Inherent in conflict are difficult emotions—anxiety, anger, anguish—that tilt our equilibrium when in a space of vulnerability. In this environment, trauma often manifests as formidable feelings—not only those of others in the room, but also our own. When we work with people in conflict, we need to understand what trauma is, recognize when someone is in this state, and know what to do when a person is experiencing trauma. And our ability to shift between internal and external awareness is critical when trauma is in the room.
Trauma is not an event. Rather, it is the effect of the event laid unto our bodies and mind. Our response to situations and how easily we are taken off center is a result of our history, developmental issues, the past and present external environment, and internal factors that key up our nervous system and predispose us to trauma.
Our physiological response to trauma is our body’s perception that we are in danger and triggers our response to fight, fly, freeze, or submit. Our racing heart and shallow breathing send signals of duress to our brain, which responds into what can become a negative feedback loop between the brain and body. By closely observing the nonverbal signals from others as well as our own physiological responses, we may be better able to recognize when someone else is reacting from a state of trauma.
The indicators of trauma can be subtle and particularly challenging to perceive when working online. One way to compensate for the digital divide is to more explicitly feel out the room, such as asking participants about their feelings, acknowledging the atmosphere of the space, and observing reactions. A vital caveat to this process is maintaining inclusive language and not pinpointing an individual as the source of the tension— “it’s tough to go deeper on this issue” or “when we talk about such a sensitive time, it’s hard to think straight.”
If we feel a tightening in our chest before joining a call with clients, this response is likely tied to our anxious expectation about what might happen in the “Zoom” room. Understanding and calming our own emotions and responses helps us cultivate a settled state that anchors people in the room. Humans are open nervous systems—our eyes take in light, our ears hear sounds—and we are naturally affected and influenced by other open circuits. When we, the professionals, are settled in our bodies, our physiological responses, such as a slower and steadier heartbeat, naturally draw people to us and help them to become more settled. Furthermore, the more we feel inside our own skin, the less we will activate another person’s internal trauma network. Sometimes it may be as simple as interrupting the negative feedback cycle by everyone taking a drink of water, which creates a pause and a sense of safety as our body resets itself.
Although transitory, trauma is also ever present and when it finds footing in conflict, it can throw off everybody in the room. Conflict resolution professionals can help break the cycle of trauma and support the disputing parties from a place of compassion and understanding.
Catherine Conner interviewed Phuong Ertley, LMFT, who’s a trained trauma therapist of 21 years. Her background includes post-graduate studies and certification with the Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute, Somatic Experiencing studies with the Somatic Experiencing Training Institute, Attachment-Focused EMDR with the Laurel Parnell Institute and Somatic Resilience Training with Kathy Kain, PhD. Her understanding of the trauma presentation stems from the neurobiological research of Stephen Porges, MD, Allan Schore, PhD, and many others.
Hold Me Tight is, on its face, about couples therapy. Originally published in 2008, the book is designed for couples to be able to read together in a self-guided process, and the approach it lays out—Emotionally-Focused Therapy—is used by many couples therapists. (One therapist I know said, “I never felt like I was truly helping couples until I started using the method in this book!”)
But as a mediator and lawyer with no background in psychotherapy, who has a strong interest in helping people to repair and build their relationships through the power of understanding, I have found it to be both fascinating and helpful for supporting many kinds of connections between people.
Hold Me Tight looks at relationships, specifically romantic partnerships, through the lens of attachment theory. So, in a conflict between partners, the question is not just “who did what to whom?” or “what isn’t working in our communication dynamics?” or even “what specific issues are there, and what specific compromises might work?” Rather, the couple needs to attend directly to the connection between them, and to recognize and find ways to honor the need they each have for a secure attachment to the other. In the language of the Understanding-Based Model, this is an approach that “goes beneath the problem.”
The book isn’t perfect; for example, I felt an underlying heteronormativity in it, even though it makes gestures of inclusivity towards same-sex couples. But the accessible and practical knowledge it offers about attachment needs, which underlie many of our hopes, fears, and behaviors in relationships, was, for me, a game-changer for understanding parties in conflict.
Mediators are often expected to maintain a sage-like persona when working with parties in conflict. In lieu of separating the personal from professional self, we advocate for bringing who you are as a person into your professional role. In our experiences, we have found that being yourself can be one of the most powerful assets in conflict resolution.
