Last week, I arrived at a mediation conference where I was on a panel to be in dialogue with a judge, comparing court annexed mediation with our approach. I was taken aback by the setting of the law school classroom, with 115 chairs behind tables and the panel sitting in front facing the masses. For me, this setup directly contradicted how we like to be working with people when we teach, as well as with parties in mediation, placing barriers between us and the people and having all attention directed to us. All we had to add was a raised platform, and it would have been a perfect contradiction. Because it would have been physically impractical, if not impossible, to change the set-up of the space, I began by asking the audience to imagine that we removed all of the tables and that we were all sitting in a circle. I went on describing the kind of conversation I hoped we could have as a horizontal conversation, which meant to me that we were all on the same plane where we could meet as equals, agree with each other and disagree as well, but in any event, have a genuine, interactive conversation.
When the judge began, he told the group to re-imagine the setting to replace the tables and chairs in their mind’s eye, because it was now time to have a vertical conversation. We all laughed and as he spoke, eventually it became a dialogue between us, and at the end, I remarked that I appreciated that in our responses to each other, it seemed we had had a horizontal conversation.
It was all in good fun, but for me, it symbolized our basic differences, that our aspiration as mediators is to provide a very different kind of conversation than people expect to have with professionals, where we have no power over them and where we can relate to them without so much of the professional distance and authority which mark so many interactions and characterize the traditional adversary system of the courtroom. The potential of horizontal conversations to shift the power from the professional to the parties is at the heart of what we hope to be doing in our conversations on this blog as well as when we teach and mediate.