Working with Our Reactions

In the last three and one-half decades of working primarily as a mediator, it has come as an extraordinary revelation to discover that an understanding of my personal reactions to the people in conflict I am trying to help is not only professionally valuable, but indispensable to effective mediation. Moreover, I have learned ways of working with those reactions, particularly the strong negative responses that are part of the everyday life of anyone trying to help people who are in conflict, that are indispensable to my effectiveness. Now rather than suppressing my emotional reactions, I find myself not just allowing those reactions, but actively searching for them and using them. More than any other technique or skill that I have learned as a mediator, investigating my inner self has proved to be the most essential and effective way to help others solve their problems. Much of this, I admit, seems counter-intuitive. How can paying attention to myself, my own insides, be helpful to others, the outside world? Particularly, feelings that I am not happy to experience, such as anger, upset and fear. How could paying attention to them, be anything but a problem, if my job is to help others?

What makes this so difficult to learn is that it is entirely counter-intuitive. How can focusing on myself help others, particularly others in trouble? What is particularly troubling to many is a feeling that we don’t want to mix up our personal life with that of our clients. If we did, we would be part of the problem rather than the problem solver. Of course, for those of us who are lawyers, this violates much of what we learned about how to help clients. In fact, detachment is often considered to be a key ingredient of professionalism. As a matter of fact, we often find ourselves most irritated by professionals who have lost that detachment and seem so caught up in their identification with their clients that they have lost all perspective. As mediation and now collaborative practice have gained ground as part of the conflict scene, we have noticed that this problem of over-identification with clients is not limited to lawyers, but seems to have crept into the work of all of the professionals who participate in conflict resolution.

While we have the impulse to try to keep our distance from the clients so that we don’t create problems, the skill that is necessary is to bring our understanding of ourselves to draw closer to the clients and to the heart of the problem. There is unquestionably a danger in getting too caught up in our client’s situation and losing sight of the bigger picture. There is also a danger in too much detachment which guarantees that our distance from the problem will render us ineffective in understanding what the parties are going through and being able to convey that to the people we are trying to help. The key is to learn how to work with our reactions to draw us nearer to our clients. This is easy to say and hard to do.

We have developed the Self Reflection for Conflict Professionals Intensive program to help participants access and utilize their inner lives when working with people in conflict. Through becoming familiar with the ways in which they relate to others going through conflict the goal was to use those insights to help their clients evolve in their relationship to conflict. In the program, one of our major discoveries has been that the most troubling emotional reactions we have to our clients are the keys to be able to help them. By engaging within ourselves to work with these reactions rather than ignore or dismiss them, we have found that engaging these unpleasant feelings opens the door to help others. Our workshops vary from one day to one week and include ongoing support for this work.

For more information, see our video about our program at http://www.youtube.com/v/GqU45jn-GhE&feature=youtube_gdata_player&autoplay=1&rel=0&fs=0&hd=0