Acknowledging and recognizing your own pain, internal conflicts, competing priorities, and other feelings connects people on a level of a common humanity that allows the parties to come further out and work in a different way. Moreover, being yourself provides a chance to not only be defined by who you are as a professional. This is a liberating experience that allows the mediator to follow intuition, a key part of human interaction.
Of course, this does not mean to be yourself without boundaries. The caveat here is to bring yourself fully in the room as the mediator and allow yourself to engage as another party. While drawing on experiences is a powerful thing, this is not the space to bring forth your own problems or your own solutions. Furthermore, it is critical that the mediator upholds the fundamental role to facilitate understanding without telling the parties what to do. The effort is to facilitate conversation and not necessarily to reach resolution, unless that is where the parties drive it.
When you no longer hide behind a mask of a ‘professional stance’, it then allows the people in conflict to also be themselves, sans persona, and everybody involved has an opportunity to expand their understanding. To understand more about how to do this, join us on January 25 for our webinar, Being Yourself in the Room.
We live in a polarized world. This is particularly true in today’s U.S.A., where people divided along political lines have markedly different stances on a wide range of social, economic, and environmental issues. Our own views of the world can now be supported by the narratives presented in cable news networks, algorithms compiling our social media feeds, the websites we visit, and other forms of media that we consume to stay “informed” about our world.
The sharp contrast in understanding became even more poignant over the summer, as the wave of protests demanding Americans reckon with the injustices carried out against people of color hit a fever pitch in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of police. Americans seemed to divide into two main camps—supporters of Black Lives Matter and those supporting police and law enforcement institutions. Over the summer, the evening news led with footage from cities all across the country of peaceful protests, buildings burning, clashes, and news conferences from law enforcement agencies.
Then, on a Sunday in late August, videos emerged on social media of a white police officer shooting a Black man in the back seven times in Kenosha, Wisconsin. As the sun set, protesters gathered at the city’s neoclassical stone courthouse. Later that night, dump trucks blocking the courthouse were set on fire and over the next two days, thousands gathered in peaceful protest during the day, while at night businesses were looted and burned. On the third night, militias swarmed the town, with one person from Illinois killing two protesters from Kenosha.
The events that unfolded in Kenosha struck a chord with Americans and the town became the token of suburban America. For me, this was deeply personal. Kenosha is my home town and I now live just 40 minutes to the north in Milwaukee, which itself is notorious for its ranking as the worst city for Black Americans and the most segregated city in the nation. Overnight, Kenosha was the focal point of all my interactions with family, friends, and my networks. My social media feeds were flooded with videos, photos, and stories from the city I lived in for the first 18 years of my life. Suddenly, I was at odds with lifelong friends and family members.
I realized this would be a good opportunity to try out some of the skills I have been learning since joining the Center for Understanding in Conflict’s team earlier this year. I had a lot of feelings about this issue to process, but I also needed to understand the perspectives and experiences of others. I headed down to Kenosha to talk with a civilian, Tina, and a cop, Chris. Using looping —a method of listening with the goal of understanding—I learned about their experiences.
Going Down the Why Trail and The “Internal V”
A fundamental part of the Understanding-based Model is more deeply grasping why a particular issue is so important. By going down the Why Trail, we find out what is below the surface in a conflict. By using the “Internal V” model to pay attention to our inner reactions, we are able to be more open to understanding someone else and connecting to them. I decided to try these tools to better understand my own judgments and feelings.
Why was the unrest in Kenosha so important to me?
Because it is my home town, a place that I consider safe and where so many people I care about live. I have experienced civil unrest while living in post-revolutionary Tunisia and more recently in Chile, where I was tear gassed and chased down by military police just for being there. Yet, for me, Kenosha has always been a safe and secure place. I have been watching the world unravel firsthand for years, yet never did I anticipate curfews and militia in my home town.
Why should I care about this issue?
White privilege—my entire life I have benefited from it, and it comes at the expense of people of color. Justice and equality are core components of my value system and identity, and I have the responsibility to be part of a collective effort to help balance the scales.
Why do I want to empathize more with Jacob Blake than the police officer?
My husband is a person of color, and my little brother is biracial, half Black and half white. When I heard about Jacob Blake, I couldn’t help but immediately think of my family, then of Blake’s family. When I hear the names of the long list of people of color killed by the police—such as Joel Acevado, Dontre Hamilton, or Sylville Smith—it brings such feelings of grief at thinking of all that is lost.
