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From the Blog of Phyllis G. Pollack.

In my February 19, 2007 blog, I discussed the unconscious assumptions that each of us makes about someone upon meeting him/her for the first time. That is, within seconds of meeting a new person, we “assume” certain things about that person.

I re-visit this topic because it hit home with me in a recent mediation. To set the stage, I am mentoring a mediation student, Liz, who, as part of her training, sits in on my mediations.

The other day I conducted a mediation. The plaintiff was seemingly very shy. When I asked her to tell me what the dispute was about, she deferred to her attorney, requesting that she (the attorney) present the issues. When I asked plaintiff a question, she said as little as possible. Although I tried to engage her in pleasantries, she would not participate.

Consequently, I mistook her shyness for lack of experience, and I assumed that she was neither sophisticated nor worldly wise.

The mediation proceeded. Even in separate sessions, plaintiff had very little to say in my presence. We eventually settled the matter.

Because it was lunchtime, plaintiff had gotten herself something to eat and had brought it back to the conference room to eat it. After the settlement agreement was signed and her counsel left, plaintiff remained to finish her lunch.

At this point, my mentored student, Liz, sat down with plaintiff just to chat with her. What she learned was that plaintiff was highly educated, highly intelligent, foreign born, and married to a foreigner of a different nationality. Further, Liz learned that; plaintiff has so little faith in the United States education system that she is sending her children abroad to be educated; she teaches a foreign language in the local public school system; and she is just a few units shy of obtaining her master’s degree. Liz also learned that plaintiff’s hesitancy to speak during the mediation was due to her unfamiliarity with the legal process in general, with the mediation process in particular, and the somewhat formal office setting of the mediation. Liz also opined that (1) she may have deferred to her attorney to speak based on the legal shows she may have seen on television; and (2) there may have been some cultural mores at work as she was born elsewhere!

In short, my assumption that she was unsophisticated was totally wrong. What I took for shyness was hesitancy due to situational unfamiliarity.

After the mediation, I discussed this notion of “assumptions” with Liz. In response, she told me about Hedley Scales. When Liz was working in clinical psychology in Chicago, she stepped over a homeless man every day in the street on her way to work. (She had gotten a job as a psychologist and had to work with “clients.”) Lo and behold, her first client was Hedley Scales, the homeless man she had stepped over many times in the street. She listened to his story: he was an extremely intelligent person who had owned a well renowned pharmacy on the west side of Chicago. Those in the community revered him and always came to him for his compounded medicines. He had been well respected. Further, he had served in the U.S. Army and had been recruited to serve in intelligence during the Korean war. He had been taken prisoner and tortured. He bore the scars of cigarette burns on his arms as proof of the torture. Mr. Scales had an indelible memory and was brilliant.

Unfortunately, the ravages of war emotionally debilitated him: he turned to alcohol and became an alcoholic. Slowly, he lost everything – to the point that he became a homeless man that Liz stepped over every day on her way to work.

Everyone has a story to tell. . . . We cannot even begin to know what it is simply by looking at a person and “assuming” their story. There is so much more to each of us than meets the eye. . . ! In our own way, we are each a Hedley Scales.

. . . Just something to think about!


Phyllis Pollack

Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as… MORE >

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