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Reconciliation and Mediation: An Interview with Laura Davis

Book Section Editor, Jon Linden, recently wrote a review of Laura Davis’s book, “I Thought We’d Never Speak Again.” He then conducted an interview with Laura. Here is the text of the interview. His questions are in bold.

1) From a Mediation perspective, it is usually found that the faster the dispute enters mediation, the higher is the probability of resolution of that dispute. In your book you say the following about “reconciliation.”:

“Time usually has to pass before most people are able – or willing – to reconsider a relationship that was so painful it had to end.”

If mediation has an exponentially higher probability of success if done sooner, why is reconciliation different?

It is my experience that the deeper and more significant the wound leading to the estrangement, the longer people need before they are willing to consider reconciliation. In some rifts, say those caused by immaturity, stubbornness or miscommunication, a quicker resolution is definitely possible. A simple apology or an intervention by an interested third party can really help. But when a rift has been caused by a deep betrayal of trust, the person who has been hurt needs time to re-establish their sense of wholeness and autonomy before they can be ready to consider whether on not they even want to work things out with the other person.

2) In mediation, one of the functions of the mediator is the facilitate communication between the parties. In your book in the chapter on “The Importance of Autonomy” you state this:

“Neither of us had the self-awareness, communication skills, or individuality necessary to sustain a healthy friendship.”

Given the fact that this disposition is not uncommon in the general population, how effective do you think the process of mediation would be in helping people reconcile since the mediator can compensate for deficiencies in communication skills, self-awareness and individuality to one extent or another?

When a mediator can help each person in the conflict individually work to understand their feelings, needs, their role in the estrangement, as well as the goals they would like to achieve, before a mediation session takes place, I think mediation can be a wonderful tool in the reconciliation process.

3) In your book, you discuss the importance of boundaries in reconciliation and note that the establishment of ground rules is often important. “Ground rules give people a way to rebuild trust and feel safe again.” In mediation, I find that ground rules constrict people much of the time and that ground rules can be imposed as necessary if there is a problem that needs to be controlled. How do you see the process of the establishment of ground rules in a reconciliation process and do you think that such establishment of ground rules constricts or impedes the process of rebuilding trust in terms of honesty in the process of reconciliation?

In order to approach someone who has hurt us in the past, it is essential that we know that we can protect ourselves from further harm. We need to be able to protect ourselves from violence, insults, demeaning comments, or other kinds of hurtful remarks. Until we can say no to these interactions, we will be vulnerable to being hurt again and again. The kind of groundrules that I think are relevant in reconciliation might include things like, “I’m not willing to discuss whether or not Dad was an alcoholic anymore,” or “I don’t want you to tell dirty jokes to my kids,” or “I don’t want you to talk about my weight or my appearance,” or “If you start drinking when we’re together, I’m going to leave. I don’t want to be around you when you’re drinking.” I don’t think that groundrules impede the rebuilding of trust, quite the contrary. Within boundaries that ensure a modicum of respect, the truth can more freely be expressed-and more importantly, received. When two people just “dump their truth” on each other, without a measure of respect or kindness, real communication rarely results. For communication about the “truth” to be effective, both honesty and kindness must come into play.

4) In your section on “Finding Clarity” you state this:

“It is humbling to accept the fact that our own stubbornness, selfishness, or lack of awareness has contributed to the loss of a relationship we once held dear.”

In mediation, this process would be the identification of the contribution to the dispute of both parties. The mediator would strive to show that each side had some type of contribution. The ownership of this contribution greatly assists the parties to perceive the situation from the other point of view. How important is it in the process of reconciliation that the parties accept ownership of their contribution to the estrangement in order to achieve reconciliation?

Understanding and taking responsibility for our part in an estrangement is essential to reconciliation. In most circumstances, both people played a role in the estrangement and both need to be accountable for their part in what happened. There are exceptions to this-like when one partner in a marriage batters another or when an adult abuses a child-and in those instances the person who is victimized is not in any way responsible for the rift. The person who has been victimized doesn’t need to cultivate humility for their role in the estrangement. Rather, they need to heal from the injury and rebuild their strength and sense of personal worth and power. But in most other situations, where both people played a role, being accountable for our part in the estrangement can really help move reconciliations forward.

5) In Elizabeth Menkin’s story you quote her saying the following:

“There’s an old Yiddish phrase, “When you go out for revenge, you have to dig two graves.”

There is another old Yiddish phrase that goes, “Before you go to battle, figure out what you are going to win.”

Do you feel that the phrases are both apropos in terms of reconciliations?

Yes, I do. The first refers to fact that bitterness, rage and the desire for revenge can destroy us because they eat away at our sense of well-being, our sense of optimism, and our capacity to love and trust. The second phrase to me speaks of two things. The first is the need to be realistic about realities of a particular relationship. What are the odds, for instance, that a particular person is going to change? When we go back into an estranged relationship with unrealistic expectations, hoping for a miraculous transformation, we are disappointed again and again. But when we have a realistic sense of the likely outcome, the results are usually more satisfying to us.

The second meaning, to me, is that there is sometimes a terrible price to pay for “being right” and going on the offensive. It is wise to think through what the cost of a confrontation is going to be.

6) In the “Courage To Face Yourself” you say:

“When we reach out to someone from whom we’ve been estranged, as Daniel did, we essentially say to the other person, ‘I’m willing to learn about your perceptions, feelings, needs and ideas. I want to know what you have experienced in your relationship with me.”