As I worked through my feelings, my fear and grief culminated into rage. No matter where I go in this world, injustice strips away the potential of humankind. People are dying as we alienate each other, and none of us is better for it in the end.
Yet, I have this deeply rooted optimism, and even in all of my negative emotions, I cannot help but think of the potential that springs from people coming together to solve problems. After all, a fundamental concept in the Understanding-based model is that the people who are in conflict are the ones who carry the solution.
Articulating my judgments, and their companion emotions, offers a clarity in my own understanding of the issue. Being able to name the emotions inside myself makes it easier to empathize and connect with others, such as with Tina and Chris as they share their experiences.
Looping is a technique that helps focus dialogue and develop understanding during difficult conversations. Initially, looping was developed for mediation; however, over the decades, it has become a useful tool in a variety of professions, including journalism.
Looping is a four step process that includes: listen to understand, offer your understanding, observe their reaction, and polish your understanding before moving on. Looping requires that you are listening with the intent of understanding what they are saying. Journalist Amanda Ripley, who uses looping when she interviews sources, stresses that when looping, “don’t think you’re going to persuade somebody that they’re wrong. It’s to learn something you didn’t know.”
When developing understanding, it is critical to listen more and better. This includes asking questions about how a person feels as they talk about the issue, as well as where their emotions or position are coming from. Additionally, asking questions such as “What do you think the other group thinks of you?” helps expose people to the other tribe, which also provides pivotal foundation when developing understanding.
Deepen the conversation by going beneath the problem by asking questions that get at motivations. Questions such as“Why is this important to you?” or “How has this conflict affected your life?” provide opportunities to go down the why trail and truly understand what is important to the person you are talking to.
When working through complex issues, asking questions to amplify contradictions, such as “Where do you feel torn?” or “What is oversimplified about this issue?” provides opportunities to investigate tension. It is important to notice the dynamic for further information.
It may also help to ask questions for the speaker to widen the lens. Asking questions such as “How do you decide which ‘facts’ to trust?” or “What is dividing us as a country?” provides insight into how the person constructs their reality. This in turn supports autonomy and honors connection.
To counter confirmation bias, ask the speaker to talk about what they know about the “other side.” Ask them to help you make sense of something being said by the other side. This process creates space to recognize that others also own the conflict.
Ripley notes that “we want to believe deeply if we share facts, people will believe us and agree.” Yet, that has not been working, and Ripley comments that the only way she can be useful when engaging in high conflict conversations is to be genuinely curious. “If you’re genuinely curious, people around you can get curious and can tell people stories that spark curiosity and challenge their assumptions…but it is impossible to feel curious when you feel threatened.”
In my interviews with Tina and Chris, I apply looping to ensure my understanding of their experiences to the unrest in Kenosha. As they share their experiences, I prompt them to elaborate with questions geared to help ensure that I understand their perspectives and I clarify my understanding with them throughout the process. Often, I repeat back what I have heard, and ask if what I am repeating is accurate. Along the way, they correct or affirm. Below are excerpts from our conversations using looping.
Tina is warm and bubbly. She studies communication at the local technical college while working full time at a local family-owned shoe retailer. She is also expecting her first child. Before the interview, she excitedly shows me the freshly painted galactic-themed nursery in the home she shares with her partner. Tina is also one of the 17.6% of Kenoshans who identify as Hispanic or Latino.
She is sitting on the far end of her couch, her right hand resting on her baby bump as I ask her to talk about what happened in Kenosha. “Well, I saw the gentlemen get shot in the back seven times, I saw the video of that. Somebody shared it on Facebook and it autoplayed on my feed and it was pretty jarring to see.”
Tina looks off to the left and gives her stomach a small rub as she continues. “I’d never seen anything like that happen here ever. You see it happen other places, but when you see it where you live, it’s kind of messed up to think about. I immediately thought, this is going to hit the fan. And it did,” she concludes with a curt laugh.
When I ask her to clarify what she means by “messed up”, she comments, “We’ve been seeing this stuff happen, but it felt not as real because [it was] something you don’t think is going to happen where you live.” She felt Kenosha was a safe place, although “there’s a pretty clear divide in this town where the nice and bad areas are.”
As she extrapolates on her experiences, she notes that for her, it “makes sense why it happened.” She comments on how the local government works to appease one demographic in particular—“white people over 40.” She mentions a local councilman who had tried to start a coalition for young people, but other council members “shut it down” right away. Furthermore, she comments that “parts of town have no resources. There are no groceries on the east side of Green Bay [Road] and you’re screwed if you don’t have a car.”
