Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation by Dan Simon
In some circles, name-calling is considered to be counterproductive in a mediation session. Some mediators suggest “no name-calling” as a helpful ground rule. While choosing to call someone by their preferred name can also be a wonderful choice for a party, here are 6 reasons mediators should consider being open to parties calling each other things that appear insulting.
1) The name may be well-deserved. A party who believes they’ve been abused, cheated, lied to, betrayed or disrespected may be entirely correct to label the other party a liar or any of a variety of other names with negative connotations. Mediation can be an opportunity for parties to speak their truth, to name reality as they see it. After having been perhaps horribly mistreated by the other party, the opportunity to tell them what they really think of them is an essential part of a process that’s intended to meaningfully address the conflict.
2) Support for name-calling bleeds into support of other clear communication. By abstaining from ruling out name-calling, the mediator enacts an attitude of faith in the parties’ choices about other aspects of the conversation. Self-determination in mediation can pertain to all aspects of the process. If the process is going to help the parties take responsibility for their conflict, they need to be genuinely given the responsibility to decide how to interact. Protecting them from potential discomfort leads to parties continuing to rely on the mediator to make good things happen and to prevent bad things. Mediation should make it more likely that parties experience the consequences of their choices and become more aware of their power.
3) The person who is called the negative name can benefit. When the namee is called the ugly name, opportunities arise. The namee may become more aware of just how angry the namer is; they may gain insight that the namer is out of control, which might inspire the namee’s compassion; the namee might reflect more deeply on their own behavior that inspired the namer. All in all, awareness that the other party wanted to call them that name can’t help but teach the namee something.
4) The name-caller might change directions afterward. To the extent the name-calling arose from extreme anger, the name-caller might feel a sense of satisfaction that they got to speak so frankly to the other party and with the mediator as a witness. After doing so, they might be able to move on to talking about other aspects of the situation; or they may have a twinge of regret about being so harsh and may shift their attitude toward the namee.
5) Other opportunities also arise for the namee. If the namee finds the name-calling unacceptable, they should get support for saying whatever they want, such as “that’s unacceptable, I’m leaving” or “say anything like that again and I’m leaving” or “oh yeah? well you’re a @#%&! yourself!” or “sticks and stones. . . “ or “Wow, dude, relax” or infinitely many other things. The opportunities to stand up for oneself, let the insult roll off, or contemplate the meaning of it might be entirely missed, if the mediator tries to prevent the insult from happening in the first place.
6) All of the above reasons are really offshoots of one main concept. Mediation is supposed to be about self-determination. Each party gets to decide what they say and how they say it; and each party gets to respond as they see fit, including by ending the conversation. This level of support for party choice maximizes the opportunities for parties to regain their sense of control of the situation, make the best choices for themselves, and, if they want, improve how they are interacting with each other.
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