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A successful mediation is often the result of how the Mediator handles difficult conversations between the participants. Each difficult conversation is really Three Conversations: [1]

  1. The “What Happened?” Conversation. Most difficult conversations involve disagreement about what has happened or what should happen. Who said what and who did what? Who’s right, who meant what, and who’s to blame?
  2. The Feelings Conversation. Every difficult conversation also asks and answers questions about feelings. Are my feelings valid? Appropriate? Should I acknowledge or deny them, put them on the table or check them at the door? What do I think about the other person’s feelings?
  3. The Identity Conversation. This is the conversation we each have with ourselves about what this situation means to us. We conduct an internal debate over whether this means we are competent or incompetent, a good person or bad, worthy of love or unlovable. What impact might it have on our self-image and self-esteem, our future and our well-being? Our answers to these questions determine in large part whether we feel “balanced” during the conversation, or whether we feel off-centre and anxious.

There are challenges in each of the Three Conversations that we can’t change. What we can change is the way we respond to each of these challenges. We should explore what information the other person might have that we don’t rather than assume we know all we need to know to understand and explain things. We should work to manage our feelings constructively rather than trying to hide them or let loose in ways that we later regret. We should explore the identity issues that may be deeply at stake for us (or for the other person) instead of proceeding with the conversation as if it says nothing about us.

Arguing Without Understanding is Unpersuasive [2]

Arguing inhibits change. Telling someone to change makes it less rather than more likely that they will. People almost never change without first feeling understood. To get anywhere in a disagreement, we need to understand the other person’s story well enough to see how their conclusions make sense within it. And we need to help them understand the story in which our conclusions make sense. Understanding each other’s stories from the inside won’t necessarily “solve” the problem, but it’s an essential first step.

Adopt the “And Stance” [3]

We usually assume that we must either accept or reject the other person’s story, and that if we accept theirs, we must abandon our own. Embracing both stories rather than choosing between them is the And Stance. The And Stance allows you to recognize that how you each see things matters and that how you each feel matters. Regardless of what you end up doing, regardless of whether your story influences theirs or theirs yours, both stories matter. The And Stance is based on the assumption that the world is complex, that you can feel hurt, angry, and wronged, and they can feel just as hurt, angry and wronged. The most useful question is not “Who is right?” but “Now that we really understand each other, what’s a good way to manage this problem?”

Next Blog

In the next blog, we will shift gears from negotiation and begin to look at arbitration.

[1] Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen, 10th Anniversary Edition, Penguin Books, 2010 at pages 7-9.
[2] Ibid. at pages 29-30.
[3] Ibid. at pages 39-40.