Have you ever worked in a job where you make an agreement with a colleague or a client, agree some actions perhaps, then meet again a few weeks later only to find nothing has moved forward? Have you ever listened to a friend who is going through a challenging time, offered some impartial third-party advice to help them get to a better place, only to find next time you meet they are stuck in the very same place? It can be so frustrating. They come to me for advice, what else am I supposed to do?!
In these few paragraphs I want to offer space for reflection on one aspect that may lie behind such patterns. Let me start with a couple of questions:
What helps you move forward when you are faced with a challenging situation?
How do you know when a course of action is right for you?
Take a moment to consider these questions. What comes up for you? What answers arise?
The purpose of this short exercise is to place a focus on the use and value of questions when in relationship. When we are presented with peoples’ problems, when people come to us with their disputes, I believe there is something close to an innate desire to help by offering advice and solutions. Perhaps we are “hardwired” this way, who knows.
Yet, from my experience, such advice and solutions coming directly from a mediator rarely gets acted upon, even if originally solicited by the participant. I would contend that one of the experiences people in dispute often face is an absence of agency and power. They have become worn down by the conflict and may feel listless and helpless. One of the most important roles a mediator can play is to help a participant re-ignite the fire that will promote a renewed sense of agency.
In the context of conflict, the fire is represented by the participant noticing, realising, understanding, what it is they can do to help themselves move forward through the relationship difficulty they are facing. The fire is that person’s own creative actions that will help them mobilise and find agency in their helplessness. The meeting between the mediator and the participant is the spark.
Have you ever shared a problem with a friend, family member, colleague?
What did your friend (or other) do that helped you with the situation?
I can recall times over the years when a friend or colleague has come to me for support, and at some time during that conversation, to meet my own need for the person to get past their problem, I have offered them solutions. As I think back, I see the person maybe nod in response to my suggestion, perhaps offer some low key verbal affirmation, “hmmm….yes, that might work”. At the same time, I notice a slight sag in their body, a flattening in their tone of voice, I notice my energy rise as I take on their helplessness that little bit more and try that little bit harder to fix the problem for them.
I think back on these instances as a pouring of cold water over their fire. In my solutions I possibly infer that they are somehow incapable of knowing their own. I take away from their power to find their own way forward. For us to both find the spark that will ignite the fire, I must try and meet them as an equal, as a partner in the task of transforming the conflict they find themselves in.
It’s tough sometimes, as mediators we can often feel the frustration and helplessness of the people we are working with, as we sit with them, we “pick-up” their feelings. It can often be difficult to both notice and sit with these feelings. Yet when we don’t, we are prone to try and escape this helplessness by offering suggestions, solutions, anything that will free us, and them, from this terrible stuckness.
So, I come back to questions. Questions are the oil that can often help someone in conflict access their own agency and mobilise towards productive and constructive ways forward. I am not telling them how to do it. I am asking them how they want to do it. Questions in Service of the Asked (thank you Essential Partners, www.whatisessential.org) is a beautiful phrase that encourages us to think, “what question does this person need right now to help them move forward?”
What would tell you that things had changed for the better?
What matters to you most in this situation?
Originating out of work and training I have done with organisations such as Essential Partners, I increasingly see questions as a an ever-developing skill and art form. Questions tap into and emerge from our wider sense of curiosity about the world, they enable us as mediators to stay agile, fluid, and creative, as we support participants through the conflicts in their lives. Questions enable us to stay grounded and distinct, and not get caught up in the vortexes of powerful energies that people in conflict may be sitting with. That is not to say we don’t care, and don’t show empathy, but if we get lost in another person’s conflict, we are unlikely to be best placed to support them to light their fire and find a way through.
For someone who has been drained by a chronic conflictual relationship, it may be hard to say “no” to an answer imposed by a mediator. If they have grown-up in situations where power is imposed over them, they may have developed a habitual “yes” to avoid the fear and anxiety of differentiating from a dominant power figure. As mediators who are interested in supporting the rehabilitation of relationship, it is incumbent upon us not to repeat those patterns by trying to impose answers. I encourage us to have care for those we work with, to not put them in a position where they may be saying “yes” to actions they have not chosen. I believe our job is to help the mediation participant find a sense of their own choice and power.
I don’t think it is helpful to create binary rules, and there may be times when it is appropriate to offer advice or a solution, but perhaps be sparing with this, notice where it is coming from in you, and check it out with the person(s) you are working with, “is this something you think would be helpful?”, “let’s think through this suggestion further, how do you think you might put it into practice?”. And if in doubt, come back to the grounding of questions and craft the question that can light the fire.
An article by Nick Adlington, go-dialogue