Modern psychology is rich with a tradition of mechanistic reductionism. In this tradition, phenomena are broken down into metaphysical properties and grounded in theory, and is later translated into therapeutic practice. It is a fine tradition, but there is a danger of hiding behind this theory. How can this occur, and why should it matter to us as mediators?
Consider the tenets of the famed humanist psychologist, Carl Rogers. He spoke wisely of “unconditional positive regard”, or accepting another without judging their worthiness. Indeed, when I take this approach to therapeutic care, it has not only benefitted those I treat, but has also refined me as a person. This is something Carl Rogers aptly anticipated in his concept of “actualizing potential”, or working toward one’s basic enhancement as an individual. As mediators, it is an easy leap to apply these basic principles: unconditional positive regard is one of Rogers’ essential approaches used as we compassionately orient ourselves to opposing parties and opinions. I believe in orienting myself toward each participant in the mediation process in such an accepting, and loving, manner.
What is the problem with such an approach? After all, is there anything necessarily bad about treating others in such a welcoming way? Of course not! The problem lies not in the value position of being such a positive person, it lies more with staying within the relative safety of the psychological theory that is behind such a position. Let’s consider the following example:
You are mediating a divorce between two partners, and you learn that one of them has engaged in abusive behavior towards the other. This behavior has been well-documented by the police and courts, and both partners recognize, albeit with different understandings, that it has occurred in the course of their marriage. As you are an ethical and professional mediator, you maintain an attitude of balance, and may even momentarily struggle while considering how the playing field could be level for the couple to work toward an agreement. In your latest session with the couple, you suddenly remember how, when you were a child, one of your aunts was abusive toward her husband. You had looked up to this aunt, and were deeply troubled to learn that she treated her husband so badly. She never seemed to own up to this behavior, and this perceived lack of responsibility has bothered you to this very day.
You pause on this for a moment, but cannot pause for too long– after all, you are in the middle of a mediation session with a couple who needs your attention and expertise. There are many paths you could take at this point, but for the sake of this article, I will present two options. First, you could remember the principle of “unconditional positive regard” (or insert a favorite theoretical tenet in its place). That is, as the mediator you say within yourself, “I need to remember that each of these individuals benefits from my unconditional positive regard so that they can actualize their potential.” You then would engage the couple with a hopeful newfound energy and they would be thankfully none the wiser that you had a momentary lapse in your work with them.
What about another, more potentially difficult, but more rewarding option? Regardless of the theoretical approach you might take, you could first acknowledge what is happening within yourself. As a mediator, you may find yourself uncomfortable with this reflection. Are you afraid or angry? Are you now worried that you will not be able to fairly work with this couple because you might have too much bias against the perpetrator of the abuse? Contrary to the beliefs of some, these discomforts do not need to be neutralized in order to help this couple.
Lao Tzu, the famous eastern philosopher, once said, “If you want to shrink something, you must first allow it to expand. If you want to get rid of something, you must first allow it to flourish. If you want to take something, you must first allow it to be given. This is called the subtle perception of the way things are.” “Mindfulness”, is a popular term in modern societal discussions of wellness, and nicely relates to Lao Tzu’s wise counsel. Simply put, it can be described as being awake.
In being a mindful mediator, we allow ourselves to discover what otherwise would be barriers to our strivings with clients. We do this first by allowing our fears, discomforts, and anxieties to come into the forefront of our thinking. This is important if we desire to “shrink” something, because these fearful things must be seen before they can be overcome. Perhaps Lao Tzu’s advice to “first allow it to expand” refers to acknowledging these traditionally negative aspects of ourselves. In a seeming paradox of comprehension, our discovery and embracing of our more authentic, negative self becomes the most powerful objectivity of all. It allows us to see ourselves more in light of “the way things are” and thus, we are better able to perceive our relationship with our clients in the moment.
Perhaps Rogers was in wonderful harmony with mindfulness when he posited the idea of psychopathology as “incongruency”, or one’s disconnection or denial from their experiential relationship with self. Instead, he taught that it was better to safely provide opportunities for a person to connect with their experiences. With this said, we would be truly stuck within our own barriers by either ignoring or becoming overly fixated. Sometimes the latter fault is more difficult to overcome, and might represent our own personal impasse toward resolution of the conflict.
Instead, we simply acknowledge that these recognitions indeed define us. As we become more acclimated to doing so, we realize that these imperfections are not to be feared. In this simple habit of thinking, our previous barriers shrink and become problems that we can overcome through patience and persistence. You might be thinking that this sounds familiar. Although intrapersonal, this is like the concept of relational “recognition shift” that Bush and Folger (2005) speak about in The Promise of Mediation. Just as the “party who makes a recognition shift gives recognition to the other rather than getting it from the other” (p. 77) in a mediation setting, as we provide recognition to our own faults, these faults are less likely to prove demanding within ourselves. We do not need to hide within a theory to be safe from our own faults. Better yet, we become a stronger exemplar for our clients.
Consider the following personal examples: Mindfulness could mean that, when someone brings up the term “critical race theory”, I can listen while feeling my instinctual revulsion to such a term as a white male. It could also mean that, when I hear about a person getting into a terrible car accident, I can cry at the same time I question if they were wearing a seatbelt. As a mediator, it means that I might be momentarily angry at one of my clients while maintaining my ethical duty to provide care for both. How one may process such feelings and model them is a worthy topic for another time.
What is so powerful about understanding the need to embrace our own imperfections is that we provide a model for our clients to do the same. After all, we want to help our clients find their mutual interests. As we find these interests, we learn our client’s passions, fears, repugnancy, and stubbornness. And these things will not only appear in their glory, but also will not magically disappear by virtue of our presence. Rather, these qualities are the very foundations of how an agreement can be reached, and may we authentically teach our parties to do so by our example.