Language conveys much more than the specific meanings of chosen words. Language conveys attitudes, mind-sets and perspectives. It both influences behavior and is influenced by behavior. Thus, collaborative law attorneys replace the adversarial language of litigation with a specific vocabulary that creates a climate more suitable for negotiation. Similarly, the words that mediators choose must help clients shift from cold, cool or stormy communications to a more cooperative style that sets the tone for mutual problem solving.
Nowhere is this shift more dramatic than in the choice of metaphors. Rather than relying on the metaphor of war, which dominates the language of our political and legal systems and thus that of conflict in general, in mediations metaphors should bridge differences, cut to the chase and put everyone on the same page so that negotiations can proceed in a constructive manner. Thus, I include questions in my initial interviews that suggest to me what metaphors will be most suitable for particular clients.
Metaphors can redefine a conflict into a challenge. A client who hikes and climbs mountains but presently feels defeated may find that the climb appears more possible when she focuses on securing a foothold on each ledge before attempting to step up to the next one. A client who owns a sailboat but thinks his only remaining option is to battle may see that in mediation he can tack so as to best use prevailing winds. Still another client who tells me she enjoys white water rafting may bear that she is about to crash on rocks or tumble over the rapids; she may need to know where the safety line is in the event that she needs to be pulled to safety. A golfer may want to avoid a bogie. A tennis player may wish to test a lob. A surfer may wish to catch a wave.
Metaphors can keep attention on the future rather than the past. War metaphors keep people stuck in the past. Those for journeying, planting, cooking, fishing, building or playing team sports look ahead. We travel the same road. We plant seeds for the future. We create a recipe for co-parenting. We see how many options we can troll for. We stack one brick at a time.
Metaphors can help clients to identify and address feelings that might otherwise lead to impasse. Some clients connect with the image of swirling downward in a whirlpool; mediation can help them change direction and begin to come up and out of the whirlpool. Others describe communications with the child’s mother or father as cold, chilly or frozen; in mediation, they can readjust the thermostat. Sometimes, more often with men than with women, a client will do everything possible to keep from revealing tears; to give him permission to experience his feelings, I may ask, “Do you know what I think about someone who can’t cry? I think that guy is emotionally constipated. Do you want to be emotionally constipated?”
Mediation puts clients in the driver’s seat; litigation is a gamble, a roll of the dice that takes control from them. I frequently suggest that clients take one bite of the elephant at a time in order to avoid indigestion. And, of course, regardless of the amount of fault each assigns to the other, nearly everyone will respond knowingly to the statement that it takes two to tango.
The influence that metaphors exert is subtle and efficient. They create or change the climate in the room. They recalibrate the tone of the discussion. They give people a sense of shared experience and understandings. The mediator who skillfully uses and mixes metaphors can more quickly create rapport and facilitate fruitful problem solving.
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