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From Problems to People

Problems matter.

My starting assumption for this article is that the work we do is largely defined by the problems we face. To put it crudely, there’s a world of difference between the problems faced by a meteorologist responsible for forecasting the local weather and the problems confronting a surgeon who must decide the best place for an initial incision. And both of these are very different from the mediator sitting with a separating couple locked in conflict.

And yet, while the specific nature of these problems is very different, there is also an underlying commonality. Problems provide a focus, they capture our attention. And in response, our inclination is to develop plans, strategies and actions to deal with the problems we encounter.

Problems provide focus.

Problems also provide a natural source of feedback. As a patient, you might well be very interested in the ‘success rate’ of the surgeon standing over you with a scalpel. In a world were expertise is a prime consideration, the surmounting of problems is a key measurement.

Problems define success.

In all these instances, problems influence our choices and behaviours. For the couple caught up in conflict, how they ‘frame the problem’ will determine upon whose door they eventually knock.  If they believe that marriage is a form of contractual agreement, with specific rights and entitlements, it makes sense to seek for legal remedies when it seems to be falling apart. In which case, the door knocked upon will likely open onto a solicitor’s office.

Of course solicitors aren’t the only professionals involved with struggling couples. If the couple defines the problem not as one of legal rights, but of psychological malfunctioning, they may well seek the services of a therapist or counsellor.  Showing up at this particular door is highlighted by the refrain of countless couples beginning therapy:  “We’re here because we’ve been having problems….” 

All of which leads me to ask, what kind of problem definition would lead people to knock on a mediator’s door? This question is made more complicated by two factors. Firstly, mediation is mostly an unknown quantity, while courts and counselling have a far more recognisable brand. People find it hard to choose what they neither know nor understand.

Secondly, mediators are trained to actively resist the role of problem-solver. And this can leave us at a serious disadvantage when it comes to our legal or therapeutic colleagues. There is enormous comfort in ‘naming the problem’. Most of us are keen to attach a label to our difficulties. Mediation, insofar as it discourages this kind of certainty, opens itself to both confusion and contempt.

If having a clear problem definition is a doorway into the work, then perhaps the person best placed to provide this is the practitioner. So how would a mediator describe the most problem-saturated aspect of their practice? My guess is that they would probably say something about clients ‘getting stuck’. For all its inexactness, stuckness is a term that most of us would recognise. It is often a mixture of conflictual behaviours, poor communication, a fervent grip on the past and a disinclination to move into a more cooperative future.  

From a problem perspective, stuckness ticks all the relevant boxes: it captures our attention, it motivates us to work harder,  and it often feels like it stands between us and a successful outcome. A great deal of mediation training and literature focuses on helping parties get ‘unstuck’. The classic interventions – normalising, mutualising, reframing, future focusing – are all ways of untangling the unproductive ‘knots’ that are seen as problems within the process.

And believing is seeing. In taking up this stance, we make a space for the idea of ‘problem’ to appear. We buy into the belief that when things don’t go easily or seem to thwart our efforts, that this is best described as a ‘problem’. And the problem with problems is, as we have seen with our legal and therapeutic colleagues, that they call out for solutions. Thus we manoeuvre ourselves into the domain of ‘conflict-resolution’.

The issue that I have with this label is that it promotes a fallacy, that somehow it is possible to make conflict disappear from our lives. That we may wish this to be so is understandable. In the same way I wish to have my bedroom free of mosquitoes before turning out the lights. Only conflict, like mosquitoes, almost inevitably finds a way back in.

As Max Lucade so aptly noted: “Conflict is inevitable, but combat is optional.”  It is inevitable because individuals are, and will continue to be, blessedly different. Only by eliminating difference and distinction could we actually ‘resolve’ conflict. A conflict free world would require universal lobotomies.

Our efforts, including the legal and therapeutic, to find a ‘cure for conflict’ are doomed to failure. More tellingly, they send out completely the wrong message. Conflict isn’t a disease to be cured like smallpox or malaria, but a fact of our existence. Like other facts of existence such as gravity or death, conflict can’t be ignored. The proper relationship with conflict is one of engagement. Through engaging with conflict, we shift it from being a ‘problem’ to being ‘problematic’ – and this makes all the difference.  In the same way, gravity isn’t a problem, unless you are determined to disregard its nature while standing atop a cliff.

Given the history of the human race, I think it is hard to argue that we find conflict ‘problematic’. As groups, tribes and nations, we have been remarkably consistent in not being able to resist the combat option. We have huge expertise in the design and development of ever more lethal instruments of conflict.

Things aren’t necessarily better on the individual level. Our first and favourite choice of conflict engagement is to avoid it at all costs. To play ostrich, stick our heads in the sand and hope it will all go away.  Our fear of engagement only seems to confirm the size and might of the ‘problem’ – making it even harder to respond with courage and compassion.

As a trainer, I often use a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon to illustrate this shift from problem to problematic. In the strip, Calvin asks Hobbes whether he should argue for what he wants or compromise? Hobbes responds very sensibly – argue when you can, compromise when you have to. Calvin ponders this for a moment, and then says what I believe many of us feel about trying to engage in the midst of conflict, that doing so is  “more mature than I care to be.”

It is precisely this reality that we encounter in mediation. Our clients are struggling to live the lives they’ve made. They are thrashing about in an uncertain world – which despite their extreme discomfort, is actually the only world there is.  Our struggle is to not reduce that discomfort by pretending that uncertainty can somehow be reduced to the status of ‘problem’.

And this very tension, this refusal to reduce life to a problem, defines our work.  Life, whatever painful, disorienting, unasked for stuff is happening, can’t be reduced to an equation to be solved. We do a disservice to our clients (and by extension, ourselves) when we allow them to believe that separation and divorce is something that can be sorted out. Clothes can be sorted; life can only be lived. 

And this is what mediators seek to do. We invite the parties to continue living their lives – even in stressful, difficult times. To not accept that circumstances – even very trying ones — must inevitably diminish our capacity for making informed choices, or erode our humanity. Mediators undoubtedly ask those they work with to be “more mature than they care to be”.

This doesn’t imply that the practical issues aren’t important. Knowing you’ll have a place to live, that you’ll see your kids, that there will be enough money to survive are not trivial things. These things matter. What also matters is that we live, as much as possible, at the centre of our lives.

Mediation is an ‘invitational practice’ whereby we are constantly looking for ways to encourage parties to bring their best, most mature selves into the room. Otherwise the choices and decisions that they make may well be too small for them to inhabit. We must not simply focus on the issues – the multitude of presenting problems ranging from asset division, contact arrangements, to who gets the cat – but on the person doing the deciding.

So we need to return to the question as to what ‘problem’ might bring people to a mediator’s door? For me, the problem is straightforward, though the answer is anything but. Mediation provides a way of engaging with conflict for people who are striving to stay sane, healthy, and mature in a very uncertain and unsettled world. I believe this applies as much to the practitioners as it does to the parties.

In their seminal work Getting to Yes, Fisher and Ury identified the fundamental tension between these two points of reference:

“On both the giving and receiving end, we are likely to treat people and problem as one…..Separating the people from the problem is not something you can do once and forget about, you have to keep working at it. The basic approach is to deal with the people as human beings and with the problem on its merits.”

The danger comes when we blur the distinction.  

People matter.


Michael Jacobs

Michael Jacobs has been mediating for the past 23 years across a range of disputes, including family, community, workplace and civil/commercial. He appreciates the fact that even after all this time, he is still quite capable of making mistakes and getting things wrong – it means that he has more… MORE >

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