I have found social constructionist ideas to adapt best in conflicts occurring solely in the psychological dynamics of the mind —conflicts involving an individual’s thoughts, values, principles and emotions (intrapersonal). To say something is socially constructed is to emphasize its dependence on contingent aspects of our social selves (Boghossian, 2001). That we construct our own reality signifies that we assign importance to things. Hence, nothing is important that you haven’t made important yourself. So while Everything Is Important, Still Nothing Is Important, or EIISNII.
I conduct court-connected mediation. An awareness that people create what is important opens up the possibility of using reverse psychology to achieve breakthrough with resistant people. In a way, it’s harnessing the power of Reverse Motivation and acts as an additional tool for mediators, particularly when dealing with parties that are stubbornly anchored to a position. The concept postulates that you assign importance to things; hence, you can deem anything important or unimportant. It’s a choice! Everyone has the power to change his or her own reality. The proof lies in the fact that every day, you see things that are important to you but are not important to many people just like you. There are also things you can’t be bothered with, but which others find important. Even your own life is unimportant, unless you make it important. We see this theory in action with secret service agents that protect the president and other high-ranking officers of the United States government. All of these are well-regarded, sane members of society, yet they have accepted a job for which the number one requirement is a willingness to die for another human being. Moreover, these agents have families of their own, just like the individual they are prepared to keep alive at their own expense. How important is their life to them, you might ask? I present that life or living is important to you only because you make it so. That’s why everyday people just like you, no matter where they are placed in society, end their own lives. In their minds, their life has lost its importance. And without life, we cease to exit. So if life itself can be deemed unimportant, how can we assume anything else can maintain its own importance?
I have used my platform as mediator in the Superior Court of California to test the effectiveness of EIISNII in real life and have found that it has both practical and effective application. For example, in a civil harassment case, a young couple in their mid to late thirties was seeking a restraining order against an eighty-two-year-old resident of their gated community. The couple had recently moved into the community, where the elderly defendant had resided for a long time. They accused the defendant, a retired union leader, of illegally appointing himself as the Home Owners Association rules enforcer for the community. They claimed that the octogenarian fussed about anything they did, including how they mowed their lawn, which was apparently never up to standard, even if completed by a professional. Additionally, they claimed the defendant complained about their yard to anyone that would listen. Furthermore, the defendant, who lived several streets from the couple, apparently drove by their house several times a day, yelling obscenities each time. On one such occasion, the defendant even blocked one of the young couple’s cars from entering their own driveway. On another occasion, the defendant brought workers to the couple’s property to mow the lawn. The couple was afraid of what the defendant might do next. They also insinuated that the community managers ignored their harassment claims because the defendant “did their dirty work for them.”
Civil harassment mediation is rarely conducted face-to-face because the relationship between the disputants has become problematic. This case was no exception, and was conducted in separate caucuses with the parties. As petitioner, the couple had the right to the first caucus. When it came to his turn, the defendant expressed his displeasure about how much time the couple had spent talking with me. Additionally, he was incensed at their “audacity” to take him to court. “I’ve done the same darn thing for thirty-six years!” he screamed, as he banged on the table. He accepted the accusation levied against him but felt justified in his actions. I explained the repercussions that could stem from a restraining order granted against him, including that the judgment would become both police and public record. “Who cares about a police record at my age,” he said with stoic indifference, “I’m eighty-two. I know more dead people than alive and could die at any time!” Moreover, he was used to steadfastly digging into a position as a former union leader. Besides, he reminded me, he had all day to waste.
The couple was eager to come to a mutual stay-away agreement, but the defendant wasn’t willing to consider any compromise or cooperation that benefited the couple. Using an interest-based approach, I dug for the interest(s) underlying the defendant’s presenting problem. I quickly established that his primary interest was his desire not only to set the standard for everyone in the community, but also to hold every homeowner to that standard—an interest-based stance on principle. Exploration also revealed that he’d sold his house and was moving away from the community in less than a month. That he was moving away so soon was a surprise. I told him all he had to do was leave the couple alone for few weeks, but the defendant remained steadfast in his stance. “It’s a matter of principle!” he said. Thus, dislodging the defendant from his anchored “principle” position was the only option for a mutually acceptable resolution of the conflict.
My experience is that flexibility is the number one tool in a mediator’s toolbox, and at this stage, it was more important to listen empathetically for meaning. My job was to assist the defendant in finding a solution to his problem, not to solve it for him. He needed to find his own motivation to dislodge from the anchored principle position that he clung to. Additionally, I had to assume that the octogenarian was thinking rationally. Thus, I changed my approach to EIISNII. I began by expressing to the defendant that principle was very important to him. “Very much so,” he said. I confessed to sharing his strong position on principle and that softening a conviction at times feels like I’m loosing part of my soul. However, I said in friendly banter, I’m learning that as principle is an acquired taste, it can also be given up, like losing a taste for a certain food or clothing style. In this way, it’s a choice. “Everyone has the power of choice,” I emphasized. I added that the couple would become someone else’s problem soon enough. Despite the friendly repartee, after much back and forth and cajoling, the defendant remained angry, still stuck on principle and steadfastly maintaining that he had nothing to lose. His body language spoke the loudest.
