As a mediator, if I had this “conflict resolution thing” figured out, I would have sold the secret formula, made a million, and moved on. As those of us in the field know, it isn’t so easy. We can devise theories and models and skillfully apply the latest techniques, but still people hate their neighbor’s barking dog, can’t stand their ex, and think their boss is incompetent or cruel.
More than once, I have wondered about my contribution to the field. Do we teach people to talk nicely, rather than change the way they think about conflict or their thoughts? Do we Band-Aid, rather than provide lasting solutions? Do we take advantage of a moment of insight to seal a deal? Am I perpetuating the very thing I seek to alleviate? These are not lofty musings, but it simply comes to me in the form of the question, “what gives?”
In 1999 I stumbled upon a process that is the closest thing for me to finding something that “gives.” What is it? It’s called the Work, and it is a self-inquiry process designed to heal our lives by understanding our thoughts as just that— passing thoughts. To its credit, it doesn’t profess to be counseling, rather a tool to encourage people to become unstuck or move toward resolution. This technique has radically influenced the way that I think about conflict in both my personal life and my mediation practice.
The Work is a series of four inquiry questions, and something called a “Turnaround.” The questions are asked when any thought or belief causes pain, like “My supervisor shouldn’t be so mean,” or “Children shouldn’t lie to their parents.” I will reflect on my understanding of each of the four questions, with a caveat. The very point of this process is that it is unique to the person answering the questions, so each person will discover what the questions mean to them. The four questions are:
Questions 1 and 2: Is it true? Can you absolutely know that it is true?
These two questions, like all of the questions, invite us to go inside. When I ask, “Is it true?” about a statement, I am likely to discover that it is not true. When I am strongly attached to a belief, the second question deepens the inquiry. While I am still in my story and answer “yes” to the first question, the answer is almost always “no” to the second question. What I have discovered is that I can never absolutely know something is true, however, that may not be true for you. There is no “right” answer to these questions. Whether you answer yes or no, move on to the next question.
Question 3: How do you react when you think that thought?
This question helps me examine the impact the belief has on my life and the way that I live. I have noticed that the more brutally honest I am with this question, the bigger the insight. When I explore the impact the belief has had on my life, I discover tension in the body, ways that I manipulate, and other limiting beliefs that underlie the belief I am examining.
Question 4: Who would you be without the thought?
This is an opportunity for me to imagine my life without that story or thought. It helps me to generate hope—to see what life would be outside of the conflict that my thinking has created. I often feel a sense of freedom and expansion when I answer this question.
The “Turnaround:” In my experience, this is the question that leaves me free. It is an opportunity to examine my projections, which can be tricky business. For example a thought like, “She should be nice to me,” could turn around to, ¨ “She shouldn’t be nice to me,” or ¨ “I should be nice to her,” or ¨ “My thinking should be nice to her and me.”
Follow up by asking yourself, “can I find where any of these statements are just as true or truer?” This is a time for play; explore your projections, which seems to be the only thing we ever have control over anyway! Like most people, I find myself, at times, resistant to this. More and more, however, I look forward to the freedom of the turnarounds.
How do we use this tool in mediation?
The uses for this technique in mediation are numerous. It can be used in caucus to create empathy and to illuminate the consequences of not letting go of our stories of the past. It can be used in joint session where the parties agree there is a common obstacle. It can be used as an impasse breaker, or simply as a technique to enhance mediator neutrality by examining our own beliefs about the process.
I have also used this process as a new mediation model. Each of the participants writes a worksheet on the other party before coming to the mediation and then the mediation consists of each party doing the inquiry process in front of the person with whom they are in conflict. I have both facilitated and experienced this model and can say that is the most satisfying, transformative, and durable mediation model I have seen.
Granted, this might seem radical—an entirely new mediation model! If you are not comfortable with this, I would encourage you to try inquiry as a tool for mediator neutrality during the actual mediation process. After practicing the Work, and becoming more familiar with it, I have found that I do it silently during the mediation. In a mediation, I will have a thought about a participant or the co-mediator and within seconds be able to take an inventory of the impact the thought is having on my ability to be effective. I quickly turn it around to bring myself back into the process. The following is a self-facilitation that may further illustrate how the Work can be used as a mediator tool to maintain neutrality:
My thought: The party’s opening statement is way too long. She should finish now. Question 1: Is it true? Yes, it’s true. She is rambling and seemingly not contributing anything toward resolution. In fact, she is making our work harder here.
Question 2: Can you absolutely know that it’s true? I can’t absolutely know that it would be better for her to stop. Maybe she has to vent for us to move forward—maybe resolution wouldn’t be possible without this. Maybe resolution is not the highest good in this case.
Question 3: How do you react when you think that thought? I worry and my mind spins. I am impatient and feel tense. I am not listening. I obsessively repeat the thought, “wrap it up . . . wrap it up.” I worry that the power is imbalanced. I start thinking this mediation will be hard, tedious, or impossible. I am likely to appear impatient, or at the very least, stressed out. I pretend to look interested. I feel inauthentic and calculating. My mind starts to race to a number of other thoughts. I am treating her with little respect and I am treating my self as the “arbiter of the proper opening statement.” That doesn’t feel good.
Question 4: Who would you be without the thought? Without the thought “She should finish now,” I would be listening. I would be paying attention, getting clues into what could later become helpful mediator interventions. I would be more neutral in my thoughts. I might be able to hold the space for her pain, or be present with her, or meet her where she is rather than resist the way she presents her ideas. I would be able to enjoy my job and feel grateful for the trust these people have placed in the mediators and the process.
The Turnarounds: The party’s opening statement is way too long. She should finish now. Turn it around. The party’s opening statement isn’t too long. This could be just as true. It’s not too long if she is still talking. That’s reality. The party shouldn’t finish now—or— She should keep talking. She should keep talking until she stops. That feels more true, and it certainly is the reality of the situation. Who is to say how long an opening statement is? I didn’t give any parameters at the beginning, and I should have if I was going to police it in my mind. She may have pieces of information that will be the key to settlement that she hasn’t shared yet. She may not be able to settle without all the talking.
My opening statement is way too long. I am sure participants have had this thought about me. I think I have had that thought too. Sometimes I ramble and include superfluous or confusing information. Sometimes confidentiality is hard to explain and the lawyer in me and the lay person get confused leading to a rambling explanation. I should be briefer. There are times in mediation I should just be quiet and let the parties figure it out. Like any mediation technique, I suggest that to use it with proficiency, you use it on yourself first. My experience is this: I have had more amazing moments in mediation with this technique than any other. My experience is also that my facilitation of others deepened when my own practice of the Work and self-facilitation deepened You can find out more about Katie Byron and the Work at www.thework.org .
Note: This article is a revision and adaptation of an earlier article by Joe Epstein and Susan Epstein, “The Top 10 Barriers to Dispute Resolution, Dec. – Jan. Trucking Industry...By Joe Epstein, Susan Epstein