Conflict Zen Blog by Tammy Lenski
It feels natural to take notes while mediating or coaching, and coaching and mediation notes serve a purpose. While jotting down something really important is useful, taking notes throughout the session is often a mistake. Here’s how note-taking can be a bad habit and a barrier to effective mediating and coaching.
In a recent conflict coaching workshop for leaders and managers, I was preparing the group for their first coaching activity. Paired up and ready to take turns coaching each other on a real conflict in their lives, I asked the coaches to put down their pens and leave them on the tables in front of them.
“Please don’t take notes,” I requested.
This request was not met with great enthusiasm. One participant even challenged me back with, “But you took notes during the demo! Why can’t we?”
I held up my notepad for everyone to see. It contained just three words, a short list of interests I’d heard from the person I was coaching. The rest of the sheet was blank. For virtually the entire session, my pen had been capped.
While there are times when note-taking is useful and even advisable, I wanted these coaches to give their listening muscles a true workout. I wanted them to listen deeply, in ways it’s almost impossible to do with even minor multi-tasking like writing. And I wanted the person being coached to have the experience of someone’s full attention, because there’s nothing like it.
When I’m teaching mediators, I often make the same request. Pen and paper can be a crutch for new mediators, who fear they’ll forget something important. That’s understandable when they’re just starting out. But then the crutch becomes a habit. And over time, the habit becomes well formed, unquestioned, and mindlessly followed.
You need to write less than you think for the sake of your clients or employees:
And you need to write less than you think for the sake of your own effectiveness as a mediator or coach.
When you’re taking notes, you’re multi-tasking. There’s no way around that — you are trying to do at least two things at once: Write and listen. But when you’re trying to do two things at once, your brain is actually switching between each task, back and forth, back and forth. One task is getting attention and the other’s not, and then this is reversed as your attention switches back again. Psychologists have a term, “switch costs,” which refers to the costs of attention loss and the demands on willpower.
The bottom line? When you’re writing, you’re not fully listening. And that means you’re missing things.
Sometimes what you’re missing is a gem you should not have missed. That’s a high price to pay for a crutch-habit.
Less than you think.
This isn’t an exhaustive list by any means, but here’s what I take the time to write down. So that I don’t get overly absorbed in the writing instead of the listening, I prefer to jot phrases and words instead of entire sentences (with one exception, noted below).
It’s not hard.
Mediators often send summary notes to clients after a session, and managers and HR professionals also have good reason to keep a record of what transpired in the kind of informal mediations they do daily. These are good and useful practices and I use them, too.
Immediately following a session, I take 5-10 minutes to outline the summary notes while the session is still fresh in my mind. The few things I jotted down as mediation notes guide my drafting and the rest is readily present in my memory — because I paid attention.
If you’re used to sitting in the mediator’s or coach’s chair with pen in hand, it’ll feel downright unnatural to have an empty hand. You may not even notice your hand reaching for the crutch-pen and scribbling away.
Feeling unnatural for a little while as you change a habit is a small price to pay for being a better mediator or coach. Put down and cap your pen. Close the laptop lid. Hold a cup of coffee in that empty writing hand if you must. Push yourself to use your mediation notes only for their best purpose — to track what must not be lost.
For everything else, practice being fully present with your clients or employees. They’ll love you for it and you’ll hear the gems you’ve been missing.
Take a look at this summary of the article When Winning Is Everything by Deepak Malhotra, Gillian Ku, and J. Keith Murnighan, now available online here as well as in the May '08 Harvard Business...By Victoria Pynchon