Immersed in the Nightmare

There are problems that plague us as conflict professionals.  Some of these problems are shared by many and are often recognized as a “worst nightmare”. Some are unique to each of us as we battle our private demons. As teachers we’ve noticed that participants in our programs—new and experienced—have questions that start, “How do you handle it when…”or “What should I do if…”.

When mediators, lawyers and other conflict resolution professionals feel out of control or are triggered for any reason, it can be very tempting to try to take over the process in order to stop feeling uncomfortable. When our nightmare appears in the room, it sometimes feels  chaotic and even downright scary. This is often a good time to remember the basics.

One of our underlying concepts is Let the Parties Own the Conflict – whatever the conflict is, whatever the dynamic, it is theirs and they are responsible for it. That is not to say that there is nothing  we can or maybe even should do. It is just to remember in these moments, we are there to help to the extent the parties want and are willing to let us.  I find it helps in these moments for me to take a breath (or 3) and remember that it is their conflict, not mine.  If I allow myself to get pulled into their conflict by taking responsibility for it, then I may actually lose the opportunity to be helpful. I may even relinquish the privilege they have imbued me with to help them change their dynamic.  So I take a breath and notice what’s going on for them and for me.

After taking the time to ground myself, this is often a time when I will “loop the dynamic” by  reflecting back to the parties what I see going on in the room.  Sometimes this statement is about what each of them is saying, but much more often it is about how each is feeling and what happens between them.  It is also a time to turn the conversation from the “what” to the “how.”

I recently had a couple in mediation who worked well together most of the time but both were hyper-sensitive to perceived criticism from the other.  Time after time, they’d dive down the rabbit hole into a defensive and repetitive argument with lightning speed.  I felt powerless to help them and I didn’t know what to do.  They came in for a session and, after I greeted them, I told them I’d been thinking about what happens between them.  Then I described how I saw them both as so sensitive to criticism from the other and where I saw that came up.  I asked them if that felt familiar to them and they both agreed.  There was actually a look of relief on their faces when I named what was happening in the room.  Then I asked them if they would like it to be different.  It might have seemed obvious that they did but I wanted the explicit agreement in the room, “yes, I want it to be different” from each and both of them. They agreed.  I asked them if they would like me to stop them when it happened again and see if we could find a different dynamic.  “Yes I would” they each said.  When we then went back to the “what” conversation and it happened again,  I intervened as we had agreed and reflected back what had just happened in the room. Something was different this time. This time they stopped and breathed and noticed…and moved forward in a different place.

Sign Up for our Immersed in the Nightmare training in April for more support and recommendations on how to handle the moments when you are immersed in your own nightmare while in a conflict.