When she watched the video of Jacob Blake, she couldn’t help but wonder if the police could’ve handled it differently. Tina recalls seeing six cop cars pull up to apprehend somebody in her neighborhood. She muses about what a weird spectacle it was to watch a dozen cops apprehend one individual, and whether that many were necessary, or if there could have been a better way of handling the situation. “Like with [Blake], couldn’t the four officers have just dog piled him? There’s gotta be a different way.”
She speaks a little more quickly as she adds, “I’m not anti-law, I’ve always respected cops in town, but I know [about] racial scandals within the KPD [Kenosha Police Department]—well, heard allegedly. I’ve never had a personal problem with them.” She is very conscientious about relating the things she hears, and repeatedly as she shares her insights, notes that she takes things with a “grain of salt.”
Again, she refers to her preconceived notion that what she sees in the news and on social media won’t happen where she lives, to her. However, she adds, “being a minority, it’s always in the back of my head—what could happen. I haven’t encountered too much but I’ve always felt on edge, really on edge, where could this go and what could happen?”
Despite this jarring experience, and the fear and anxiety tied to her reality, Tina is also empathetic, acknowledging that the police handle too much and this is a contributing factor part of a larger, more complicated issue.
Nor does the unrest hinder her optimism, a trait that she is known for among her friends. “There are a lot of fundraisers for uptown and downtown. I saw the community coming together to try and heal,” she says. She criticizes a Buzzfeed article accusing the community of whitewashing BLM when painting the murals. “There were a lot of messages supporting BLM and I personally knew a lot of the people who were both protesters and members of the cleanup.”
Chris joined the Kenosha police department earlier this year—before George Floyd’s death became a tipping point in public opinion about policing. He is a likeable guy who is friendly, helpful, and handy. Throughout our conversation, he maintains a confidently calm demeanor, which I imagine serves him well in policing. Like 89% of his colleagues on the police force, Chris is white.
Coming into the interview, I was aware that I carried bias against police. Typically, I would approach this situation as more of a debate and would equate my silence to complacency. I recall Ripley explaining that “you don’t have to argue or agree, there’s this third way.” When we had spoken, she had highlighted the importance that looping is not equivalent to complacency: “At first, I thought if I didn’t argue, I was complicit and part of the problem, but it doesn’t work that way…When you loop people, they don’t mistake it for agreement—it’s more like you’re listening and trying to understand.”
Like civilians, Chris learned about the shooting from the video spread across social media in the hours following the incident. His initial thought was that “this was another big shooting that you know happens as an officer. [It] didn’t feel too out of place.”
When I asked him about his feelings the first night, he commented that he went to bed nervous about work the next day. On the morning after the shooting, he got to work and saw 70 calls pending when there are normally zero. “It was shocking to get to work and having to take burglary calls, finding six businesses in a row looted. I must’ve taken 20 calls that day,” he recalls.
According to Chris, “On the second night, things got more serious” and a curfew was declared. When it came to how he felt personally, he noted that “it was a very shaky feeling hearing people who I know that were in the military that this was how it felt when they were in Iraq—with the fence and the National Guard. It was kind of jarring.” Professionally, however, he felt secure with the National Guard surrounding the police station and courthouse. With their support, he was able to focus on doing his job—even with all of the unrest, there were still car accidents and other things that happen every day that police deal with.
As Chris talks about the surrealness of the “warzone” comparisons, I cannot help but think of my own experiences with police during periods of unrest over the years. I recall the day when citizens burned several police stations in Tunisia, and my seething anger when the police waved their gun at my car as I drove a coworker home that evening. I also remember the Chilean national police standing in a line facing the yells and taunts of protestors, minutes later spraying us with tear gas and shooting rubber bullets into the crowd. And the police standing in line outside the Milwaukee police station, watching us in silence as we chanted and jeered. I realize that in my own experiences coupled with a desire to understand the experiences of people of color and law enforcement, that I compartmentalized the police as the “other”, subsequently dehumanizing them in the process. Never before had I thought about what they were feeling, the people behind the riot shields, the families anxiously waiting for them at home.
