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Stories That Lead

When I began mediating eight years ago, I felt like a fish in familiar waters. I’ve attributed that feeling to my previous work as a writer and a teacher of creative writing. For many years I worked with aspiring poets, essayists, and novelists. We sat in circle as we shared and shaped our stories. I learned this method of writing from poet and playwright Jack Grapes. Safety was created in our gatherings by listening with intent—not to judge or criticize, but to delight in what happens between and beneath the words; to discover our stories by exploring voice.

I was invited to share this voice-centric process with mediators at a recent Seattle Federal Executive Board quarterly meeting. As a mediator, you access the full range of voice if you hope to serve your clients well. You develop reflective and active responses that help you engage at the edge of the roof—aware of the dangers and opportunities: thinking, feeling, sensing; awake to the moments that can transform conflict into learning.

You also guide your clients to access their voices. By eliciting their stories, you help them move from fixed ideas to their deeper intentions. You listen to their words, and for the meaning beneath the words. You attend to the logical linkage of ideas, and attune with the emotional content of their language. You seek their concerns and hopes to bring them more clearly into the room. Your ability to hear those moments allows you to integrate their voices and shape stories that lead them forward.

How can you find stories that lead?

You can think of voice as similar to the slide of a trombone—only instead of moving horizontally to hit different notes, it moves vertically to play notes ranging from analytic (our heads), to plain spoken (our mouths), to deep voice (our bellies).

Most of us learn in school how to write with our analytic note, and then spend a lifetime polishing this note at work. We learn about transition lines. Transitionsprovide logical links between ideas.

But language contains both rational and emotional content. To explore the range of our voice, we can notice transformation lines.Transformationlinesconnect emotionalstates.

Transformation lines are like trap doors. When you find one and fall through, your voice drops. Now you have a new room to explore. And if you are lucky, you can find another trap door, and drop again to discover more of what might be revealed. But sometimes, when we drop, we feel too vulnerable, and our voice shoots up for safety.

With practice, you can intentionally hit notes from analytic to deep voice. You can share a thought, describe the surface of things, and reveal your fears and joys.  You can even learn how to play several notes simultaneously, creating a felt sense of authenticity and truth. Think about the writers and story tellers you love. Their voices move and play their full range, and that’s what keeps you engaged.

As a mediator, you translate technical (rational, logical) information into plain-speak quite often, whether rephrasing legalese between lawyers and non-lawyers, mediating contract disputes between union employees and management, or negotiating parenting plans with polarized ex-spouses. As you listen and learn to follow transformation lines, you can drop the conversation to explore issues and concerns from deeper perspectives as needed.

Listening animates what you think, feel, and sense. When you listen as if stories matter, your awareness focuses on the dimensionality of others’ voices. You get curious when a rational voice drops, if only momentarily, and wonder what unspoken meaning might be revealed. So you ask a question from that lower voice, and an opening begins.

By learning to play the full range of your own voice, you gain sensitivity to hearing and feeling and sensing how you can help others explore their voices, shape their stories, and access their inner strength.


Doug Nathan

Doug Nathan is Managing Partner of conflictmatters, providing conflict resolution and leadership development services to Public and Private Sector clients.  What do poetry, conflict engagement and leadership development have in common? I've been working with them as levers of change within businesses, government, and non-profit organizations for over 17 years.… MORE >

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