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A Toddler’s Wisdom on Conflict Resolution

Readers will recall that last year’s newsletter was a series of “Life Lessons”, in tribute to my late mother. This year, I am happy to report that I am learning and re-learning new life lessons through the eyes of the next generation, my granddaughter.  Like “My Mother’s Legacy”, these are lessons that serve me well as I apply them to mediation.

Last month I had the privilege of attending a conference of the International Academy of Mediators in Edinburgh, Scotland.  There, 180 mediators gathered from 20 different countries.  I learned so much and was so inspired!  I was invited to facilitate a small group dialogue on “Gender, Bias and Mediation” as a part of the IAM Conference.  There were 11 people in my little “Bothy” representing 7 different countries. There was a Professor from Berlin and a Judge from Buenos Aires, my co-facilitator from Brisbane and a well-known Professor and Trainer from Boston.  I met a mediator from Haifa and another from Kenya, a newly retired Judge from Kentucky and a world-renown mediator from London.  When we raised some provocative questions (which I suspected were quintessentially Euro-American-centric), we were all struck by how similar women’s experiences seemed to be worldwide, not how different.

I have learned from observing my little toddler, that children seem to grow up wanting the same things for themselves:  safety, good health for themselves and their family members, they want to be loved, they want people to treat them nicely, they want to be left to dream about growing up big and strong, with no constraints to limit them from pursuing those dreams, they want to be listened to and understood.  These basic values seem to me to be universal.

This month I had an enormously challenging mediation in which one of the lawyers was spewing racist epithets and, in my view, let his politics get in the way of his good counsel in settling a commercial dispute.  I think he and I were both struck by our differences, not our similarities, and we let that obscure the fact that the mediator and the attorneys were engaged that day in reaching for common ground on behalf of our respective clients.  Instead of working through the challenging negotiations based upon the facts and law (as opposed to the personal attributes of the parties), he and his clients left without ceremony immediately after lunch, concluding that “we just didn’t mesh”. Both of us lost an opportunity to pursue the end of this protracted litigation through mediation.  We lost sight of our common goal, when our differences were highlighted so strongly as I took offense to his rant, which really had nothing to do with the conflict before me and he took offense to my reaction.

Luckily, I learned from this negative experience. More recently, in a pre-litigation matter where the lawyers were initially unwilling to exchange important evidence which contradicted one another’s version of the facts, I brought the lawyers together and urged them to communicate freely, with the protections of confidentiality in the mediation space.  Once they did, the case was easily settled at a number both considered fair, but neither would have considered in the absence of this exchange.  They saw what my toddler sees:  their common goals were to settle the lawsuit on that day, and in order to do that, they had to set aside their differences, treat each other nicely and, within the safety of the mediation conference room, listen to one another.

I’m hoping some of our governmental leaders will soon do the same.

P.S.:  One of the thrills of the Edinburgh conference, was becoming a signatory to the Edinburgh Declaration of International Mediators.  You can find a copy here.  Edinburgh Declaration of International Mediators


Jan Frankel Schau

Attorney Jan Frankel Schau is a highly skilled neutral, engaged in full-time dispute resolution. Following a successful career spanning two decades in litigation, she has mediated over 700 cases for satisfied clients. Ms. Schau understands the nuances of trial and settlement practice as well as client relations and balancing the… MORE >

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