Monday, February 8, 2010

I used to think I could listen

I spent the last two weeks in what my master's degree program calls a "residency."  It was 11 days of training from 9AM to 6PM in conflict intervention skills.  With classmates, coaches, and impressive professional mediators, I helped people pretending to have conflicts pretend to negotiate their differences.  It was harder than it sounds and I learned a lot about myself. 

There was a pretend conflict between a mother and daughter about passing the family business from parent to adult child.  There were neighbors feuding over whether one could build a boat house blocking the other's scenic view.  There were brothers who couldn't agree on what to do with the lakefront property they jointly inherited from their mother; and there were co-workers who shared a cubicle and disturbed their colleagues with their constant bickering.  So much conflict.

During all these hypothetical mediation sessions I noticed that being helpful in a mediator role is at the same time harder and easier than I thought it would be.  The key to good mediation is careful listening.  It's that simple.  But it isn't that easy.  Listening well turns out to be incredibly difficult for the vast majority of people, including me.  I used to think I was a good listener, so this news was a little hard on the ol' Ego.

During these mediation sessions, as someone who gets paid for having ideas and giving advice, I found that I was listening only semi-attentively.  Most of my meager brain power was was being used to frantically come up with a solution to the problems unfolding, worrying that the parties in conflict would finish talking and find me staring blankly back at them with nothing helpful to say.  And that is exactly what happened to me in my first mock mediation.  Blank stares and awkward silence.  I'm cringing at the still fresh memory as I write this.

It turns out that all of my problem-solving energy is a waste during a mediation.  My ideas, brilliant or not, are not useful to parties in conflict.  The mediator must swallow ideas, hold them at bay, and instead create space for the people in conflict to solve their own problems.
What?  People can do that?  They don't need me and my special extra-ordinary insight into their lives?  You mean they know more about their own lives and needs than I do?  Imagine that.  Imagine that, Oh Cocky One! 
It was a humbling revelation and also a liberating notion.  Once I patched my bludgeoned ego, I thought, this is going to be easy.  They who are in conflict will do the heavy lifting.  They will solve their problems.  My job as a mediator is just to help things along.  Unfortunately, this helping part, when you take problem-solving out of my bag of tricks, is very difficult.

The mediator is supposed to oil the gears of conversation and the best oil of all, the extra-virgin (or EVOO for you Rachel Ray fans) of mediator lubricant, is listening.  Listening through the din of so many polarizing words for what each person really needs and cares about.  This listening part is what people in conflict are rarely doing for one another.  It is hard enough to listen as a neutral outsider to a conflict.  From the inside it can be impossible.  Who can listen to a person they can barely stand to look at; to someone who is attacking their character; or to someone so different from them that he may as well be from Mars?   The mediator's job is to listen to people and reflect their words back to them but re-framed so they can be heard by the other.  Slowly through listening and reflecting back what is being said, the mediator creates space for a conversation between the parties in conflict, for them to solve the problem at hand, whether dividing property and negotiating child custody, or deciding how common living space in an apartment building will be maintained.

So listening better is my new goal.  If you know me consider this post a warning.  You may find that I am acting weird.  I am going to be trying to listen more attentively, even to you, dear husband.  I will be trying not to dole out advice (unless you ask for it, in which case I may not be able to resist). 

GJ, Johnny, and Sofia have already met their new Mediator Mommy.  She intervened in a major dispute last week over who could play dollhouse with which characters.  No one was punished and I never raised my voice.  Hard to believe, isn't it?  I listened to each share their side of the story.  Then we counted the characters and I asked, "There are six dolls and one car, what do you think is fair?"  I swear on something really important that they figured it out by themselves after that.


  1. It's good to know that you'll be listening when I say how proud I am to be your aunt. Barbara

  2. So cool! I loved hearing more about what you did. Although the intense listening warning is making me nervous for some reason...