Mediation and the Movement towards Empathy

Many see a movement in the world toward greater empathy and understanding. We agree and view mediation as part of the evolution for humankind. Much has been written about this movement of humanity toward greater compassion; and while it is beyond the scope of this newsletter to recount this perspective, a 10 minute cartoon style video may be interesting to some to give one framework for these ideas– http://youtu.be/l7AWnfFRc7g. For us, the growing acceptance of mediation, whether viewed locally or globally, holds the possibility and potential of greater empathy in the resolution of human conflict. Although it is by no means a sure thing.

Certainly there is abundant evidence in all societies and throughout the world that the urges toward domination, revenge, exclusion, greed, hatred and protection of oneself, one’s family and one’s group have enormous power and attraction. Historically, rights-based legal systems have provided a critical check on sheer power as the dominant form of dispute resolution and will continue to be central. Yet, the underlying impulses toward compassion, connection and empathy are also deeply present and suggest the possibility of another evolutionary step. These deeper human motivations are often available to us if the deeper desire is recognized and the possibility of expression supported. In this month’s recommended book, In The Third Alternative, Steven Covey posits that the best solutions can only be reached when people are willing to be empathic — including their own view as well as the other’s in guiding the path toward resolution.

Can mediation be grounded in an empathetic response to conflict between people? We believe it certainly can. The Understanding Based approach to mediation and our non-caucus model brings the parties together and seeks to work through their differences. As mediators, we reach first to understand each party within ourselves and then to the further possibility of accessing and finding expression for compassion and connection in each of the parties, and between them.

We also see this possibility of tapping the often hidden empathy between disputing parties as underlying, perhaps deeply so, the movement toward mediation in general. We certainly recognize how strong the desire is to forge quick solutions to conflict – “to just get it over with” – – as is so often the case with many parties in mediation, and also with many mediators. In the widely accepted and used shuttle approach, the mediator goes back and forth between the parties (and their attorneys) sitting in separate rooms, trying to bring about a solution-often one set out by the mediator (although some mediators who rely on shuttle diplomacy may also seek 1 to reach for empathy). Dealing with what underlies the conflict may be largely ignored, in favor of moving the parties toward compromise solutions, using persuasive techniques and even subtle, or not so subtle, forms of coercion.

We believe that the personal and social reaching for greater empathic understanding lies at the heart of the gradual movement toward and acceptance of mediation, despite the many steps often taken by people in and around conflict that appear to negate that impulse and that movement. As we view it, Conflict is a force in our social and individual psyches with a powerful hold. So where empathy and compassion appear to enter the scene, Conflict can readily evoke the power in individual parties of self-righteousness, anger, blame, fighting and a win- lose perspective. Conflict can also evoke in mediators these same inclinations in mediators, with the result of our all too readily seeing the parties’ conflict exclusively through the lens of judgmentalness, power and discord.

And yet the possibility and power of empathy and compassion are there — often hidden and fearing expression — if only we recognize that possibility and embrace the willingness to reach for them within and with the parties. And it can start with us – finding and cherishing the deeper desire for empathy within us and seeking to develop its expression for ourselves and in our connections with others.