The Book Review
How do mediators do what they do? How do you approach conflict, and what can you do better when the next dispute arrives? In Holding the Calm: The Secret to Resolving Conflict and Defusing Tension, one of the best tells us what she does to catalyze order from chaos — and how you can help get deals done.
In a little more than 200 quick pages, Hesha Abrams gives us advice based on a dispute resolution practice most only dream of — 30 years of success resolving conflict among well-known brands and personalities with nine figures, political positions, and more at stake. Abrams helped draft the original mediation statute in Texas, but her book makes it clear she hasn’t stopped there. With every anecdote, Abrams reminds us that theory is important, but practice is different.
Tactics and Quotes: News We Can Use
We all borrow snippets and quotes from others who resolve disputes, and Abrams gives us plenty of those. From “What do you hope to accomplish by that?” as a response to aggressive behavior to “Is it really that important? Let’s not get trapped here” to navigate around relatively minor sticking points, this book serves up dozens of quotes anyone who lives with conflict can add to their list.
Again and again, Abrams adds tactics and anecdotes that underscore her approach. Why do you need a senior negotiator in the room to get a deal done? Abrams tells us “[i]t takes a good warrior to know when to make peace.” Why is what you leave behind often as important as what you go home with? She reminds us that “leaving the other person with their sword is critical to dignity and a final acceptance.”
The Foundation: Giving Direction to Tactics
Quotable quotes are important, but where do you go when conflict becomes unpredictable, strained, or even heated? It’s clear from her approach that Abrams isn’t the touchy-feely type. Her book is filled with real-world, pragmatic wisdom for what actually works when people are enraged or scared or stubborn or self-righteous, helping people get to a deal even when they don’t want to.
Abrams tells us early on that she “will stand for the proposition that a deal can be worked out,” and walks us through how she handles the toughest of cases in detail. As she does so Abrams refers back to her approach time and again — even revealing the affirmation she says before she starts every new mediation.
The fact that Abrams tells us what is truly inside her head in every conflict, and how she puts that reality into practice, will drive the success of this book for years to come.
From “Tell Me Where You Are” to “Where Can We Go?”
Her professional practice began in a big law firm we have all heard of, but the fact that she learned to truly listen permeates Abrams’s story. Early in her career, Abrams worked the Suicide Crisis Hotline, and “learned how to listen. To hear behind the words, to hear what is not being said, to hear depth.”
Armed with listening skills forged when it truly mattered, Abrams reveals her ability to transition from where we are to where we can go:
People don’t know what they want. They don’t know what will work. They don’t know what’s possible. You do. That’s why they’ve hired you. That’s why you’ve been invited to their party . . .. [D]on’t immediately accept their limitations. Investigate first. Ask questions. What would happen if? How would that look when? People will always pay more than they think and take less than they want.
How do you do what you do?
As the end of Holding the Calm, anyone who resolves conflict is likely to ask themselves those same questions: “What would happen if?” and “How would that look when?” As we bring those questions to our own practices, only good things will come.
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