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A deep sense of the relationships; an intense comprehension of the dynamics in conflict; and a sense of the mediation process, is how to find a real and stable solution. Gary Friedman’s practice developed an approach that makes the title of the book he wrote with Jack Himmelstein appear as a perfect general description: Challenging Conflict- Mediation through Understanding (American Bar Association, 2008). If the parties aren’t able to stay together in the same room, to talk to each other expressing needs and emotions, they won’t be able to share decisions to end their war. This is a tough job for the mediator, who will conduct the parties as a helmsman in the very deep, rough sea. Gary’s approach offers an important thought to consider when deciding whether to keep the parties together or not, and how. We met in Rome, where the sun was shining and scooters were passing quickly by. Perhaps, too quickly…


Gary J. Friedman is the co-founder and director of The Center for Mediation in Law in Mill Valley, California.  He has practiced law since 1970, serving, since 1976, primarily as a mediator of commercial and family disputes with Mediation Law Offices in Mill Valley.  He has conducted introductory, intermediate and advanced training programs in mediation and mediative approaches to the practice of law throughout the United States since 1979, and in Europe since 1989.  Author of numerous publications on mediation, including A Guide to Divorce Mediation, Professor Friedman has taught negotiation and mediation at various law schools and continuing legal education programs throughout the United States including, more recently, through the Harvard Law School Program on Negotiation and through the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) in Geneva.  He is the co- author of the recently published book entitled Challenging Conflict: Mediation through Understanding.


Gary, your approach is intimately connected to “understanding”. What is the meaning of it, for you?

When I talk about “understanding”, it is in the context of conflict.  Generally people’s approach to conflict doesn’t include understanding.  If someone is in conflict with you they might think that you don’t understand their point of view and you probably never will. So logically they assume that what’s necessary to resolve this conflict is power, the power of coercion: They will try to manipulate you, pressure you, threaten you, whatever they can do to get you to come around to their way of thinking.  While this might work it most likely will evoke similar responses in you which then, of course, sustains the conflict.  When we go back and forth in this way, we’re caught in what we call the “conflict trap” they say “I’m right; you’re wrong” and you say “I’m right; you’re wrong”.  Perhaps a compromise is reached but rarely a solid solution.  So when I use the word “understanding” it signals there’s a whole other way to deal with conflict.  This understanding is not an assumption that we already understand each other, it is a commitment to understand ourselves, each other and the situation we’re in, in an effort to use the full power of understanding to bring a conflict to a real resolution. At the heart of mediation is the possibility that people can use the power of understanding to find solutions, not because they’re giving up or giving in or taking over, but by creating a deeper understanding of the whole situation. When I feel you want to understand me, and you feel that I want to understand you, we have a much better chance to really look at the problem and see what kind of solution might actually take into account the understanding we have both of ourselves, of each other and of what’s important to us. The “other” power of understanding is not just that we understand what each other says, but that we understand –underneath the conflict- what’s really important to us, what is it that we really care about and that has lead us to the conflict. Often my experience is that when people are in conflict they give thought to what’s important to them but get caught in their reaction to the other person. If they can hold what’s important to them instead of reacting to the other person they might help the other person to do that too, and so be released from the conflict trap.

In fostering understanding, you work to create a safe environment and to make the parties switch from, the fight of right against wrong, to a coexistence of different perspectives. What are the key elements in doing so?

You’re right when you say “a safe environment”, because it’s not easy for people to open to understanding the other when in conflict. They have to have an atmosphere where they know that there’s an agreement that they’re going to deal with conflict differently, that they’re going to use understanding, that they’re not going to give up or give in, and will look at the conflict from a different perspective. Usually, people in conflict think about the What, the content of the conflict as if that’s everything, but understanding the How of the conflict, the dynamic between the people in terms of how they talk and listen to each other while dealing with their conflict,  is essential to moving toward a resolution.  Without having some sense that the environment they’ve entered is different, safer, from where they’ve been, people are not willing to shift, to break out of a win or lose war. So, how do you create the safety?   First thing, there needs to be an agreement. People need to have an understanding about the How, they must discuss the question “Can we have an agreement about how we are working together?” With the presence of the mediator, a neutral, who doesn’t have a stake in either side ground rules can be agreed upon.   The agreement enables the parties to get to the heart of what is important for them,  what’s underlying the conflict.  If people could approach their conflict on a deeper level and this often means understanding not just what they’re thinking about the conflict but what they’re feeling about it, they can use that depth of understanding, to find something that can be expressed in the conversation to serve as an anchor for them and lead to a solution. That’s the challenge in a negotiation or in a mediation: to find this anchor, a common ground, and explore why it is of value to them. Then, maybe, they could reach solutions that they can find that are better for both of them.

What are the main difficulties in creating this environment and these agreements and in educating the parties to change their approach to conflict?

It just doesn’t come natural with anybody to think in this way. So the challenges are many: it means we need to reeducate ourselves about how we think about conflict. We all have patterns that we developed in childhood, where we’ve learned to fight or flee or become paralyzed when in the heat of conflict. These patterns are deep and strong and actually were functional in our families of origin. We need to recognize these patterns in ourselves or, if we are helping other people we need to assist them to see these patterns, and how they can get in the way of  our being able to make a real change. We need first to recognize them and then to really want to change them.   Expression is essential here:  people need to be willing to speak up, often people have the pattern of not speaking up at all or appearing to agree but in their hearts not agreeing, which inevitably leads to really bad agreements. So the challenges are for each person to really be able to speak up honestly, to have real understanding of their own concerns, and to be willing to take into account the other person not at the expenses of themselves, but as part of the larger picture. Those are all different things that come to bear. There’s always  different kinds of conflict and while it’s hard to say what the challenge is in all situations, these are the kind of things that often come up.  Of course, so many conflicts are about money: what we have to do often with money is to recognize that it’s symbolic and it’s never the end of the conversation, it’s the place that we need to pass through to find out what’s underneath and eventually return to. And that’s not a simple thing, that’s a big challenge for many people.