Chris does not directly know any of the officers involved with the shooting. However, he notes that there is still “a brotherhood that comes along with this career and it strengthens my concern for the officer, what happened to him, and the situation he goes through.” For Chris, a few hours difference could have meant he was among the responders to what seems to be a normal call that suddenly turns into international news.
One of his most surprising moments from this entire experience came when he was responding to calls in uptown, where five buildings had been burned down. The images shown on the national news were mostly from downtown Kenosha, which are predominantly white-owned businesses. Less common in circulation were the photos from uptown, where most of the businesses destroyed are owned by people of color. Uptown is also a higher-crime area and the police are frequently present.
While responding to the calls, the officers received “overwhelming support from people in a neighborhood that were well aware of us as law enforcement officers. People were coming up and thanking us—people who were angered at what happened to the neighborhood.” This unexpected support felt phenomenal and he also realized that even though this was a high-crime area, the people loved their neighborhood and phenomenal people lived there. Chris explained that the shops that burned left people in the neighborhood nowhere nearby to get their basic needs. “Transit even shut down, so it just added an extra step to the issues,” he adds.
Chris comments that his job gives him a close up understanding of what people are going through. “It was difficult to hear them talk about and to understand their struggles,” he admits. He talks about taking reports for businesses that don’t have insurance and wondering how they will be able to come back. He acknowledges that as a white man he is not going to be able to fully understand their experiences. “It’s hard not to be biased, but I try to keep an open mind. I try to do my best and understand them and their feelings.”
He is earnest as he talks about Uptown, his genuine concern for the area etched in his voice. “In a neighborhood like Uptown, that’s such a neighborhood where it’s close knit and people stick to that neighborhood and it might not have the ability to recover. It worries me what that neighborhood could turn into. Hopefully it will rebuild from the ashes and not turn into a block of empty buildings that could attract more trouble.”
As I prepped Tina and Chris for their interviews and we were making small talk, Chris shared a story from while he was on duty during the protests. All dressed in riot gear, he watched a Black Lives Matter protester and a Blue Lives Matter protester get into a verbal argument. They started yelling at each other and the officers worried the situation would turn violent. Suddenly, the pair stopped yelling and one of the protesters offered the other to get a beer and talk about their views. It de-escalated quickly, much to the surprise of Chris and his colleagues. The fact that Kenosha was the backdrop, the town with more bars per capita than anywhere else in the U.S.A. (or so the local legend goes), it is only appropriate that their first agreement involved beer.
For Tina, Chris, and myself, we all found this experience jarring for different ways. Yet, we also all found optimism from our varying experiences, commonalities that help bridge our divides. Since my interviews, I have found that using looping has been beneficial in having difficult conversations with family and friends, especially with those whose opinions fall farther from my own spot on the spectrum.
As we bid adieu to the infamous 2020, the divisions that define today’s America will continue to challenge our conversations with our family, friends, and acquaintances. Even as this dreadful year concludes, prominent polarization seems to only increase its entrenchment. If we can practice understanding, perhaps we can weave back together our communities and our world so our society can finally create the spaces for freedom, equality, and justice for all.
Jennifer Sullivan is a mediator, facilitator, and litigator who brings the power of understanding to her work. Jennifer’s background as a commercial litigator informs her focus on mediating civil and business disputes. She presents and teaches regularly on mediation techniques, is a member of the ADR Section of the Colorado Bar Association; a co-owner of a litigation, mediation, and corporate boutique law firm; and is the Senior Assistant Dean for Administration and Program Development at the University of Colorado Law School. She is a strong believer in second chances and is involved in a Boulder non-profit that supports formerly incarcerated individuals who are re-entering society.
Can you please share a little bit about your background? How did your experiences lead you to joining the CUC board?
As a junior associate in the litigation department of Faegre & Benson LLP (now Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath), I took a mediation training course from Judy Mares-Dixon in Boulder, Colorado. Judy was the first person who taught me that effective mediation could include promoting dialogue between parties.
Throughout my time as an associate and then a partner representing litigants, I rarely encountered mediators who provided opportunities for party-to-party dialogue in commercial mediations, even though it could be helpful to achieving a better resolution. My first introduction to the CUC was through the Harvard Program on Negotiation, where Gary Friedman was one of the instructors for the forty-hour mediation program. I was hooked by Gary and his co-teachers’ (Dana Curtis and Robert Mnookin) challenge to keep everyone in the room and establish authentic connections. Following that training, I began to apply the Understanding-based model of mediation in my work as a mediator, and to incorporate aspects of the model into my work at the University of Colorado Law School, as well as in my litigation practice. I can’t overstate how transformative the Understanding-based model has been in my life.
