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Exemplifications of Typical Topics: Mediator as a Playwright (Part 2)

This article shows how to address double-standards and preaching without doing in a mediation.

Read Part 1 here.

The following theme is in the center of many disputes, many heated arguments, and intense conflicts. It is an accusation hurled at the opposing party, without reflecting on one’s own conduct. Criticism applies to someone else, but rarely to the one, who does the criticizing. The things we dislike about others, we are often guilty of. In the psychoanalytical lingo it is called projection. In the language of mediation, it can be described by the words, ‘accusation is an admission’. The inconsistency between the actions of the criticized and the criticizer comes back in the form of criticism, called double standard and hypocrisy.

You are telling me what is wrong with me and what I do, and yet, you do the same things. You do not follow your own rules and standards. You are lenient when it comes to your family, while you are criticizing my family for doing the same thing they do.

We already know, how these claims and accusations continue, going back and forth. The next typical response is, that those things the accused and the accuser does, are not the same. They are quite different. Another typical move is the denial by the accuser, when he or she claims, that she or he never does these things, the accused person does. (Admissions are in a short supply.) The next level of this ‘game’ of accusations, without admissions, is the claim of the double-standard of double standard. If at least one of the parties is aware that the wrongdoing they accuse the opposing party of, he or she perpetrated many times in the past (and there is a proof of such ‘misconduct’), that party accuses the other party of double standard. The claim goes something like this.

 You are accusing me of double standard and yet, you are guilty of double standard as well.

We can also detect, that double-standard does not only apply to individuals, it is applied to groups or collectivities. If a person claims the membership or the affiliation with a certain group (ethnic, professional, life-style group, or any other interest group), that person my apply different standard (or abandon the same standard) to his/her ‘in-group’ (my people), in contrast to the members of ‘out-group’ (them, the stranger or the enemy), related to the same or a similar conduct. Accountability is not distributed equally. Two conversations between the wife (Eleine) and the husband (Simon) can be helpful.

Conversations with the wife   

(P)arty1: He was constantly accusing his father of neglecting him. And yet, he does the same things when it comes to his own children.

(M)ediator: Can you give me a specific example?

(P1): No problem, I have many. Johny, our oldest one, loves fencing. He is doing it for many years and every 6 months, they have a competition. His father never came to see his son to compete. His excuse is, that if it was basketball, he would be there every time.  But he could care less about fencing. You cannot imagine how painful this is for Johny. He wants to show his father, how good he is and he wants his support. I cannot tell you how often did I hear the story about Simon’s father, who was a traveling musician. On the road all the time, never at home, never attending to any of my husband’s events.

(M): Do you think that your husband is aware of Johny’s displeasure and sorrow, and of his own behavior which contributes to Johny’s unwillingness to spend time with his father?

(P1): I believe he is, but he told me on many occasions, that it was me who forced Johny to take fencing classes, against my husband’s will.

Conversations with the husband

            (M): So, I heard that you love basketball. Me too.

            (P2): You bet. I never miss any Nick’s game. I used to play, when I was in high school, but I injured my right knee.

          (M): Does your son like basketball?

          (P2): Not at all. He does that thing, fencing. I hate it. I don’t even think it is a sport.

         (M): Would you like your son to go to the basketball game with you?

         (P2): You bet. I would love that. But she makes sure, that will never happen.

         (M):  Well, she told me about your father. She said, you told her that he was never around.

         (P2): That’s true. He was a jazz musician, a pretty good one. He plaid tenor sax with Count Basie’s Big Band. But he never was at home and I hated it. I always wished he would come and see me shooting hoops. Never happened. All he cared about was his music. He could not give a damn about me and my brother.

        (M): I am glad you are telling me all this. Because your wife believes that you are following your father’s footsteps. You do not do for your son, what you wished the most for yourself, when your father was still alive.

