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What Can Mediators Learn from Einstein?

One hundred years ago Albert Einstein published his theory of relativity and predicted that if two black holes collided in space, the collision would result in detectable gravitational waves. This month, scientists confirmed Einstein’s theory when they detected the sound of gravitational waves resulting from a collision of two black holes billions of light years away. This discovery confirms Einstein’s vision of the universe in which space and time are interwoven and dynamic, able to stretch, and shrink.

Our human complexities mean that we and our relationships are interwoven and dynamic; that we are able to stretch and shrink in equal measure. And that, in conflict, we spend most of the time circling each other, until that moment when we must collide. With a skilled mediator by our sides, instead of the fear and pain we expect, that collision can create entire new worlds and expand possibilities that we could not have considered previously.

As mediators we deal with many people who feel like they are in a “black hole” from which there is no escape. Some of these people often predict that the only outcome for them is lose/lose and in the worst scenarios that they have lost any hope of a positive outcome. Many also believe that the other party won’t participate in the process. We know that conflict joins parties together as much as it pulls them apart. It seems applying Einstein’s theory there is no escape because the forces of nature hold the parties together until they can merge their conflict and move through it to somewhere else.

The gravitational waves that have been recently recorded confirm the interconnectivity of all of us in the universe. The mere fact that such clever scientists continue to explore, create hypotheses, research and refine their findings and strive ultimately to disprove a theory once proven is the very essence of continued growth and development of our species.

As Dr David Wiltshire, Head of the Department of Physics, University of Canterbury wrote[1]:

“In a world that is struggling with war, climate change and the limits of finite resources, the money put into big science projects like LIGO is often questioned. But satisfying human curiosity, to understand the Universe and our place in it is what makes us human in the first place regardless of what we might do with the knowledge we gain.”

Furthermore, big science teaches us to solve big problems by working as teams spread across the globe. Each group of researchers has their own culture, and barriers sometimes take years to break down. This project is vast in its complexity of human interactions: experimental physicists, engineers, mathematicians, numerical modellers, theoretical physicists and astronomers have all played roles which were each essential to its success.”

Mediators have much to learn from scientists’ way beyond understanding the neuroscience which impacts on how individuals in conflict might behave as a result of the external pressures in their lives.

All mediations begin with the mediator being prepared to ask questions which can take the mediator into the “unknown”, like explorers, mediators develop theories about what might be going on. Using carefully thought out enquiring questions mediators gently probe into the black hole which is the conflict they have been invited to explore with the parties. Often as a mediator, it can feel like the conflict is overwhelming and the parties are slipping into a black hole which is a space that is completely unknown. The mediator like the scientist will take the smallest pieces of information and use that information to build the picture, gently turning the “unknown” into the frame of possibility.

Using the highly developed skills and techniques which are designed to assist the parties “see” the possibilities, push them beyond their current perspectives and understandings and assist them create their own new world, in a different space and time yet irrevocably linked to the past and influential on their future.

Mediation is the ultimate collaboration of people who know stuff and particularly know their own stuff and the impact on them. If the mediator allows the people to stay stuck in their individual conflict stories, they are in fact facilitating the circular orbit of the two black holes. It is unlikely that there will be any significant change for the “relative state” of the conflict.[2]

If the mediator contributes to the two black holes being knocked from their orbit and allows the two black holes to combine, scientists say that the space created by the merging of two black holes is the most highly charged and creative space possible in the universe. Again as Dr Wiltshire says about black holes:

“These orbit each other for hundreds of millions of years, before spiralling in and merging into a single rotating black hole whose surface wobbles like a bell, radiating copious gravitational waves in the process — a whole three sun worth of energy in the event just detected. In the final fleeting milliseconds of merger and ringdown black holes’ secrets are revealed. “

Just like scientists, mediators engage in a very scientific process where the mediator follows a calculated process which involves a rapid succession of development of hypotheses, testing, observation, recording of agreements as they arise; sometimes all of these things happening within seconds. Mediators assist the parties challenge the edges of the known information. When new information appears, mediators assist in the process of reality checking thereby testing the information for reliability allowing more or different opportunities and solutions to arise.

In a world where mediation is often time limited by funding arrangements and focussed on settlement rates, one can see that the promise of mediation can be constrained. It’s not hard to see why focus on reaching a settlement of the issues in dispute could result in dissatisfaction particularly where one or possibly both parties might need more than that issue resolved for them to feel satisfied.

The importance of what mediators do is up there with the scientists working on Einstein’s theory because the impact on people is huge and important. Mediators do not have the luxury of 100 years so they must work harder and smarter to achieve results for the people they work with.

The need for time is confirmation that a mediator should focus on a process that enables parties to continue solving problems as there is no possibility that one mediation session can solve it all. One of the criticisms of mediation is that parties don’t stick to the agreements reached at mediation. Maybe it’s time for mediators to focus more on the “what if” approach to settlement so that parties can before concluding any agreement understand what is going to be the consequence for them if they do not stick to the agreement or in family situations where changes is inevitable they reach agreement on how they will work through conflict in the future being the primary outcome of the mediation.

Just like Einstein said we live in a connected “squishy world” influenced by forces much greater than we will ever fully understand but which are vital to keep us standing upright firmly on the ground. These forces push and pull against us; we alter the forces through our movement. What a privilege it is for a mediator to help people move through their conflict, merge the black holes and discover the possibilities that arise for the parties to recreate their sense of power, equilibrium and capacity to discover a new way of being in the world.


[1] Wiltshire Dr D, What does the discovery of gravitational waves mean? Published on 15/2/2016

[2] Wiltshire Dr D, What does the discovery of gravitational waves mean? Published on 15/2/2016


Denise Evans

Since completing the LEADR course in the early 1990s, Denise Evans has been involved in many mediations which have involved Employment, Commercial Property, Relationship Property, Protection of Personal and Property Rights, Children’s care and contact, Shareholder disputes, Trust and Estate matters. She has also been appointed by the Family Court initially as… MORE >

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