What happens in mediation can be hard to describe. A word of acknowledgment, an admission of pain, an uncovered fact can cause an internal shift within one or all of the participants that completely reorients the dynamics between individuals in a positive way. The internal aspects of our experience of dispute are indeed wondrous when an opening occurs that helps the parties to find agreement and even healing. But the opposite is also true: the internal aspects of our experience of dispute are also cause for frustration and dysfunction when we are unable to navigate our disputes effectively because we don’t have a good enough handle on what’s going on inside ourselves.
Yes, our conflicts are not just about the material goods, the outward aspects of the dispute at issue. Our conflicts inevitably are also very much about (1) the inward perceptions of the participants, (2) the way the inward emotional landscape of each participant effects his or her perceptions, and (3) the deeper inward needs that are emotionally linked to the outward material goods at issue.
A principal value of mediation is that the mediator offers the opportunity to isolate and focus upon different aspects of each party’s perceptions and experience so that it can be dealt with effectively on its own terms. Each mediation is different and the elements of the dispute that need to be isolated and dealt with separately are different in each case. However, Sharon Strand Ellison provides an illuminating insight into how useful this process of separating out different aspects of our inward perceptions and experience can be in her book, Taking the War Out of Words.
Ellison writes: “When we focus on the other person’s power over us, we are usually not focused on our own strength, or even on the other’s vulnerability.” (p. 12)
This simple insight speaks volumes. In disputes, it is all too common to concentrate enormous amounts of energy on defensive strategies aimed at protecting ourselves against the power we perceive the other to control. The reflex implies that if the other has power, he or she cannot be vulnerable and we cannot have power of our own, especially power to do anything but defend ourselves.
Mediation provides the opportunity to hold our adversary’s power and vulnerability and our own power and vulnerability each as a separate issue, making room for a course of action that does not involve conflict, but agreement.
Our adversary’s vulnerability does not have to be relative to our power. Our power does not have to be relative to the power of our adversary. By asking participants to look behind their positions at their deeper needs and interests, mediation invites them to recognize their power to defend and meet their needs while also respecting and seeking to meet the needs of their “adversary.” When we are able to untangle the vulnerability and power each person possesses from that of the other, individuals who were previously “adversaries” can readily become partners with respect to charting a mutually agreed upon course for the future.
In fact, we don't even need a major dispute or the help of a mediator to explore this opportunity. Next time you feel threatened, try for a moment to put the threat aside and remind yourself of all the strengths you have apart from the context of the threat. Treat the threat as a puzzle and see if you can find his or her vulnerability hiding in plain sight. Just this little effort can give you time to get calm and meet the threat with enough room in your perspective to invite your antagonist into a more productive dialogue.