         (P2): She should keep her mouth shut! She lets her sister get away with stuff, which she was constantly bugging me about, when it came to my family. Talk about double standard. She is a hypocrite.

         (M): I hear you. But this is not anymore about you and your wife. This is about your kids. I don’t know if you ever talked to your son about your father and your love for basketball, but what I heard, he loves fencing and would love you to come and see him competing. He wants you to be proud of him and he seems to be quite resentful, that you do not show up. That’s why he does not want to spend too much time with you. What do you think, if you promised your son to come to his events, would he be willing to spend more time with you? You could go together to the Nick’s game and you can explain to him a thing or two. And he can tell you, why he loves fencing.

Another variation of the theme is, when one side tells the opposing side, what he or she should (should not) or must do, without applying such a dictum to one self.  It manifests the disconnect between words and deeds and the inconsistent applicability with regard to similar situations different individuals and groups are part of. Consistency is a criterion of (moral) integrity and often it manifests itself as a challenge during mediation. Consistency applies not only to the actions (deeds) of individuals. It is required from others. It is a prerequisite for learning about opponents’ similar experiences, which might lead to a mutual understanding by adversaries. (If I expect something from others, I should expect to do the same thing from myself.)

The following question:

       What would you do, if you were in her shoes (situation she was facing)?

can enable such understanding.  If different persons behave similarly in similar situations and they attempt to do so consistently, they have an opportunity better to understand the experiences of other persons.  It all depends on individuals’ preferences to focus more on similarities rather than differences. In our example (conversation with the husband), in the past, Simon was asking his father to do the things (being around, watching him play basketball), he is not doing for his own son (watching him competing in a fencing contest). Yet, the love for sports, even if quite different types of sports, can bring the son and the father together.

Finally, the consistency of conduct becomes a theme of another typical conversation. The conversation about principles and pragmatics. That is, (consistent) adherence to deeply held principles (not compromising oneself) on one hand and compromises related to practical solutions parties can agree on, on the other hand.

Being Vindicated and Being Vindictive

There are two standard meanings related to being vindicated.

  • clear (someone) of blame or suspicion

  • show or prove to be right, reasonable, or justified

There are two standard meanings related to being vindictive.

  • Disposed to seek revenge; revengeful

  • Marked by or resulting from a desire to hurt; spiteful

How do these two terms relate to each other and why are they important to mediation as a subject-matter or a topic of conversation?

Revenge (vindictiveness) is what keeps conflicts going, especially if both parties feel strongly about getting even with the opposing side. (“You caused harm to me, so I am going to cause you more harm, in return!“)

Retribution is a form of payback for being wronged, hurt, or disparaged by the opponent. It can become an ongoing ‘contest’, who can harm the other person more. It can be an asymmetrical affair, if only one party to conflict seeks revenge. It can be a symmetrical affair, where both parties reciprocate. Symmetry is often the matter of a mutual contribution by both sides (we can call it a negative reciprocity of continuous, mutual harm), Asymmetry pertains also to the imbalance of power. One side has more of it, than the other. Revenge can be very personal or impersonal. ‘Eye for an eye’ means that a person is profoundly impacted by a wrongdoer and the wrongdoer will be punished personally by the one who was wronged. The avenger will take justice into his or her own hands. Then, there is a concept of a retributive justice. This one is not executed by an aggrieved individual. Rather, justice is delivered by legal institutions, that is, courts. Separation between personal and impersonal exercise of justice is not as clean cut as it seems. One can use the legal system as a vehicle of a personally felt need to harm the opponent. If the harmed (or injured) party wins in the court, that person might feel not only vindicated by the ‘system’, but also feel content, that the ‘slimeball’ got what he deserves and he or she will suffer the consequences in prison or pay a financial price. Vindication becomes vindictiveness.

Vindication is not typically associated with personal vengeance. One does not feel necessarily vindicated, if he or she inflicted the harm on a person who caused him or her harm. Before a person gets vindicated, some form of (false) accusation or fabrication which aims at the ruin of reputation or credibility, must take place. There is one exception. It happens when individuals try to vindicate themselves in their own eyes.

