ABCs of Conflict Resolution – The great stuff I just learned this week

imagesOK, so I was stretching things a bit to get to T.

I just had my last classroom course (I’m still doing an online one) for my certification in third party mediation at the Justice Institute of BC. The course has a jargony name, From Positions to Interests, but it really has to do with the guts of mediation.

Positions are what people mean when they say, “I want…” When they come up against someone else who gets in the way of their want, there’s conflict. The mediator’s role is to question both sides to get beneath their positions to what’s really motivating them…the beliefs, values, fears and other motivations.

The way these courses work is through role-plays. On the last day of the course, we get to role play for fellow students as we check to see how much theory sunk in. This was the first time in my roleplaying where, as a mediator, I didn’t get stuck. I felt great! Here’s how it played out.

The scenario I chose was where I was mediating between parents of an engaged couple who wanted them to arrange the wedding reception.  The grooms family want the wedding reception to be lavish, like the one they threw their daughter the previous year. Big church wedding, and a catered reception at a big Vancouver church.

The bride’s parents are divorced and the mom has a very limited amount of cash. The 5 p.m. ceremony was going to be at a beach. So where will the reception be? The groom’s dad is  suggesting the reception should be lavish, beautiful…and horrors, not tacky.

The bride’s mom has already checked out a community hall which rents for $150. She wants to make the wedding cake. Oh, back in Kaslo, where she’s from weddings feature pot-luck dinners.

You get the picture.

In the morning role-play, I couldn’t stop the two “parents” from sniping at each other. I got a fresh chance in the afternoon, so I took a different approach. I asked them to put a venue aside, but tell each other what they wanted to reception to look like. How would they want to remember it?

They agreed on many things. It was a chance for two families to cerebrate the union and get to know each other. Have a few drinks, dance and enjoy the occasion. Having them describe their joint wishes for a happy reception brought them together, and there was a willingness to collaborate once they agreed the important part of the reception was the good times to be had between those attending.

Could this event only be held at a lavish hotel? Sure, but the budget can’t support it. Could it be held at a community centre? Sure. But what about an outdoor place, like a park? Or…or…or?

They decided to have a partially catered meal (the groom’s family was chipping in) with a few traditional homemade dishes to satisfy the vegetarians on the bride’s side.

Turned out there were any number of agreeable solutions, once they decided what was really important.

Mediating in this way isn’t easy. I’ve learned when to stop asking questions, just reflect what I’m hearing in hopes the collaborative flow will continue.

Here are some questions to tackle in a conflict of your own…

What’s important to you about the issue?

What is it about your position that’s important to you?

If things don’t change, what will happen for you?

What do I need to understand about _______?

How was it you decided to ________________?

What matters most to you?

If you couldn’t have ___________, what would you stand to lose?

What is it you want me to understand I”m not getting?

What are your concerns, hopes, fears, desires, goals?

Tell me more about  _______________?

Want to hear more? Get in touch. And if you have a conflict you need me to help with, let me know. I’m offering low-cost mediation until I go for my final exam in February.

250 920 6486

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ABCs of Conflict Resolution – Setting boundaries

wpid-images-11.jpgEmotions can get out of control when you’re in a conflict. Anger, frustration, fear, grief can make it challenging to say what you need to say, and hear what the other person is trying to tell you.

When our emotions ramp up, we can’t see and we can’t hear.

At the beginning of mediations, we talk about setting guidelines. I will suggest that one person talks at a time — no interrupting. Obviously, if you’re talking you’re not listening and I want a session to be as productive as possible. That’s not to say emotions aren’t welcome in mediations. Sometimes people need to vent. After all the conflict by this time would have been ongoing for some time and this may be the first time since the big blow-out that the two people are sitting face to face.

Mediators try to get people to talk about what’s driving the emotion. Why are they angry, afraid, sad? There are always reasons behind behavior but it can take some time before people feel its ok to go there.

There are always those who cannot control their strong emotions. They lash out, jab fingers in your face and call you names. That’s where you have to put up your hand and stop them.

“I can’t hear what you’re saying when you call me names or are abusive. Let’s talk once you’ve calmed down. I do want to hear how you feel about this issue.”

It can be really hard to stay calm when you’re being attacked. In my course on anger (yes, there was a three-day course just on how to deal with anger!) we had an actor among the students. The teacher asked him to role-play with her, exhibiting real anger. I was sitting where I could see the teacher’s face and she was momentarily flustered. She took a step back to give herself space and then completely shut him down, in just a few words. It was great theatre.

She told us later that you have to talk yourself through it, saying in your mind “I can do this, it’s OK.”

She did a lot of work in prisons so is no stranger to angry men. Still, the human response to a threat is flee or fight, and most of us have instincts that order us to run.

It may be useful to those who normally run from conflict to consider standing our ground and asking the other person to stop behaving in a threatening manner. Set boundaries. Express you wish to hear their side of the story, but you want to hear it in a calm and respectful manner.

