I’ve recently returned from teaching another course in mediation at Harvard’s Program on Negotiation, composed of professionals from all over the world. I’m struck once again by how much sense it makes to people from different backgrounds and cultures to mediate together with all parties and, if they have lawyers, with the lawyers too in the same room. What I also notice is how quickly mediators are willing to accede to a party or lawyer’s request or, even upon their own initiative to move into separate rooms to caucus. I admit that sometimes I experience those impulses as well. When there is a lot of tension in the room, we all want to defuse it. It’s natural to want to do so simply because it’s uncomfortable. I occasionally feel that if I could be in a room with just one side, I’d be able to make more progress than when we’re all together. This is particularly true in the latter stages of the process when we are dealing with a distributive issue and the parties (and/or their lawyers) are operating strategically.
But I know that if I were to give in to that impulse, I’d be buying into a whole pack of consequences that include feeling much more responsibility for the process and even the result. As we say in our programs, it’s hard enough when you’re sitting in the middle with everyone there not to have “the monkey on your back”. Even more so when we move into separate rooms.
So what to do with the impulse? What I find myself doing now is to notice the impulse in me when it arises, and instead of pushing it down, to investigate it, to see what the information reveals about what is happening in the room to the others as well as within me that is giving rise to the impulse. Usually in me I discover some fear that maybe things will get out of control or that we’ll get stuck. When I examine the fear, I realize that it often comes from a place inside me where I am falling into the trap of putting “the monkey on my back.” Once recognizing that, it leads me back into the relationship to the parties that I want to have.
Fundamentally, I believe that the parties’ problem belongs to them, and not to me. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to do everything I can to help them, but it does mean that it would be a problem for me and the parties if I were to be caught inside that trap. So the way out is to start with myself, notice “the monkey” moving toward my back, and before it gets settled there, to do something within me and then with the others that puts the monkey back where it belongs. Mediation is about helping the parties with their problem to find their solution. I can do that better when I’m not weighed down with the burden of feeling that it’s my problem.