In a dispute between two people, there is always a history. One of our jobs as mediators is to help those who have courageously committed to mediation to navigate that story. We support mediation participants to explore past events that have led to the feelings of hurt or distress that often lie at the centre of conflict. As mediators we also support the person to look forward and describe how a constructive and positive future looks. Looking back and looking forward are a natural part of conflict transformation (Lederach, J. 2003. The Little Book of Conflict Transformation). However, if we can accept that change only happens in the now, then the crucial third strand or angle to our focus is the present moment. As the parties meet together now, what is happening? How do each of you experience this moment?
A simple way of doing this is to ask present focused question such as, “how is it for you now as you talk about this?”, “having said what you’ve said, what would you like to say now to Paul?” It is the statements, the admissions, the assertions, the apologies in the now that will shift the relationship to a different place. If we talk about the past as if as if we are in the past then we remain stuck and attached to the positions we have taken. If we talk about the future as if we are there already, we avoid addressing the difficult issues that are contributing to the conflict. To facilitate a conversation that focusses on thoughts and feelings that are present now, is to oil the wheels of relational change.
This focus on what is happening in a mediation in the now is an extension of the unexpressed feelings topic I previously wrote about. Feelings are only ever present now. There may or may not be memories of feelings from the past, but it is the continuation of such feelings into the present that continues to undermine and damage a relationship.
It is important to reiterate however, that in a dispute between two people matters from the past are usually of crucial importance, whether that past was two hours, or 60 years ago. In light of this, telling the story can be of significant importance to one or both of the people in dispute. The key job of the mediator is to support the person concerned to bring the past into the present; link what has happened, to the impact on the person and the relationship now. Other questions that will link the past to the present might be:
“Tell me now what is going on for you?”
“What do you want now?”
“what are you feeling now as you tell Clare this?”
This last question highlights the core value of the present centred here and now. “What are you feeling now as you tell “X” this?” brings the mediation participant into direct relationship with the person they are in dispute with, whilst simultaneously being in touch with the previously unexpressed emotions and feelings that may have hampered a better and more productive relationship. This link of past and present, creates the possibility for change in the present moment, and therefore a different future; hopefully one where the relationship between the individuals or groups is more full, rich, consistent, and constructive.
A mediator who is looking to help build the ground for cooperative relationship will hold the past, present, and future in mind throughout the process of dialogue. I hope this article has provided some ideas of how this can be done in practice.
However, should you feel mystified and bamboozled by the wide scale of time and space, why not bin the whole train of thought and go on a journey somewhere new, like the picture at the top of the article.
Photo by Mehdi Genest on Unsplash