Sometimes the best thing to do is nothing.
When I am mediating, there are times when the best thing I can do is nothing. Sometimes there are difficult moments the parties need to work through. Those moments are sometimes painful for them and often I feel that pain as well. It can be very tempting to step in a try to do something. Often we as mediators can be helpful. Other times, the moments are best left simply observed. We are not doing nothing when we quietly observe what is happening between the parties, we are witnessing it.
The Observer Effect is a scientific principle that refers to changes that the act of observation will make on a phenomenon being observed. Of course, this is particularly true when the phenomenon is human interaction. There are times when the act of witnessing an exchange between people is enough to change it for them enough to help them hear each other differently and more would be interfering.
As mediators we often feel we should be doing something. We feel that urge to do something especially in the difficult moments. We think we should somehow be making the moment less difficult for them. When those moments come, it can be tempting to take over and when that happens there is a tendency to do too much out of our own anxiety. I suffer from this tendency myself. When their pain makes me anxious, I want to do something about it.
Less is more. Sometimes observing enough. Other times a simple loop goes a long way. In those painful moments, they need to hear each other, not me.
There are, of course, difficult moments when we as mediators can do a lot. I am not suggesting that silence is always the best policy. Looping, reframing and more are often incredibly useful to the parties to help them work through challenging conflict. Sometimes the act of observation is more powerful and we shouldn’t neglect that tool.