“Sometimes the greatest thing people have in common, is the difference between them” – creating common ground through the recognition of difference

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Any dispute is a manifestation of a difference, whether that be between individuals, groups, or nations. It can probably be termed as difference with particular attributes, for example difference that involves two or more relatively fixed positions, and difference that usually holds an amount of heightened emotion for those involved.

But as we investigate the dispute in a mediation, what always comes across most clearly to me is that there simply is a difference here between the people involved. If I am mediating a dispute over funding for a child’s special educational needs, at some stage there will arise a difference between parents, the local authority, and/or possibly the school. Now the degree of difference varies hugely depending on the situation. Sometimes the difference can be less pronounced and finding an outcome that all can live with is negotiated during conversations in a relatively straightforward manner. At other times the difference can feel sizeable, and the mediation requires frequent pauses for reflection, exploration, and understanding of needs and goals.

However, whatever the depth or tone of the dispute, what is evident is that there is difference, and that difference is a natural and necessary aspect of human beings living together. As mediators, if we can really understand this, we have a significant extra resource by which to support the parties in dispute towards resolution. In practice this is by naming the difference in the room with the parties in dispute, thereby normalising the situation they find themselves in.

As with any intervention in a mediation the key is timing. Normalising can be particularly helpful when there are heightened emotions in the room. Anyone who has been in dispute will understand to some extent or another some of the overwhelming thoughts and feelings that can arise. We can get into cycles of catastrophic thinking and get increasingly stuck in our position. The dispute can begin to take over our every waking moment. As mediators, we can sometimes see this in a mediation. Emotions are very high, and the people involved are therefore finding it hard to access key functions that will help them reason and explain their point of view and listen to that of the other.

At times like this, to acknowledge that there is difference, to normalise that to some degree this is how we have always lived and will always live as human beings, can be that essential support that enables two parties as a starting point to accept the situation they’re both in. To say, “there is difference here, and this is a natural part of life”, can be a unifying force. It can enable both parties to see that they are in the same position, they are both challenged by the difference they are facing. Sometimes the greatest thing parties have in common, is the difference between them.

I return again to the key issues of timing. If in mediating a dispute the parties are moving towards an outcome and are working well together to detail what a mediated settlement might look like, this is probably not the time to drop in a “and there is difference here” into the mix. The key application of highlighting difference, of normalising a dispute, is when difference is the key common factor between the parties at that moment in time.

Other things to be aware of when using a phrase such as, “what I notice is there is difference here”, is tone of voice. The fact that there is difference is not trivial, it is deeply deeply significant, so it is important to ensure that tone of voice, body posture, and the whole presence of the mediator recognises this. To normalise a dispute at a juncture in a mediation where both parties are perhaps closest to the trauma of the conflict, must not come across as trivialising. The purpose of normalising is to bring emotions and cognitive functions back into the window of tolerance (Siegel, 1999) and support those involved to have conversations that feel manageable.

Finally, if you’re up to your eyes in difference, then how about taking in the picture heading this blog and contemplating unity instead! Happy Thursday to you all.

(Incidentally, for anyone who is new to the window of tolerance, it is a term initiated by Dr Dan Siegel, and described in St Michael Hospital’s Mindfulness training programme (2018) as “the optimal zone of arousal where we are able to manage and thrive in every day life”.)


St Michael’s Hospital, 2018 (online). Available at: http://www.stmichaelshospital.com/pdf/programs/mast/mast-session1.pdf

Siegel, D.J. (1999). The developing mind: How relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are. New York; Guilford Press.

Photo by Nick Adlington

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