Many of us fantasize or dream about revenge. Many of us plot and create scenarios in our minds. Not always, if at all, we act out these fantasies.  Once executed, revenge is accompanied by the feeling of satisfaction and there is an element of cruelty involved. The level of cruelty differs. Ridiculing or embarrassing the person who wronged us, leaves mostly ‘mental’ scars. But it also can be cruelty of unimaginable proportions. When people go to war with each other, violence and terror go hand in hand. Revenge can be sweet but also exceptionally morbid.

Often, revenge is an exercise to teach the opponent a ‘lesson’.

      Now you know how I felt, when you inflicted harm on me.

 Before revenge is executed, the deep-seated need to harm the perpetrator is on the mind of an avenger.

     You dishonored my sister therefore I am going to rip your heart out.

In the beginning of her book, Sweet Revenge: The Wicked Delights of Getting Even, author, Regina Barreca, describes revenge in following words

           Revenge is an attractive, seductive, triumphant, and unusual feeling.

And later

           The desire for revenge is often uncontrollable, universal, irrational, and personal …

Two words she uses, stand out. Revenge is universal across the cultures. It is uncontrollable, therefore the concept of revenge as practice, is difficult to pinpoint. As the author writes

           The very nature of revenge is difficult to define in practice because it remains a taboo subject.

Frequently, vindication needs the approval of or participation by others, be it institution, community, or significant others.

  • I was vindicated by the system of justice.

  • I cleared my family name.

  • I restored the honor of my community.

In nutshell, vindication requires an audience of directly or indirectly affected individuals or collectives.   Revenge does not require any audience and often is selfish. A personal satisfaction suffices, even if a person avenges a family member or the member of community. Vindication is a form of self-restoration and at the same time the riddance of shame. False accusations and unjustified blame disappear and good reputation and self-worth are restored. Vindication is also a redress of powerlessness and helplessness.

Both, vindictiveness and vindication pose a unique challenge to mediators. If a party is vindictive, a cooperative posture is not a primary attitude, that party brings to mediation. If a party is looking for vindication, he or she is looking for a sympathetic attitude and approval from mediator. A party, which feels wronged, is not in the mood for compromise. She or he believes, that by taking a stand and not giving an inch, that party is asserting her or his position and becomes assertive in her or his own eyes.

Conversation with wife

(P)arty1: In the past, I agreed to everything he wanted. I let him make all important decisions. I always compromised. He was making the money, therefore he decided that what is good for him, must be good for me. I admit, I made myself completely dependent on him and I paid the price. He was taking advantage of me from left and right. But I had enough. My therapist taught me, that I need to stand up and be counted.

(M)ediator: I am glad that you finally decided to take the things into your own hands. But I am not sure how we will go about finding any solution regarding an agreeable settlement, so that you both can move on.

(P1): Actually, it is pretty easy. This time, he will give me everything what I want. It’s payback time. And you are going to help me to achieve that. After all, you just told me that you liked, I am finally taking things into my own hands.

(M):  And I really meant it. But I also cannot disregard what your husband is looking for. I am not here to side with him or you. I am here to enable an equitable solution.  Unless, you both agree on the terms, how to split the assets and the time with your children, I cannot do too much.

(P1): Look, this is for me the time to win something back. I need to be vindicated by this whole process. I was not particularly proud, how I handled my affairs in the past. Always submitting to his will and compromising myself. My whole family was telling me, that I was weak, that I was going along with all his wishes. My family did not respect me. Actually, they were ashamed of me and they pitted me. I was ashamed of myself too. But that was in the past.

(M): You definitely brough with you a fighting spirit. And in a way I am glad, that this time, you are not planning to accept, whatever he proposes. At the same time, if you are going to make any proposal, expecting that he will accept everything you ask for, this might not be a right venue for you. You chose mediation, because you did not want to go to war, armored by attorneys, who would do the bidding for you. Let’s keep that in mind.