Bolton (2011) claims, “when a person is in the midst of strong emotions, he is not psychologically ready to listen to anyone” (p. 101). Active listening, therefore, must accompany EIISNII to be effective. The conversation took on the spirit of storytelling/narratives. In addition, I continued to borrow from the original interest-based approach. Occasionally, I would return the topic to the reason we were there. An hour went by without any movement (a long time to spend with any one party in court-connected civil harassment mediation). Then the defendant shared how much he loved watching the late Robin Williams’ movies. I seized on this opportunity to further EIISNII and brought up the actor’s 2014 suicide. I expressed that Robin Williams, whom many believed had a lot going for him, took his own life. I said it probably ceased to be important to him. “What a loss,” he said. I added that such an action goes to show that anyone, no matter the status, can make anything important or unimportant. It’s only a matter of convincing themselves of their new perspective. No one does this for us; each individual has the power to make any decision. I noticed that the octogenarian leaned forward then dropped his shoulders. Reacting to his body language I asked, “Sir, what would you like to have accomplish when you’re done with the court today?” After a pungent silence, he said “give me the darn agreement, I’ll sign it!”
Shortly thereafter, the parties signed a mutual stay-away agreement. As we wrapped, the defendant said to me, “You wore me out, my son.” Robin could have chosen not to commit suicide, he added. Using EIISNII as reverse motivation achieved the breakthrough. First, I accepted that letting go of his principled stance is a major intrapersonal conflict. Likewise, the octogenarian contends with staying true to his self-image as a former union head and hard-line negotiator, and how the other residents will perceive him. Second, in order to change, the octogenarian first had to accept that he had created what was an important everyday reality in his own mind—in this case, the principled position of holding the couple to the same standard to which he held everyone else in the community. He had to understand that his other concerns were of his own creation as well. Third, he had to accept the new reality that anything he created could also be “undone” by him, just like tearing down a house after one builds it. He just needed the willpower to carry it through. Fourth, because of the aforementioned new reality, he would be able to see the rationale of unhinging from his principled position he had clung to for so long. Final and most important, for the reverse motivation tactic to work, the defendant had to believe it was he, not me, in the driver’s seat.
Thus, I would interpret the decision by the eighty-two-year-old to sign the mutual stay-away agreement as a final acceptance that the principled ground upon which he stood was of his own making—in essence, a socially constructed reality. Along with the new realization was also acceptance that since he’d move out of the community soon, the couple should be someone else’s problem. I have seen the effectiveness of EIISNII when used as reverse motivation in other types of mediation as well. Furthermore, while it can be influential in any conflict resolution, it would be particularly effective with individuals with deep intrapersonal emotion, such as members of hate groups, terrorists, and gangs. EIISNII can also be applicable in employment mediation or amelioration of a toxic work environment.
In conclusion, we form our own reality. However, this self-constructed reality is merely a projection of the importance we’ve assigned to said reality in our mind. In other words, if we don’t deem something important, we won’t bother constructing the reality; we constructed said reality believing it’s in our best interest to do so. Therefore, what’s good for the goose may not be good for the gander. Each person’s perception of importance is specific to that person only. This idea is adaptable to mediation and other ADR when EIISNII is used as a reverse motivational tool. Only when people feel heard at a deep level are they prepared to truly listen to what someone else has to say (Bolton 2001). Thus, a practitioner of EIISNII must listen attentively and for meaning. He or she accepts that the speaker is not only thinking rationally, but that their position is very important to them. The EIISNII practitioner’s job then becomes convincing the speaker that said position is at the same time merely a projection of the importance they’ve assigned it, and that it’s their choice whether or not to change that perception. Therefore, everything is important, and at the same time, nothing is important. Any position one adopts is a choice that can be modified or eliminated. It’s merely a matter of what they decide to do.
Bolton, R. (2011). People’s skills. New York: Simon & Schuster. Luckman, T. & Berger, L. (1990). The social construction of reality. Random House: New York, NY.
Menkel-Meadow, C. J., Schneider, A. J., & Love. L. P. (2006). Negotiation: Processes for problem solving. New York: Aspen Publishers.
Coleman, P. T., Deutsch, M., & Marcus, E. C. (2014). The handbook of conflict resolution: Theory and practice. San Francisco, CA: John Jossey-Bass.
Fisher, R., Ury, W., & Patton, B. (2011). Getting to yes. New York: Penguin Books.
Boghossian, P.A. (n.d.). What is social construction? Retrieved from https://as.nyu.edu/content/dam/nyu-as/philosophy/documents/faculty-documents/boghossian/Boghossian-Paul-socialconstruction1.pdf