As a mediator with 11 years of experience, I see a lot of things people do that keeps them from resolving the problem that’s brought them to mediation. Then two things can happen: they don’t resolve the problem, or they come up with a resolution that doesn’t fix things or is just plain unfair. I know that this will make their lives harder. So I’ve worked on ways to help people get past what I call personal barriers to resolution.

A personal barrier: not letting go of your perspective

One of the personal barriers I see people put up in mediation is this: they can’t let go of their perspective on the problem. Often, that’s because the facts of the problem aren’t what’s important to them. What’s important to them is the anger, frustration, or fear they’ve been feeling. The longer people feel these feelings, the more these feelings create a “weight” that (metaphorically) drives them away from a resolution. Imagine a heavy truck hurtling downhill – that’s what it’s like.

Removing this barrier: imagining you knew the other person’s perspective all along

Most people, when they come to mediation, think they know the truth about the problem they’re there to resolve. But when they hear the other person’s perspective on the problem – mediation starts with each person telling me the story of what brought them there – everyone’s surprised at what they learn.

So I’ll ask clients to think about the new information they’ve gotten from the other person about the problem. Suppose they’d known that information at the time. How would their reaction have been different? Would they be so angry, frustrated, or afraid?

Almost always, the answer is no. They might’ve been annoyed, puzzled, or concerned, but nothing so negative as what they’re feeling now. And usually they realize that the problem would’ve been really simple to solve back in the beginning. When the “weight” of their experience has been removed, it’s easier for them to come up with a resolution in the present. If you think again about my metaphor of the heavy truck, it’s as though most of the weight has been removed, and the truck can easily change direction towards resolution.

An example of how this works

Of course, you don’t have to wait until a problem gets so bad that you need to go to mediation. You can use this technique for yourself any time.

Let me give you an example. Since mediations are confidential, I can’t talk about a particular mediation, but I can describe a situation that’s typical of what I see.

Let’s suppose we have Maggie, a consultant, and Rodrick, her point of contact at one of her clients. Rodrick asks for some additional work on a contract that Maggie has with the company. Maggie does the work, and delivers it on time.

But then Rodrick gets back to her and tells her that the work isn’t to spec. Maggie thinks, “Not again, I’m getting tired of this guy,” because he’s been hard to work with all along. Maggie knows what she delivered is to spec; she prepared a good Scope of Work statement, and Roderick signed off on it. When she asks him about it, it turns out that they attach different meanings to one particular word in the SOW.

But this is an important client for any one of a number of reasons: they give Maggie a lot of work, they pay well, they refer other people to her. Maggie knows she has to remove this personal barrier that is her experience of the events. She asks herself, What if I had known from the beginning that that’s what he meant by this particular word? What if I had started work on this additional work, and known what he wanted?

Well, it’s obvious. She would have gone ahead and done the work. She might have submitted a higher budget, and she can still discuss that with him. But she would have seen the scope of work as reasonable, and that’s what she would’ve delivered.

And with that, the “weight” of her frustration has been lifted, and she can work for resolution to the problem. What’s more, she now has a clear mental space from which to talk to Rodrick about how they can work together better.

You can do this for yourself

Next time you are not able to resolve a problem because you can’t let go of your perspective on the problem, stop and think for a moment. You’re putting up a personal barrier to resolution. Imagine that you’d known the other person’s perspective all along. Then create a resolution that solves the problem and is fair to you.

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