I know this can be hard, but standing your ground is better than repeatedly running from conflict. Running never resolved anything.

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ABCs of Conflict Resolution – Reframing

Positive-NegativeThe conflict resolution instructors at the Justice Institute of BC have a common hand gesture when they talk about reframing. The thumb and forefinger are upward, as though holding an apple. Then with a flick of the wrist, the digits’ positions are reversed.

Reframing is when you take a negative and make it a positive, and that switch can make a huge difference on your outlook. I visited a family friend recently whose husband died a few years ago, after a long illness. She’s ready to meet someone new.

“I don’t want anyone who’s sick, who objects to me going to church or who doesn’t want to go out,” she said.

“You want someone who’s healthy, open-minded and active,” I suggested by reframing her dislikes.

Looking at the positive instead of the negative turns a switch in our brains. It feels good to be positive and makes success seem attainable. People in conflict often focus on the negative.

“I don’t want to go to bed.” What is it you want to do instead?

“I don’t like salad.” What vegetables do you like?

“I don’t want to talk about this now.”  Okay, we’ll talk about it tomorrow evening – would that be all right?

We all learn as toddlers the power of No. It can take years to recognize the power of Yes.

It’s also easier to strive toward something you want instead of steering clear of the stuff you don’t. Your goal is to get somewhere good, after all. Reframing puts you into a positive attitude, and that’s a worthwhile thing in life.

You can practice reframing in everyday conversation. Listen for a negative statement and think about how you’d switch it around to a positive one.

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ABCs of Conflict Resolution – Questions?

Boston-trivia-questionsI asked a lot of questions when I was a journalist. Sometimes I had to draw people out or rein them in, but it was all done with questions. Driving all questions is curiosity.

I think most people have a strong sense of curiosity but sometimes in our culture it’s considered rude to question our peers. I think if you show curiosity about someone, it’s a compliment. You want to know more about them. Most people like talking about themselves, telling their stories.

During my courses at the Justice Institute, the instructors encouraged our feedback and questions. More than once, I made a mess of whatever I was trying to say and the teacher would pull up a chair, sit down and say, “I don’t understand but I want to. Tell me more.”

That attention shines a light on you and what you say gains importance. It’s feels good to know you’re conveying your ideas to someone who’s really listening.

There are two kinds of questions — open and closed. Closed questions are those eliciting a yes or no answer. Open questions ask for expansion, the details. Generally it’s always better to keep questions open, but there are times when a battery of open questions can sound like an inquisition.

You can also simply use the prompt my teacher used. “Tell me more.”

It’s always interesting to question people you think you know and learn something new, something you wouldn’t have known if you hadn’t asked.

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ABCs of Conflict Resolution – Power

persuasive-landing-pages-words-have-powerYou have power. Everybody does. It’s good to take the time and think about where your power comes from so, at times of conflict, you can channel it in a productive way.

You may get power from your abilities, knowledge, status in the family, education, likeability. There are dozens of power sources out there. It really comes down to how you present yourself, what gives you energy.

I’m told I channel power through being vulnerable. Yeah, I like to level with people. I’ve tried being more reserved and it just doesn’t work — then I seem aloof and snobbish. I also use creativity, knowledge and communication skills.

Mediators need to recognize power sources of the participants in a mediation so that he/she can deal with power imbalances. Maybe one person is very articulate, and the other is reserved. A couple may be from a culture where the male has power and authority and the woman has to get her power from another source.

My dad liked to think himself as head of the family. He worked and fixed things and left the child-raising and domestic chores to my mom, which wasn’t unusual for couples married in the 1950s. But women from those times learned to steer the car from the backseat. They managed to influence men by discretely planting ideas in their minds, and letting men take credit for these awesome solutions. It makes me wonder now who really had the power in my parents’ marriage.

It’s interesting to think about your power sources and then ask a close friend or partner to tell you where they think you get your power. Sometimes others see a clearer picture of us than we realize.

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ABCs of Conflict Resolution – Options

fact-based-decision-makingConflicts happen when people lock onto one option or solution and disregard any others. It’s normal for people to lock onto what they want and get angry when someone else tries to suggest another option is better.

If mediation is to be successful, each participant has to set aside their initial positions and be ready to consider other options. They’ll also think about what their options would be if mediation does not work. What would be the best outcome from a mediated agreement, and the worst?

By letting go their grip on their preferred option, a mediated solution becomes possible.

The mediator will guide the conversation into an exploration of motivating factors — what values, beliefs and fears are important to teach participant? It can take time to adequately delve into these things, and it’s important to go slowly and methodically. These deep motivations will form the basis of a subsequent brainstorming session where a bunch of optional solutions, from silly to serious, are written down. Each option is weighed for its merits. Hopefully a workable solution surfaces.

Options are premature solutions.

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ABCs of Conflict Resolution – Neutrality

Keep-calm-and-stay-neutral-2A mediator is a neutral third-party who facilitates a conversation between two or more feuding parties. Coming from journalism, I know how hard it is to be impartial – I figured a story was fair if both sides accused me of being biased against them.

