Last week, a colleague of mine, who isn’t a mediator, asked me:
I have a lot of answers to that question. I practice facilitative mediation, which means I don’t tell my clients what they “should” do. I use my experience and training to help people find their own best resolution.
What I told my colleague was this.
I believe that everyone in my mediations has a need. There’s something essential that they need, that if they got it would make them whole, or at least more whole than they are. They may know what they need, and have a plan to get it. They may know what they need, but not know how to get it. They may not even know what they need, just that they’re dissatisfied with something and they want to fix it, or are lacking something essential to their well-being, or have an ache in their soul. Yes, even in a workplace dispute between a manager and team member, they could be trying to get something essential to their soul. Different people express what they need in different ways, but they all need something.
My guiding principle of mediation is that I help people figure out what they need, and find the best possible way to get it, while at the same time knowing that the other party has needs, too, and if they can give the other party something that the other party needs, they themselves are more likely to get what they need in return.
A recently appointed VP was unhappy with some of her reports because, as she put it, getting any kind of information at all from them was like pulling teeth. By asking skillful questions, I helped her discover what she truly needed, which was better engagement and rapport. When I caucused with her, I raised the issue of her habit of thrusting her hand in someone’s face when she wanted them to stop talking. She’d done it to the other party during the first joint session of the mediation, and of course I intervened immediately. She withdrew her hand, but she wouldn’t focus on how uncomfortable she was making the other party. So I brought it up in private conversation. Believe it or not, it or not, she’d never realized how intimidating and rude that was. She needed engagement and rapport, and didn’t realize how she was sabotaging it. To her credit, she stopped thrusting her hand in people’s faces from that point on. When I made my follow-up phone call a month after the mediation, she was getting the engagement and rapport she wanted.
Even the most unsympathetic of my clients have needs. One of my clients was sour, irritable, and bitter. He wouldn’t have mediated except his supervisors wanted him to. The other party in the mediation didn’t like him. In caucus, as I was talking with this unsympathetic client, and heard him complain about the company and the people he had to work with, I suddenly realized what he needed. I said, “Wow, you really have a thankless job, don’t you?”
The change in this client was remarkable. His face relaxed, his tone softened, and he talked more freely than he had in all my conversations with him. He did feel that he had a thankless job, and he was relieved that I realized how little his coworkers and supervisors appreciated the work they did.
What he needed was recognition and acknowledgment. Once I figured out what he needed, and gave him a chance to express it, he wasn’t so sour or bitter.
When I got both parties back together, this client began listening to what the other party had to say. He spoke more respectfully. He was able to apologize to the other party for some of his behavior, and at the same time ask the other party for recognition of the benefit he truly did provide for the company.
Ultimately, what they agreed to was that the no-longer-so-unsympathetic client would remember that he was valued, and to speak and behave professionally rather than letting his bitterness drive him. The other party agreed that he hadn’t expressed enough recognition, and promised to do better in the future. The specific problems with past interactions they’d had suddenly didn’t matter so much; the reason that my unsympathetic client was talking about those interactions was that he was trying to heal the ache in his soul caused by not getting the recognition and appreciation he needed.
Everyone has something they need. My guiding principle as a mediator is to help people figure out what they need and how to get it, in the most fair, honorable, and respectful way possible. I help them resolve the dispute, but more importantly, I help them heal their souls.
What do you need? How can I help you get it?