I have since taken several CUC trainings, and each time I come away with renewed inspiration. I appreciate the community of like-minded mediators and conflict professionals that the CUC has created, and I love to learn from the CUC teachers as well as the community. I have seen how promoting dialogue and striving to increase understanding can radically improve the outcome of disputes and its potential to solve all sorts of problems. I am passionate about continuing this work.
Can you share an experience using the Understanding-based model?
Recently, I was mediating a conflict regarding the sale of a business. One of the parties was talkative; the other reserved. After developing some trust and rapport, I shared my observation regarding the parties’ dynamic. This simple observation—that one party was quiet while the other more talkative—dramatically shifted the dynamic: the talker recognized the need to make space, while the quiet party explained why she’d been reticent.
Following this acknowledgement, the quiet party aired feelings she’d been keeping to herself. It was a breakthrough moment. The parties found their way to a resolution that recognized the issues most important to each of them. Both seemed relieved to have resolved the case in this way, and both wished each other well in the future. This positive parting was a direct contrast to their earlier antagonism.
What is one key piece of advice you’d like to share with other conflict resolution professionals?
Because I’m still relatively new to mediating, I’m focused on my fellow newbies. And my advice to them is: find a way to start mediating, so you can develop your inner game. I’ll explain.
When I finally started actually mediating (as opposed to role-playing), I’d taken a lot of trainings and I was holding a jumble of different techniques and processes in mind. Call these the “outer game”: the steps you follow, the techniques you learn from others. Focusing on the outer game made me a bit wooden and overly concerned about my role as a mediator, instead of the parties’ dispute. I found myself prioritizing process over my instincts as a human, which made me less effective. In order to overcome this, I went back to my mental training as an athlete, and combined this with what I’ve learned through the CUC.
There’s a concept called the “inner game” that comes from a book called The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey, which can be applied to all sorts of endeavors, not just sports. Essentially, the “inner game” involves letting go of your ego and focusing on the desired outcome.
I love to learn about mediation, read about and discuss different techniques, and teach these techniques. But when it comes time to actually mediate, I find that I must let go of these specifics and focus on understanding the parties’ perspectives on the dispute, trying to communicate that understanding back to the parties, and then using that understanding to explore options for resolution.
I’m grateful to the CUC for providing opportunities to continue to develop skills for achieving this understanding.
What is something you enjoy doing with your free time?
I’m an avid reader and writer, and have been at work on a book. Shhhh…don’t tell!!
Clicking over from the newsletter? Click here to continue reading where you left off.
The Understanding-based model of mediation fosters understanding for parties in conflict, of themselves, the situation they faced and even, possibly, each other. Understanding offers an alternative to coercion, and allows the parties to move beyond the right and wrong framework. The expression of that understanding of the emotions, matters of import, and the realities of the parties serve as a paradigm shift in the conflict.
Achieving understanding requires a multi-dimensional approach. First, we want to offer people the opportunity to feel empathy for each other, and the mediator can help the parties develop this empathy. Second, the parties in conflict work to deepen their understanding of the other person. We want to deepen not just understanding each other’s position, but what lies behind it—what it is they care about and what is important to them. Finally, the parties should be able to demonstrate their understanding of the other person.
Looping—listening with the intent of understanding, demonstrating understanding, clarifying, and closing the loop—can offer insight into the dynamic and relationship. For example, if parties are stuck in the conflict, facilitating discussion through looping by asking them to share what they think is going on with the other person can help those involved in the conflict to better understand their own realities, the external realities they share, and how they perceive the other person and themselves in these contexts.
If both people can understand their own view and each other’s, then they are in a much better place to be able to solve the problem because they have the whole picture. Otherwise, if each person is holding only their own piece of the picture, it fractures the process making it impossible to see the entirety of the conflict. The other person’s view is part of the external reality that the other person faces, and each person faces problems individually as well.
This process also sometimes means opening up to vulnerabilities. Not everybody can do this, nor is everybody willing to do this—particularly when the issue of vulnerability conflicts with needs to protect oneself or involves poignantly painful emotions. Mediators can be supportive in helping their clients setup boundaries to avoid hurt feelings and toxic emotions so they feel empowered and not threatened by the process of expressing understanding. Most critically it is important to distinguish between understanding and agreeing. To demonstrate understanding does not mean that you are agreeing that the other person is right. Nor should it necessarily weaken a party’s conviction about their own view.