(P1): Ok, let’s see what he is going to offer.

Conversation with husband

              (P)arty2: I am sure you heard what a miserable human being I am. I don’t know how much of it you believe is true. But I can tell you, she is one vindictive …, I don’t want to say more. She is spiteful and all what she is looking for is get back to me and hurt me.

 (M)edaitor: Is there anything you did, which would justify her desire for revenge?

 (P2): Absolutely not!  You cannot imagine, how much I did for her. I was in love with her and I    still am. What I learned is, she is the most manipulative woman, I ever met.

(M): Did you let her to manipulate you?

(P2): To some extent. But now I just want to end this ordeal. So, let’s see how we can get to business.

(M): I am glad, you put your ‘practical hat’ on. I will count on your sober-minded approach.

During mediation parties like to tells us many things about their conflicts. So-called conflict stories are the narratives, which tell mediators as much about the villains (typically the opposing side) as they say about the storyteller. The interesting variation of the conflict story is a revenge story. A revenge story can be interesting in two different ways. It can be the story about revenge. (After he did this to me, I hit right back.)   It can be the story as revenge. (After she left me for another man, I will tell you everything she does not want anybody to know about her.)  ‘Tell-all’ books can be one way how to tell the story as revenge.

How to become a practicing mediator/playwright

In the beginning of this chapter, we listed fifteen themes. Four of them were adopted in a greater detail, using analysis and also some examples, showing how these themes can be incorporated into the conversations taking place during mediation. We encouraged readers, to take any theme (or choose their own) from our list and create their own scripted conversation or a dialogue, as an exercise.

Before the reader makes a decision to take our suggestion, a few things might be good to mention.   First, we need to consider the difference between a playwright who writes a play and a playwright who writes a conversation, which can be used as a thematic template in mediation. Once a playwright writes a play, and the play becomes the part of the theater repertoire and is published in the form of a book or is rehearsed on the stage, the text is fixed and typically does not become the subject to modifications. The play as a literally form is understood as a scripted text which must be followed by both actors and directors. The same does not apply to mediators/playwrights. They are not only playwrights, but also performers/participants. The dialogues they create, can be altered and improvised. Mediators/playwrights learn how to anticipate, what to expect from their partners in conversation. They must respond quickly to a variety of ‘maneuvers’ their conversational partners present to them. They must learn how to control the conversational flow, regardless how many surprises await them. Yet, designing a conversation with a specific theme in mind, includes certain features which are universal. These are, the purpose of conversation and the theme itself.  The purpose, of course, is to move parties away from the confrontational stance and make them work together. The theme, which most of the time reflects a confrontational stance, must be talked about in such manner, that it

  • enhances a learning stance of the parties                                                                        (being open to alternate explanations)

  • expends the horizon of parties by their understanding of the overall situation they find themselves in (why are they in conflict)

  • enables to understand certain things about their opponent and about themselves  (self and other awareness)

Therefore, designing a conversation should enhance participants’ understanding of their attitude toward conflict and their contribution to conflict. It should account for different possible ways, how to explain certain reasons, motivations, and intents, behind the opponent’s actions. (Why they do the things they do?)  And finally, it should bring about the awareness, that actions (transgressions or wrongdoings), imputed to the opponent could be also occasionally perpetrated by accusers.

Let us use the theme, Lying and Truthfulness, as an example.

