In a recent Support and Development meeting, we addressed the importance of the first contact with the parties. In the context of discussing an actual case, it became clear how the dynamics of the initial contact between the professional and party or parties can set patterns that ripple through the life of the case. Even seemingly small innocuous statements or actions can send messages about how we will interact in the future.
When I start a new case, there is often a lot going on inside of me. I may still have leftover thoughts, feelings and emotions from other matters I have been working on or something going on in my personal life. I may have developed a conscious or unconscious bias about the case just from a small bit of information (they are from “that” part of the county or oh – another case with someone in “that” field or who has hired “that” professional.) I may be wondering if I am the right person for this type of case or these clients. I might be worried about whether someone is going to explode in the first five minutes. And I may want to simply know whether they are going to like me and retain me.
All of this chatter going on inside of me can take me away from being fully present and attending to what is happening on the outside that could affect the future of the case. If I am feeling a slight aversion based on my initial unconscious bias about a party involved in the case, I could end up interacting differently with that party or the other party. Or if I am even momentarily distracted by thinking about another matter while listening to one party in a mediation, that party may observe my distraction and conclude that I am not as interested in their story as the other party’s. This can then become the seed that grows within the party, who several sessions later tells me that I don’t listen to them as much as the other. When a party has said this to me, I have sometimes been perplexed because it doesn’t seem to me in the moment that I have listened more to one or the other. But it may very well have been that initial seed that grew inside the party as an impression of me or it may have developed into a pattern of how we interact with each other that I have not been aware of.
So what do I do about this? First, I try to become as fully as present as possible when I start, turning down the volume of the inner chatter. My office is on the opposite building from the reception area, so I try to take the 30 seconds it takes to walk to reception to take a few deep breaths, let go of any burning thoughts (“I have time later to think about what to do about the Smith case”), and open my heart to the people I am about to meet.
During a session, I similarly try to stay present, listen carefully, pay attention to what is happening with the parties and other professionals in the room, observe the system and patterns we may be developing, and be conscious about how and what I am saying verbally and non-verbally. Which is a tall order given that it is hard to let go of my striving to be friendly, professional, warm, and likable. So that is a lot to be doing at once! But I keep trying.
Most importantly, I take very seriously any indication from someone in the room that something is awry, whether explicitly stated or because I have a sense that something is off. We talk about what is happening and what can be changed to address the unproductive dynamic or pattern. And give permission to accept reminders or additional input if further bumps occur. And once again, try to stay as fully present as possible.