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Mediating Conflict in the Time of Covid-19

The large divide in our country, about how we view and handle Covid-19, is also permeating many homes, workplaces and families.

While some believe Covid-19 is a hoax, or a conspiracy, or that the case numbers we’re being told are falsified to engender fear, others believe in the accuracy of the numbers being reported, believe Covid-19 is a real threat, and want to take every precaution possible.

While some people aren’t worried about getting Covid-19, or about spreading it, others are terrified of becoming ill and giving the virus to others. Some people won’t even consider going to a restaurant, while others are happily dining out. Some wear masks from the time they leave their homes until they return, while others wear masks only inside public buildings, and still others decline to wear masks at all.

These differences are bringing up big issues that strike a very deep chord within us, issues crucial to our lives, such as freedom and restrictions, comfort and discomfort, ability to work and earn money, safety, health, equality, and even life and death.

With concerns such as these, which address some of the major priorities of our lives, conflict is bound to arise over our vast differences of opinion. And with conflict comes opportunity.

In our role as mediators during these challenging times, a successful process requires both an inside job (awareness of what we tell ourselves) and an outside job (skill with how we interact with our clients), even when there are great differences in beliefs about Covid-19.

For the inside job, we are called upon to be aware of any biases, judgments and opinions we may have, and be willing to put them aside for the sake of our clients and their process.  This can be a real challenge, particularly when it comes to deep feelings about freedom of choice, politics, employment, health, potentially life-threatening decisions, and many other potent topics that arise around Covid-19.

So, as mediators, when we notice ourselves thinking about what people should and shouldn’t do, or when we’re feeling more aligned with one party and more turned off by the other party, it’s crucial to tap into our awareness of what’s happening within our own minds, and then to quickly let go of our personal viewpoint, even when it’s very strong, in order to best support all of those we are serving, with a clear and open mind.

A simple internal reminder, such as this, can work well: “I’m here to serve my clients, who are earnestly working towards finding their own solution. I choose to not judge, or take sides, knowing that this is not about me, and that my biases can ruin the process and outcome. Instead, I trust my clients as the experts in their own lives. I don’t know what’s best for them. My role is to support them with listening to, and understanding, each other, and with discovering, for themselves, what will work best in their lives to bring about the most satisfaction and peace on their own terms.”

Once we’re clear on our own internal motivation and approach as mediators, we can then move into the outside job of facilitating a supportive conversation for our clients. One effective tool for doing this is to respond to a client’s comment with this open question: “What’s important to you about this?”

This inquiry acknowledges the speaker’s comment and demonstrates that the mediator truly values what was said. It is the opposite of dismissing a comment. Instead, it honors the comment by asking for further elaboration.

For example, let’s imagine that a client says to the other party, “You cannot use my car again until Covid is over. I’m the only one who is going to use it.”

This is a position, a surface statement of what will and won’t happen. It can be heard as an implication that the discussion is over. As a mediator, our role is to explore the underlying motivations and values the speaker holds, and to keep the conversation moving forward by addressing and discovering what is driving the original position.

To do so, we can ask, “What’s important to you about being the only one to use the car until Covid is over?” This question allows the speaker to explore and elaborate upon their underlying thoughts and feelings, while also providing the other party, and the mediator, with the benefit of more information to work with.

So, the client may answer with, “I told her she has to wear a mask in the car, but she isn’t doing it.”

The mediator can then peel off the next layer by asking, “What’s important to you about her wearing a mask in the car?”

And the client may say, “I don’t feel safe going in the car, after she’s used it, if she’s been breathing in there without a mask. If she doesn’t wear one, I always feel the need to air out the car for a few hours, and sometimes my plans can get ruined when I have to do this. Also, I just don’t want to feel stressed out when I’m in the car. I wear a mask in there and I want her to also.”

Now, we have new, expanded and valuable information to work with, which provides the opportunity for a more in-depth and productive conversation, far beyond getting stuck in the original position that was stated.

To acknowledge this shift, from stepping beyond the position, to exploring the details of what’s important to the client, we can use reflective listening to point out this shift. “So, if she’d wear a mask in the car, you’d be happy to continue sharing it, because you wouldn’t need to air out the car, you could follow your plans, relax more, and not feel as concerned about getting Covid when you’re driving. Is that right?”

By saying this, the mediator sums up and clarifies what has been said, reframes it all in a positive way – of what can be done, instead of what can’t be done – and paves the way for more connection between the parties, based on new possibilities. This reflection from the mediator also demonstrates multi-partiality (caring for each and all equally) rather than taking sides.

(Please see my article on Multi-Partiality for more information on this topic)

The mediator can then check in with the other party about this request, continuing to use skillful, un-biased, open questions. Questions reflect the mindset of the mediator, and whether or not we are siding with people, or interjecting our own opinions. For example, if the mediator asks: “Don’t you think she has a good point about wearing a mask in the car?” we are imposing our own opinions, and making it clear that we are taking sides. This can de-rail the mediation process, cause mistrust of the mediator, and cause damage to the relationship.

To steer clear of this, we can ask this question instead: “How do you feel about this request to wear a mask in the car?” In this way, the mediator’s ego, opinions and personality are all left out of the equation, equally honoring both clients and their process, and guiding them towards a productive and caring conversation.

Whatever we may be personally experiencing with Covid-19, our sacred role as mediators calls upon us to put aside our opinions, in order to serve our clients in the highest and best way possible. To accomplish this, even when we may have very strong opinions about the current state of affairs, we can choose to be both conscious of our internal state, as well as dedicated to using our honed, constructive communication tools. In this way, we skillfully and fairly support our clients to express themselves openly, understand each other, find common ground and reach mutual solutions towards success in their own lives.

Whether we may feel that mask wearing is one of the only ways to get us out of this pandemic, or that mask wearing infringes upon our rights, the time to express ourselves is not as a mediator during mediation. We can find other avenues for expressing our concerns and working towards positive change.

While Covid-19 is presenting our world with many challenges, we are also being presented with many opportunities as mediators, to both refine our internal and external skills, and to provide our clients with the most supportive, open and effective process possible.



Vicki Assegued

Vicki Assegued, M.A., has a Master’s degree in Restorative Justice and Conflict Resolution. She has 25 years of experience as a program developer, director, consultant, facilitator and trainer, for secondary and higher education, the juvenile and criminal justice systems, various organizations, groups and non-profits. She has won The Probation Department… MORE >

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