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Mediating in the Eye of the Storm!

A bit tongue in cheek, I sometimes describe mediation as a kind of ‘free theatre’ where the mediator has a particularly good seat. And as long as we refrain from eating popcorn in front of the clients, we can spend a bit of time simply watching the ‘sturm und drang’ of the unfolding drama.

And mediations are often intensely dramatic. Parties are caught up in a world of disagreement and dispute, where conflict takes centre stage. These are narratives filled with intense emotions – of victims and villains, of expectations and betrayals. The clash of perspectives reverberates through the conversational space.

Mediators are not immune to these dynamics.  Like any successful dramatic production, the aim is to draw the audience in. We are invited to live through the passions of the parties – their sadness, their anger, their joys and sorrows. To feel the irresistible tug of the story being played out before us. 

Recently I saw someone who was struggling with one of her colleagues. She was unsure how the relationship had come undone. She cited differences in temperament, styles of communication, professional expectations and degrees of assertiveness.

In telling me her version of events, she typified the description of herself as an ‘activist’. She spoke quickly, passionately, dramatically. I could feel myself getting sucked in, carried along. Reliving the drama through her words, through her eyes.

In feeling that pull on my emotional sensibility, I could also feel the beginnings of panic. I know full well that doing my job means that I cannot let myself get carried away by one parties’ version of events. I will inevitably lose my impartiality. Worse, I might well convey to the speaker that I believe their version and that therefore, they are free to occupy the high moral ground. That they are right.

In these moments, when the drama threatens to sweep me out onto an emotional sea, I need to regain my footing. The easiest way of doing so is to withdraw ever so slightly, to remember my professional role and responsibility. In this guise, I can practice the skill of reflective listening as a kind of distancing technique. They speak, I summarise.

At the same time, I can neutralise the drama by assigning it a generic label. The pain and angst become part of an ‘interpersonal conflict’ or ‘relational breakdown’.  Once the label is in place, the power of the drama recedes.

There is something both helpful and not helpful about this reduction. For people who feel overwhelmed by the scenario, ‘packaging’ the pain and uncertainty into some sort of ‘label’ can make things more manageable. For others, collapsing the drama into a generic description, eviscerates both their emotional urgency and their imaginative capacity to find a way forward.

What I think they need most, is not to lose the sense of drama – which is actually their lived experience – but to not be overwhelmed by dramatic consequences. In this balancing act, the mediator has a key role. First and foremost, the mediator needs the capacity to stay ‘dramatically present’ without needing to protect or defend themselves from the turbulence.

For many practitioners, their lifeline at this juncture is the principle of impartiality. The discipline of not taking sides, of remaining outside of the drama being enacted in front of them. There is a sense of safety and security in this position. And it may be argued, there is also a kind of absence.

Impartiality is a stance. It is what is expected from the mediator. We inevitably speak about it as a core principle of mediation. That we will not take sides. Metaphorically, it is a declaration that the mediator will not step into the storm. It is premised on the belief that mediators can only be effective if they are outside of the conflict.

I want to offer a different possibility. Not that we jettison impartiality for judgement, but rather that we place ourselves at the very centre of the conflict. As in a hurricane, where the intensity of the buffeting winds is made possible by the stillness at the eye of the storm.

Stillness is a kind of space making capacity. Not just for oneself, but also for the party. A space for the vastness of experience, that allows the strength of feeling and conflicting emotions to continue to be present. There is a tangibility to stillness that is not theoretical. It’s not a thought, it’s a place. Somewhere that I can occupy – and that simultaneously, leaves me free to occupy myself with the other.

In this sense, stillness is a capacity, rather than a stance or role. To be inwardly still is something that each of us has to find ourselves, it is not something we can adopt from the mediator manual. Stillness is personal in a way that impartiality is not.

Trying to define stillness isn’t easy. Keats talked about ‘negative capability’ – not filling one’s inward awareness with the flotsam and jetsam of our ‘monkey mind’, but to remain receptive to what, at that very moment, is trying to speak. While it is tempting to talk about a state of grace, it would be equally accurate to describe it as a state of gracefulness, where the conversation is more of an improvised dance than a formulaic exchange of information.

Mostly what struck me about the stillness in that meeting, was how safe it felt. For both of us. That she could continue without having to temper herself. And that I didn’t need to ‘be careful’ in not falling over into partiality.  

Being still doesn’t imply not caring. One can be moved without moving. What is missing is the professionalization of caring – that we should only care from a distance.  A distance between oneself and the other – and a distance between one’s role and one’s humanity.

More than anything, stillness invites. It implies a kind of joining together that has the potential to incorporate the messiness that is conflict. Stillness is a response, not an absence of one. It is the space between the notes in music that provides the context for the listener to actually hear what is being played.

Nor does stillness imply a lack of engagement. I certainly talked with my client. There was an ongoing conversation in which I asked questions, reflected back what I was hearing, even gave an opinion or two.

What I would say about these intervention is that they arose, rather than were formulated. They seemed to be what needed to happen both in terms of understanding what she was telling me about her experience – but also what needed to happen so that she knew that I cared about what she was saying. I don’t believe that she ever experienced me as ‘not there’ – rather that I was there so that she could be there.

There is a strange kind of reciprocity going on here. That by being inwardly still, it means that the sense of competing – of having two egos present in the room – is diminished and so there is less fear, greater safety and more ease.

At no point did the stillness become a forgetting. I had no trouble holding onto my awareness that this was a mediation and I was the mediator. I didn’t let go of my agenda in regards to assessing suitability. Nor did I pretend that the way she was currently describing the situation would be useful in the joint session. I actively helped her explore language that was more likely to prompt conversation rather than defensiveness or retaliation.

Despite my assertion that they are different, I can still understand how some practitioners might argue that stillness is more or less the same as impartiality. That mediators are expected to hold themselves in check so that their judgements don’t leak out and infect the process. And while this is undoubtedly true, I don’t think it equates to the capacity to be still.

So why has it taken me so long to come to this distinction?  Why now after nearly 30 years? I think stillness is really only possible once you know that ‘being with’ is an absolutely essential part of the mediation process. In simply affirming the client’s right to their reality. If change is going to happen, it can only do so from where they currently stand. Implying they need to be ‘somewhere else’ in order to find a way forward is inevitably a judgement and a loss of both rapport and impartiality.

What does this say about mediation practice?

I think what it says is that mediators need to trust in the moment. That our expertise doesn’t arise out of a prepared script, but the willingness to step into the centre of conflict and not be blown about. That what we do at those moments is to know that we are part of what’s happening without taking responsibility for the noise and the tumult.

Mediation happens in the present. This isn’t to say that we don’t have a sense of purpose or process – only that there is an inextricable link between our capacity to be still and the ability of the parties to accept the chaos that they find themselves in. Without this acceptance, then it is very difficult for people to take responsibility for their part in both the current reality and the possibility of them shaping things differently.

Stillness is a mirror. Perturbations only offer a distorted reflection. We need to be still in order to reflect truly. So that those who are with us have the opportunity to see not only the world that conflict has created, but also the gap between it and the possibility of peace. 


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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