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The Mediator’s Life

I remember the first time I succeeded in a mediation. I was a newbie mediator, just barely out of my studies and on my own. A university dean I knew from my own days as a college dean hired me to mediate a nagging workplace conflict involving eight women in the same office. There had been fireworks. There had been freeze-outs. There had been a figurative arms race, those at the center of the conflict one-upping each other and escalating over a period of months. I was newly minted enough as a mediator that I’d be damned if I’d give up when the going got tough. Somehow, I said and did things that unlocked the mess and helped them get back on track together. In the parking lot afterward, I made sure they weren’t watching, then did a little dance. Maybe, I thought, I’m not a half-bad mediator.

I remember the first time I failed in a mediation. I failed in a big, grandiose way. It was another case very early in my mediation career and, in retrospect, I had no business taking it on by myself. It was a large enough group of neighbors, all at war with each other, that experience would have told me required a co-mediator to help manage the unruly bunch. A few moments after calming an almost-fistfight between two men after one called the other’s wife a whore, I was in the middle of sighing my relief when I heard a terrible sound behind me. I turned to find the two women associated with those men well into their own wrestling match. I got lucky and several of their neighbors pulled them apart before real damage could be done. After ending the mediation, I left that building feeling real shame. Maybe, I thought, I should rethink my plan to be a professional mediator.

I remember the first time I cried in a mediation. Moments after a birth mother consulted with her attorney and agreed to give up her rights to her son, the son who’d lived most of his 9 years in foster care afters she sought help in a mental institution and his father neglected him, she began to sob. Big, hiccuping, messy sobs, dampening my shoulder as she leaned on me for support. Across the table, the foster parents hoping to adopt the boy they’d raised also began to cry. They knew love when they saw it. The birth mother said to the soon-to-be adoptive mother, “Would you do something for me? If I hug you, would you hug my boy for me, so he knows I will always love him?” Both women clung to each other, sobbing. Tears rolled down my cheeks, my humanity fully present with theirs. Later, when I got into my car, I put my head on the steering wheel and sobbed for minutes on end. Maybe, I thought, I am not cut out to bear others’ pain as much as I’ll need to in this work.

I remember the first time I cursed at a client in mediation. It was out of my mouth before I realized it. I wish I could say I was just taking a calculated risk, using colorful language that the two clients had been using all day. But the truth is that I slipped up and the minute it hung there in the air, in a room suddenly very silent, I wished dearly that I had a fishing pole I could use to reel the word back into my mouth. Luckily, I made the client laugh instead of shout. I sure did shock his attorneys, though. Maybe, I thought, I need to keep better rein on my mouth.

I remember the first time I lost my impartiality in a mediation. I didn’t believe the crazy allegations made about a young man in a vegetative state. His friend claimed he was not in a vegetative state, despite everyone else — his parents, his doctors, his guardian ad litem — knowing that his state was not reversible. The mediation did not get underway because the young man took a turn for the worse. After he died a few days later, I received a letter from his guardian. In it, he talked about having reviewed a video thrust into his hands by the friend. It turns out she was not exaggerating her claims out of love, duty, or desperation. The young man clearly had consciousness, said the guardian; it was unmistakeable. I had believed it not possible because those in charge of his care and wellbeing were so convincingly professional and certain. And the friend was so clearly overwrought and crazy-sounding. Maybe, I thought, the universe just handed me a comeuppance I needed.

This is the mediator’s life. It is a life of supreme joy and of profound despair, of laughter and of tears, of self-satisfaction and self-flagellation. It throws you curves when you’re too sure of yourself and hope when you begin to doubt. Without this life, I would be a lesser coach, a lesser teacher, a lesser trainer. It is a path I’m lucky to have chosen.

This post was inspired by Sebastian Junger’s story War, recounted on The Moth. If you’re a fellow mediator, what firsts have stuck with you?


Tammy Lenski

Dr. Tammy Lenski helps individuals, pairs, teams, and audiences navigate disagreement better, address friction, and build alignment. Her current work centers on creating the conditions for robust collaboration and sound decisions while fostering resilient personal and professional relationships. Her conflict resolution podcast and blog, Disagree Better, are available at… MORE >

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