Your approach has a fundamental principle: to work together with the parties. So you will stay for the entire mediation with both the parties in the same room. It’s sometimes very challenging because you’ll have to face many  feelings of emotion. How do you feel and how do you prepare when you’re approaching mediation?

This is one of our core ideas: having people share decision making power. Obviously, there’s a real sharing and real understanding of the conflict if people are together in the same room. It only makes sense: if they’re going to be making decisions together, they must have a chance to really hear and see the other person and also be able to show the other person how they see it. The more traditional way of thinking about this is the caucus method, where people are in separate rooms and the mediator goes back and forth and does the work for them. The problem with caucusing is that when mediators go back and forth, they often take more responsibility and power for the result than the people themselves. So I feel excited about the possibility of what can happen when two people who really disagree come to some kind of real understanding of each other. I always have great hopes and always feel challenged. I believe I should not use my experience, understanding or whatever wisdom I might have, to try to decide or influence what the solution should be for people.  I don’t know what’s the answer to their problem. I do know that I want to help them. I do know that I’m willing to use everything that I have at my disposal to try to help them find their way through this.  At a very deep level, I really believe that it is up to them to resolve their problem.  If I can help them create the means to find the best possible resolution I will feel like I’ve done my job well.  It is not enough to work through strong emotions to be nice. We must do something that’s real; it’s about dealing with each other with integrity.

A fundamental approach you use is to search for interconnections between people. In the book you wrote with Jack Himmelstein, you introduced interconnection, and how people can deal with each other, in a very interesting and profound way. You pointed out how useful it is to search for interconnections during mediation, as it could create common grounds on which to work. How do you search for interconnections?

It’s really an interesting question, because most of us think we’re by ourselves, that we’re autonomous. Yes, it is important to learn that we’re individuals with our own ideas and our own sense of self as part of the growing up process. What is true is that while we are ourselves we’re interconnected to one and other, dependent upon each other to exist: we share the same planet, the same air, water, money, we’re bound up in each other’s lives. We see right now what’s happening with the banks in Europe: it affected us in the United States, and that affects what’s happening in China.  When a nuclear reactor melts down in Japan we feel it everywhere.  The world is getting smaller as the dependencies increase.  Our survival depends on our learning to live together.  But there’s another reality: what goes around comes around, so today we’re up and we think we don’t need the other person, tomorrow we’re down and we need them. In business, in communities, in families, in mediations.  There are many different levels on which these connections exist, both material and spiritual. I think we are far less separate than we think.    We touch each other.  We are connected.

Gary, how do you help the parties to explore these interconnections during a mediation?

You know, it’s funny. Even if people only met at an intersection –that’s the only connection they’ve had in their lives- there’s some kind of relationship. Yesterday I almost got hit by a scooter. I was crossing the road, I was in the crossroad and this guy just missed me, and when he passed by I yelled, I was really angry, scared, and he stopped his scooter and he turned around, and he looked at me and I could see that he was sorry. One split second difference and it would have been a serious thing. For that moment he and I were connected. Sometimes in mediations people say “there’s no relationship between us”, but there is. There has been, that’s how they got into trouble and there’s one now. Whether we are going to see each other again in the future or not, we’ve had a relationship, we have a relationship, we may have a relationship in the future. We can bring that reality into the conversation with people and help them acknowledge that, recognize the truth of that, and honor it.

How do you think a mediator should constantly prepare him or herself for his or her work?

That’s really a great question. The most important thing as a mediator is to understand yourself and to be able to access what’s happening inside you when you’re in the presence of people who are in conflict, and to be able to use that to draw the pathway for the others. What happens, as mediators, is that we often sit together with people and we say to ourselves “Oh, that person is right, that person is wrong, we like that person, we don’t like that person”, and then we say “On, no, I’m neutral”. I pay attention to the feelings that I have inside. The central quality for the mediator is to be able to take the internal reactions we have to people and to be able to use them to understand what they are about, understand ourselves – this is the last part of the “understanding” in our model of mediation – and to be able to turn that in a way where we find ourselves closer to the people we don’t like. Usually, when we have a bad feeling, we don’t like someone, we are angry with someone or we’re upset by him or her, then we lose patience and want to push them away. They feel it. We can’t pretend it’s not there. But we can work with that feeling to understand what it was that generated the negative reaction when we met that person.  It’s turning anger and bad feelings into curiosity. We can take the differences we have with other people, which often threaten us, and say to ourselves: “Let’s explore these differences. Let’s see if I can understand you, we both can still exist”. It’s not a question about whether one of us has the right to be on this planet and the other doesn’t. It’s about how can I become curious about you, to really understand you, who you are and why it is what you do. This is really the central challenge for mediators. We are writing a book about it, it’s called Inside Out: How to help others in conflict. It’s about how to really do this shift, because it’s easy to say, and really hard to do.