A recent article in the New York Times about politicians changing their minds, emphasizing the difference between flip-flopping and evolving, got me to thinking about this crucial part of our work. When we are mediating, what do we notice about parties changing their minds?
Sometimes people are just acting strategically and take positions with the idea that they will change them if the other person is responsive to them. Other times, real changes take place because a new understanding of the other person, the external situation or themselves results in a changed view that allows for movement.
Recently, the husband in a couple I was mediating took a very strong position, and once his wife had taken a polar opposite position, recognized that they would be stuck if he held on to his position, so he changed his mind and agreed to go along with her if she would agree to something else he wanted. This happens all the time in mediation. We encourage parties to have an open mind, to see the other person’s point of view, understand it and be responsive. When this is done reciprocally, it draws people closer to each other. When one person is convinced the other won’t change, we see all kinds of behavior in response to that, including conceding, giving up, or digging in even more strongly to hold on to their original position.
As mediators, our job is to understand how we can best facilitate the parties’ negotiation through encouraging each party to stretch their understanding of the whole problem. Seeing the difference between whether the changes are coming from a place of reacting to the other or make real sense to the person changing is a critical skill for us to develop. We do this by checking out the changes with the party, seeing what the perception was that changed their mind, and making sure that one party is not simply accommodating the other for the sake of getting the mediation over with. It turns out this can be much more complicated and subtle than it may sound, especially when we examine our own small and large changes of mind.