If the story about the first day of a trial began with something the prosecutor said, I tried to give the last word to the defence. In between, I tried to keep the Crown’s side of the story equal to the accused’s version of events.

Mediation has higher stakes than journalism, and you only get once chance to get it right. If someone gets more air time than their opponent, there can be a perception of impartiality. Balancing both sides in a mediation can mean you limit the talker to give space for the silent one to open up. You empathize equally with both sides. You practice active listening, and reflecting back what you heard, to both.

The emphasis has to be on the issue, with equal weight to those involved in the dispute.

This can prove a problem when a mediator is faced a marriage breakdown (assuming this is a heterosexual couple). From the outset, it may be assumed that the mediator will take sides with the opponent of the same gender. That’s why it’s useful to have two mediators at the table, one of each gender.

In my preamble to a mediation, I bring up my attempt to be neutral and I ask if there are any concerns as we go along for the participants to bring it up so we can talk about it. That way, I can correct any false impressions or change the way I do things so the perception of bias is addressed.

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ABCs of Conflict Resolution – Mediation or Court?

1678_MediumIf you’re intent on taking a dispute to court there are a few things to think about.

You’ll be asking a judge to make a decision on something, which takes all the control out of your hands. In Canada, the loser may have to pay 30 to 40 per cent of the winner’s legal fees, which discourages a lot of people from going to court. In the US, however, there is no practice of the loser paying the winner’s costs, and this is why EVERYBODY sues. They have very little to lose.

Lawyers get paid two different ways. A fee-for-service lawyer charges by the hour (and this price reflects the overhead such as staffing an office) while others work by contingency, which means they are paid a portion of your award. Aside from lawyers, there are costs for filing documents to the court and these can add up. A contentious divorce can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Mediation costs less than a trial and takes much less time to set up. You have more control over what goes on and can gain much more understanding about the dispute. There’s usually a three-hour minimum to allow for the process to run its course. Further sessions can be booked if the mediator’s help is still required.

It doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition. You may choose to use mediation to hammer a few issues of a separation agreement then go through the legal process to get the other components in place.

Mediators will recommend that any memorandum of understanding that emerges from mediation be reviewed by a lawyer. Mediators do not offer legal advice.

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ABCs of Conflict Resolution – Listening

colorado , day 2 006Right, of course I’m going to talk about listening. You already knew, and that’s why you’re back on your phone checking Facebook.

It’s harder than ever to get people’s attention when you’re up against Facebook, Twitter, Buzzfeed and Instagram. Harder still when people hate to talk about what’s bugging them…and conflict is just one of those things people hate to talk about.

If you want to have a conversation about conflict, focus on listening. Keep your questions open and, if the answer is short, ask for elaboration, examples or more detail. Then reflect what you heard them say. Ask for affirmation – did you hear them correctly? Then respond.

We think we know how to listen, but it’s in our nature to take shortcuts. I’ve got a bad habit of finishing other people’s sentences. They pause to search for a word and I leap in with what I they they want to say. Usually, I’m wrong.

During a recent course on assertion, the teacher was working with us in a small group. I suddenly thought of a joke, and broke into the conversation to share it. I think what was in the back of my mind was wanting the teacher to like me. But it didn’t pan out that way. The gaze from the teacher was withering. Nothing like public humiliation to drive a lesson home.

Listening is hard. You have to pay attention to what the person is saying with words and body language. What are they not saying? Can you dig deep and find out what’s going on at a deeper level? It takes time, patience and caring.

Misunderstandings can turn into serious conflicts. You might have said something that was misunderstood. Maybe it was a poor choice of words or someone else took it another way. Ask what they thought you’d said. Communication is a two-way street and collisions can happen at any point.

One last tip — learn to be OK  just listening without filling in every gap in the conversation with more jabber. People, particularly, introverts, need time to think before speak. Be quiet and wait for a response.

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ABCs of Conflict Resolution – Knowledge

Self-knowledge-e1363005449505My junior high school principal, Mr. Godwin, said “If you’re going to argue, get your facts straight first.”

And it’s true that many people launch into tirades without verifying that they know what they’re talking about. Mediation takes into account “objective criteria,” the stuff that is not negotiable because it’s set down in contracts, legislation or some other record.

Handshake agreements gone wrong have broken up many friendships and caused rifts between family, neighbours or colleagues. When things go sideways, people can’t remember what the initial agreement was, so they get entrenched in their positions. If the relationship isn’t important to you, the conflict may never be resolved.

But what do you do if this person is someone you can’t avoid like a colleague or family member? Do you grit your teeth and suffer through months or years of stress as the conflict goes unresolved?

In mediation, you’ll be asked to set your position aside and consider other solutions to the conflict. It doesn’t mean  you lose the fight. It means you’ll be able to let it go and find some internal peace to replace the anger.

And you might learn a bit about yourself and how to avoid similar conflicts in future.

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