Accusing the opposing party of lying, calling her or him a liar, becomes a common occurrence during mediation. Therefore, a good question to ask is, “Why do you thing people lie?”, and “Why do you think he lies?” A typical answer to the second question might be, “Because he is a pathological liar”, or “He is a scoundrel”.   The first question is an opportunity for mediators to expend the horizon of a party. There are many reasons, motivations, and intents, why people lie.  In her book, Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, Sissela Bok distinguishes between harmless and harmful lying. She reminds us that we lie because, we want to protect ourselves or the people who are dear and important to us, our friends, our colleagues, our family members, the members of our church, or our countrymen. We also lie to take advantage of others or to harm them (destroying their reputation, for example).  Being a member of a minority or a discriminated group, forces many people to stay closeted or hide their identity. Thus, self-endangerment becomes a good reason and motivation, for lying about one’s identity.  We lie to our enemies and to our friends for different reasons. We do not always disclose everything on the resume, when applying for a job. Scientists who work with people (psychologist, for example), not always disclose to the participants in experiments, what it is (hypothesis), they try to test and what scientific truth are they trying to establish. Parents occasionally lie to their children and children lie to their parents. Doctors do not like to tell their patients, that their days are numbered. Political leaders sometimes use so-called noble and sometimes not so noble lies, when dealing with public. It all depends on the self-interest of a public figure, or the interest of a specific group (interest group), or the interest of citizenry. Paternalism is often used as an argument for protecting the citizenry, by the implementation of specific directives. (Wearing the mask during the epidemic can be one of those directives.)  An under-cover informant or an investigate journalist, who infiltrates the drug cartel, lies to the liars.

So, when we ask parties why do people lie, we want them to ponder multiple possibilities and to shake their ‘indubitable’ judgments or assessments (she lies because she wants to deceive me) and the certainty they attach to their believes about others.  By offering these possibilities, we hope to accomplish the change of heart and change of attitude of a party toward their opponent.

The second part of this task is to ask the parties, if she or he lied for any (good or not so good) reason in the past. For example, to protect someone, who is falsely accused or is facing a ‘grave’ danger. That is, to bring self-awareness and to admit to oneself, that there are instances, when that party lied to others. It opens a discussion on double-standard.

It can go something like this.

Mediator: It looks like, that you hate when people lie to you. But I want to ask you, if it ever happened to you in the past, that you had to lie to protect someone, who was important to you. Perhaps, when you were a kid, your brother was always accused by your father of everything what went wrong in your household. So, to protect your brother and making sure that he is not going to be punished again, you took the blame and lied that you were the one who perpetrated a particular offense. For example, you told your father, that it was you who spilled ink on the carpet, not your brother, despite the fact, it was not true. I am making this up. But if you had a similar experience with lying, it might shed some light on, why other people lie under different circumstances and for different reasons. One does not have to be a bad person to lie. Would you be willing to give your opponent a benefit of doubt and hear how he explains his reasons, not to be honest with you?

Writing conversations on a pertinent theme is a good exercise, to be prepared for occasions when there is a need to challenge parties’ assumptions, assertions, and conclusions. Such challenge can lead to reevaluation of the relationship between adversaries and to shift their posture from acrimonious to cooperative. In the next chapter, we will say more about that.


1. This theme is explored by Martin Benjamin, in his book, SPLITTING THE DIFFERENCE: Compromise and Integrity in Ethics and Politics, University Press of Kansas, 1990

2. In her article, THE VALUE OF VINDICTIVNESS, The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, Vol 8 (1948), psychologist and psychotherapist, Karen Horney distinguishes three types of vindictiveness.

3. Regina Barreca, SWEET REVENGE: The Wicked Delight of Getting Even, Berkley Books edition, 1995 and Crown Publishers, Inc, 1997.

4. Regina Barreca, SWEET REVENGE: The Wicked Delight of Getting Even, Berkley Books edition, 1995 and Crown Publishers, Inc, 1997, p. 107

5. Sissela Bok, Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, Pantheon books, 1978


Milan Slama

Milan Slama is a practicing mediator and arbitrator in the Los Angeles area. He is a co-founder and the Board member of VBMC (Valley Bar Mediation Center). Currently he is a contractor for Los Angeles County and he also mediates for Chilren's Court.He has been associated with the LA Superior… MORE >

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