Cervantes said, “Look Don Quixote, look into the mirror.” Are you and Cervantes saying the same thing here?

Not exactly. I think Cervantes was saying that the things we criticize about others often reflect our own weaknesses. And I think that is certainly true. What I was trying to say is that when you’re sorting through a relationship in your head, trying to make sense of what has happened and trying to decide how you want to proceed, you hold all the control, because the dialogue is happening only in your head. But if you decide you do want to reconcile with the other person, and you take the courageous step of reaching out to them, the monologue that has been going on in your head suddenly becomes a real live dialogue. You may be voicing your complaints about the relationship, but the other person may have some complaints in exchange. Before we take the step of opening the door to the relationship, we need to ask ourselves if we are willing to listen with an open mind and heart to the other person’s perceptions and point of view.

7) In “The Courage To Change” you state, “Deepening a relationship requires that we take additional risks, sustain vulnerability, and alter ingrained patterns of behavior.”

Could one extrapolate from that statement that you mean that “risk averse” people are less likely to reconcile?

Risk and reconciliation go hand in hand, so yes, some people may avoid approaching an estranged relationship because they don’t want to take the risk. On the other hand, people can surprise us by their willingness to step up to the plate. If the relationship is valuable enough, people are often willing to push through their normal discomfort to take a risk they might not take in other circumstances.

In general I have trouble with the whole idea of pigeonholing people into categories, and then setting up our expectations of what they’re capable of based on those categories. Deciding ahead of time that someone is not going to be capable of taking a particular risk (in this case, reconciliation) sometimes ensures that they will live up to our low expectations of them.

8) In “Marshalling Your Strength” you state, “Teshuvah involves going to the person you’ve wronged and asking for forgiveness, doing what you need to do to recompense them, and then changing your behavior so you’ll respond differently if you’re confronted with the same situation again.” If it is not possible to go to that person that was injured, does that preclude even self-reconciliation?

Of course not. Even when people have died, the reconciliation process can proceed. It’s just a lot more one-sided. People can role play with others, meditate, create rituals and find all kinds of creative ways to resolve relationships when the other person isn’t willing or available.

9) In the case of Barbara Newman and her brother, e-mail was used to help them reconcile their relationship. In mediation, the use of the internet has been utilized to compress time and space. But, in your example, ODR (on-line dispute resolution) was used to cross a totally different barrier than either time or space. Newman and her brother were separated by a wall of emotions. The InterNet allowed them to bridge that gap in a safe environment. Do you think that ODR is a good method for mediation and/or reconciliation or do you feel that too much of the non-verbal component is lost when ODR is utilized to mediate disputes or achieve reconciliation?

I think ODR can be a valuable tool in the right circumstances. There are some kinds of non-verbal forms of communication that are only available face-to-face, but there are situations in which the parties are not willing, ready or able to come together face-to-face. In the example I cited, Barbara and her brother hadn’t spoken for 30 years. Neither of them was willing to risk a meeting (and they lived across the country from each other, besides). Email and online communication were a good way for them to begin. It created a sense of safety that enabled them to begin the reconciliation process.

And that’s true for many people. When you send email, you don’t have to contend with the sound of the other person’s voice, their emotions, or have to respond immediately in real time. It’s a safer, easier, and less emotional entry into dialogue. However, if a reconciliation is to deepen, other modalities must be brought into play. But the online environment can be a good place to begin.

10) In your discussion of “The Relationship Between Honesty and Discernment” you quote Vicki Shook stating the following:

“And because I lacked self-awareness, clarity or compassion, I failed to choose the best approach.” Do you feel that Vicki is saying that all conflicts can be resolved, as long as the mediator takes the right approach and do you agree?

No, I don’t believe all disputes can be resolved, and I don’t think this is what Vicki meant either. What she was referring to was the fact that she spent much of her life believing that talking things out was always the best strategy, but over time realized that effective communication needed to occur on more subtle levels as well. Vicki was referring to times when she failed to tune into the other person’s level or receptivity, capacity for communication, or readiness to hear “the truth.” Communication that is solely “at” someone is rarely effective. Vicki was talking about the need for more subtle levels of awareness in order to discern the best way to approach a given situation. Words are not always the best way to communicate. Sometimes a gesture or an overture or a hiatus from the relationship can more effectively resolve things.

11) If the opposite of estrangement” is not reconciliation, but “peace” then is not “reconciliation” and “inner peace” synonymous?

Certainly if we achieve reconciliation, the sense of angst and loss that usually accompanies estranged relationships is alleviated. In I Thought We’d Never Speak Again, I talk about four kinds of reconciliation, and in this example, I was referring to the fourth type of reconciliation-finding a place of acceptance inside ourselves when a relationship with the other person is impossible. The other three kinds of reconciliation are: deep, transformative reconciliation in which both people change and grow together, reconciliation where one person shifts his or her expectations, so their perception of the relationship opens up, whether or not the other person makes significant changes, and third, reconciliation where huge unresolved issues remain, but both people “agree to disagree” and come up with rules that enable them to have a limited, but cordial relationship.

Laura Davis offers lectures and workshops on reconciliation. She has built an online reconciliation community at where you can participate in discussions, receive a free biweekly ezine, and download a free “Am I Ready to Reconcile?” checklist.


Jon Linden

Jon Linden is a Mediator, Trainer and Business Consultant. He holds an BS in biology and an MBA, both from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA. Jon spent 20 years in the Food Service Distribution business, where he was the COO and Sr. V-P of a Distribution Center of a major… MORE >

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