I’ve just had an experience with the community where I live in which I was part of a team working to create a community wide dialogue about the crucial issues facing us. It was an extraordinary experience in many ways, but what I found most interesting was how so much of what I have learned and we teach in our training programs was critical to the success of our dialogue.
It’s easy to underestimate the challenge and importance of turning the attention of many people to the dimension of HOW we talk to each other. Particularly when people feel passionately about the issues, stopping to consider how we will talk about them doesn’t come naturally; it requires a lot of discipline. Exhausted and discouraged by a few people dominating our community meetings, attendance had declined. How could our team inspire them to become involved again – or for many for the first time? People want to feel safe to express themselves. Much leg work and personal contact preceded the meeting.
When our team presented its recommendations for ground rules that could make for a more constructive dialogue for the 100+ people in the room, there seemed to be a group sigh of relief: maybe, just maybe, this conversation would be different. Hope rose in the room when we made suggestions about how we could give each other the room to speak, and in doing so, and not spend our time when we weren’t speaking to just prepare responses to what the other was saying, but really listen to the other.
While there was still some skepticism when we suggested this was an opportunity for all of us to better understand each other and the issues that we were working on many began to sense this would really be a new kind of meeting.
Yet when we turned our conversation in smaller groups to the dimension of thinking and talking about what process we could use to resolve major issues confronting us, it was too hard for some not to simply plunge into the substantive discussion that had created so much fire between us. We had to repeatedly come back to our agreements about the process and reinforcing it to keep us on track. Eventually we made significant enough progress and most of the community came away elated from the meeting. We had finally broken a decades long habit of meetings where people felt disrespected and discouraged.
I say all of this because so much of what participants in our training programs report to us is that what they learn applies to so much more than the form of mediation. A significant number of people who come to our programs don’t end up mediating but they find themselves applying the learning to many parts of their life, both personal and professional and they are happy that they came. Increasingly, we have people come to our mediation programs who want to learn about how to help people deal with conflict because conflict is part of their job or life.