Most critically it is important to distinguish between understanding and agreeing. To demonstrate understanding does not mean that you are agreeing that the other person is right. Nor should it necessarily weaken a party’s conviction about their own view.
It is worth noting that participants do not necessarily need to emotionally care about the other person’s realities to find a solution; however, in order to negotiate something that the other person will say yes to requires caring at least intellectually to better understand the landscape in the big picture. This mental approach also lessens some of the vulnerability tied to understanding.
If lawyers are present in the mediation, they can be helpful in creating the bridge to demonstrating understanding between the parties. The lawyer can demonstrate understanding—even if a client cannot. Feeling support from their lawyer can also allow an opening beyond the person’s capacity should their lawyer not be present. This is something that the mediator cannot provide for them in the same way.
In some cases, the parties may never be in a position where demonstrating understanding will be helpful. It is important that the mediator structure the process with the parties so they feel safe before engaging in a formal expression of mutual understanding. The parties should be given the opportunity to discuss whether this is something that they actually want to do, and to express any concerns they may have about the process. It is important for parties to have a real conversation, rather than pressure from the mediator—particularly to avoid the cost of the parties losing themselves. Ultimately, it is up the parties to determine if they want this approach and mediators need to be wary of offering false promises to add weight to the parties’ decision on whether to proceed with the expression of understanding.
Ultimately, the effort to understand is what matters. Whether or not we can truly understand what it’s like to be somebody different from us, we can demonstrate understanding of our common humanity. While there are things that we share, we have to respect that there are things we do not. To respect the other person is fundamental, and demonstrating our willingness and desire to understand their perspective can help create an atmosphere of mutual respect.
Ivan Alter is a collaborative attorney and mediator with offices in Westchester County and New York City. Practicing law since 1994, Ivan previously had a career as a commercial and matrimonial litigator before discovering the understanding based model at the CUC. Since then, Ivan has focused all of his professional energies on practicing, promoting, and teaching mediation and collaborative law. He is member of the New York Association of Collaborative Professionals, the Family and Divorce Mediation Council, the International Association of Collaborative Professionals, and Northern Westchester Collaborative Divorce.
I always imagined that being a lawyer would mean helping people out of a difficult place and into a better one. But too often during my years as a litigator, I found that the process designed to resolve the conflict instead caused it to escalate and deepened the divisions. This was especially heartbreaking in cases involving families.
Learning about understanding-based mediation from Jack Himmelstein and Katherine Miller was a revelation. And my response was to hang up my litigator’s hat immediately and immerse myself in mediation and collaborative law. Aligning my work with my values and beliefs has been a source of great satisfaction for me. And its a message and a process I can’t help but share.
Can you please share a little bit about your background? How did your experiences lead you to joining the CUC board?
I come from a family of litigators and I learned to value the power of persuasion. But sometimes “making a good case” didn’t solve the problem, and I found that solving the problem was ultimately much more satisfying. And even though I worked hard and advocated for my clients, I couldn’t shake the thought that there was a way in which I could do better for them.
That realization, along with the birth of my children, led me to realize that if I was going to involve myself in the lives of families, I had better dedicate all of my efforts to really understanding and trying to solve their problems. Mediation training with Jack and Katherine made everything fall into place. And I knew I would never litigate again.
I am thrilled to serve on the board of the CUC because it gives me the opportunity to spread the word about the powerful change that understanding can bring.
Can you share an experience using the Understanding-based model?
Learning to listen and try to understand has informed both my work and my personal relationships. Once I realized that the things that matter most deeply to people are often not about what they say they want but why, it changed everything.
What is one key piece of advice you’d like to share with other conflict resolution professionals?
For me I think its to try not to smooth over every conflict or flare up. Initially I thought that it was part of my job to suppress the tension, but I learned that when I do that I often fail to listen to what someone is trying so hard to tell me.
What are some important issues for today’s conflict resolution professionals to be connected with?
I think balancing what mediation is with what people think it is can be a challenge. I find that there is not widespread understanding of what we actually do and people often come to the process with expectations and assumptions that we first need to overcome.
What is something you enjoy doing with your free time?
I have a degree in landscape design and I love to imagine and create outdoor spaces, even if its mostly in my mind these days.