it to be. Once we are “weltschmerzed” it is difficult for us to move out of that despair and into being an active part of the resolution. It is as though once we know we won’t get the desired outcome then NO outcome is worth pursuing. We let the perfect become the enemy of the good or the acceptable and in the event that we see inevitable imperfection we halt all forward progress. 

On some level we know how silly this is. We have all seen the child in the restaurant who, having been denied dessert for dinner, pushes away all other reasonably acceptable nourishment. It’s as if we have reached a level of disappointment that poisons all of the remaining alternatives. In mediation, it quickly becomes the mediators' job to help the participants identify their next best outcome so that they can work together to find a solution that is aimed toward that. When the participants are struggling through a conflict without a next-best alternative in mind, the conversation frequently spirals without direction and it is very difficult for a mediator to create structure in a conversation that just keeps revisiting how unhappy the conflicted parties are.

There is a way we can use this information to our advantage. When we are in a conflict with another person, there is the tendency for one or both parties to fall deeply into weltschmerz-induced paralysis. It seems as if the conflict cannot be resolved because a fixation has grown around the tug-of-war of opposing desired outcomes. Rather than engaging in the tug-of-war consider shifting the focus to what’s next. We cannot have our first options, but what’s the next best alternative? Precious time can be wasted arguing over what could have been differently to produce the desired outcome but if it can’t go back now and be fixed then we need to thinking about what we do from here. Discussing the past is only minimally useful, and only then if there is some sense in which you are able to learn something from it that will improve the future. While that may be worth pursuing when you are engaged in a conflict with a family member, friend or long-term colleague, the vast majority of our life conflicts don’t fit that criterion. 

In any situation of conflict, when you see your partner-in-conflict turning the conversation toward what’s happened, shift the line of dialogue toward what’s next. One way you might want to try doing this is to ask questions such as: Given that we can’t do what you want, what would a situation look like that might work for you? What did you like about that outcome? Are there some components of that outcome that could be salvaged? What’s most important to you at this point? The idea is to avoid assigning blame, avoid trying to rewrite the past and instead help your counterpart (and by extension, you!) to see what they want. Once we know what we want, we can work together to find how close we can get to that. If we don’t have an outcome in mind anymore (because our desired outcome has gone out the window) we become like a traveler without a destination. In any conflict, first things first, identify the destination. 
Try it the next time you run into a conflict with someone. Try to help clarify what they want. You don’t have to be entirely forthcoming about what you are doing and you may not want to ask them directly (because thanks to their weltschmerz-induced paralysis they probably don’t know yet.) However, it is worth the effort to try to explore the possibilities with them and once you establish a destination you can figure out what’s the next step to move toward that. 

Even better, work on identifying those next best outcomes for yourself. When you have poor customer service, a disappointing exchange with a professor or student, or a disagreement with a family member, work on establishing for yourself what’s next for you. Once you know that, it is easier to ask for the necessary steps to make that happen. It’s a whole lot easier for you and your fellow conflicted soul to get out of the rut you are in if you have a destination in mind.

--Jessica Gosnell

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