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“Posture vs. Position”

Students coming out of mediation training programs are consciously trying out newly acquired knowledge and skills on real life cases, often in the form in which they learned these essentials. Trainers teach principles and concepts about skills, illustrated with examples and role plays. But at that level of professional development, the knowledge and skills are still on the student’s “surface” and have not become embedded at a deeper, more intuitive level. Such embedding can only come from practice and experience. Of course, the sounder the practice the more effective the embedded understanding and ability.

One example of this superficial approach that I frequently see is students approaching their clinical mediation cases with a focus on “positions” rather than “posture”.

The student learned the important difference between positions and interests, a la Ury and Fisher (Getting To Yes) in class. They were trained to think about questioning, reflecting, and summarizing as ways to learn and sort out the difference between these two essential parts of any dispute. These skills help the new mediator look at the cognitive content of the parties – the ideas in each party’s mind about their wants and needs. The tendency, then, is for the new mediator to remain in the realm of ideas, trying the massage the expressed ideas or contributing the “options” of new ideas. All of this tends to keep the dialogue at the surface as if the conflict was only a war of words.

This novice approach does not get to the real content of the conflict and the place where the real hope of resolution can be found. More than positions, the new mediator needs to assess the “posture” of the parties. This tells the mediator more about how the parties experience, understand, and approach the conflict than the discussion of ideas will allow. The “posture” of each party reflects their attitude, style, and treatment of the issues.

Consider this example. Parents divorced for 7 years, who live an hour away from each other, are now fighting about whether their children should be enrolled in church-related schools, 20 minutes away from their primary residence with mom. The typical approach a new mediator would take is to discuss the merits of the change of school and each parent’s position on the change. This a focus on positions. If the discussion stops there, impasse is more likely to ensue. Even to explore the interests behind these positions will limit the mediator’s appraisal of where the parents may find resolution.

However, in the same case, further exploration of each parent’s posture would reveal that dad’s opposition to the change of school is because it resembles mom’s move away from the locale of their marital history, and a parental distance of eight blocks, five years earlier. This move was made in ignorance of possibilities and dad’s silence in spite of the sense of loss and disenfranchisement he felt by the move, leaving dad with unresolved resentment about the event. Now that dad is more informed, he is motivated to make up for the losses of five years ago, or at least, prevent their reoccurrence. In spite of the potential value added to the children’s lives by the change of school, and dad works with value-added concepts every day in his employment, he cannot bring himself to agree because of his experience of the parental history. His posture is expressed by challenging the change of schools, like “What problem is solved by the move?” as if problems are the only reason for change. This approach also mirrors his life experience and approach to life. His style is not one of a pro-active nature, hence the predicament he finds himself in. By discovering what dad’s posture is, the mediator can then approach the dynamics of the conflict through that energy. How can dad reestablish with mom a more respected role in the life of the children through parenting activities like decision making? In this question is the hope of the parents resolving their dispute about schools and foster a more positive parenting environment for their children.

One way mentors help students discover the search for a party’s posture is through “peeling the onion.” Typically the positions are most obviously the outer skin. The interests most superficially associated with the position are usually at the next layer. But they are shallow and not as connected to the core because of their obvious proximity to the surface. They are simply too accessible to be useful. Like the onion, the strong and real flavor is found deep. So with the party. The real strength of their posture is found many layers below the surface, closer to their heart.

The way a mentor encourages a new mediator to get to that heart is through challenging the student to active listen. This is accomplished by the mentor’s modeling of active listening and the questions we use with the student as we debrief a mediation session. The fruit of active listening is expressed through the skill of reframing. Ironically, this emphasized skill is the one I see new mediators using least, yet it is the key to peeling the onion.

The mentor needs to challenge the student’s comfort with their skills and call forth the deeper realizations of the parties’ postures revealed during the session, forcing the student to incorporate those revelations into their appraisal of the session and their performance in the session. When the potential for impasse is experienced, debriefing needs to focus primarily on party postures to understand what was missed or needs further development in the mediation process.

A final thought on “posture vs. position.” Paper never solved a dispute, only action. Paper should never be a mediator’s sole goal. A focus on positions only anticipates putting ideas on paper. A focus on postures encourages the actions that produce a new life through reconciliation. Paper merely provides a method to recall the way. New mediators need to discover the unique opportunity they have to be objective listeners and explorers of the deeper realms, unaccessible to the parties on their own, where the real energy of conflict and resolution lie.


Evan Ash

Evan Ash has been a domestic mediator in Kansas’s Tenth Judicial District since 1995, and serves as the supervisor for its clinical mediation programs. His mediating experience began informally as a chaplain, and later with the Wichita Neighborhood Justice Center. He has taught mediation courses at Johnson County Community College… MORE >

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