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Working with Enemy Images: Before and During Mediations

In the days and hours before a mediation I can count on having at least two sets of thoughts or reactions: doubts about myself and my capacity to contribute, and judgments I have formed about the people who will be involved. I call these judgments enemy images, a term I have appropriated from listening to Marshall Rosenberg, the founder of Nonviolent Communication (NVC). As I am using the term, an enemy image is any judgment, positive or negative, that I hold about myself or another person. As a mediator who holds the intention to create connection when I mediate a dispute, I find it important to work with these enemy images, preferably before I get to the mediation itself. In this article, I would like to share my experience and views on why it is important to me to be aware of and defuse these judgments, and disclose my process in working with them.

Why Work with Enemy Images?

It may occur to you as the reader that these judgments don’t have any effect if not said aloud. However, in my experience, they have a profound effect on others. I am not talking about some kind of mysterious communication of my thoughts directly to another; I believe these thoughts get communicated through my micro-movements and my choice of words, basically my overall demeanor. When I have a judgment of myself or another (an enemy image), my body will release hormones and neurotransmitters consistent with having that thought. The natural consequence of the release of these chemicals is that my internal experience as well as outer muscular movements will be consistent with having those judgments. Others pick up on these judgments unconsciously – we are all extremely attuned to each other’s emotional state, having been in training since we were infants to ‘read’ each other in this way. It is not surprising to me that it is typically not a conscious process. Research suggests that the amount of information being received by our nervous system and brain unconsciously is far greater – by a million to one – than the amount we are able to attend to consciously.

Returning more directly to my own experience, when I am in a mediation, the contribution I’m seeking to make is connection among the parties – first connection between myself and each of the parties and then the parties to each other. I have experienced repeatedly that when I have enemy images in mind before or during a mediation, it contributes to disconnection between myself and others. I have found that when I prepare beforehand by working with my enemy images, I can shift my relationship with these thoughts and approach the mediation in a different relationship to them, a relationship that does not stimulate disconnection.

Working with Enemy Images: Judgments Directed at Myself

The way I work with my enemy images is to use empathy. What that means in this context is that I empathize with myself in preparation for the mediation, and I empathize with the judgments I have about the other person. Let’s take each one of these in turn.

In thinking about the upcoming mediation I might realize that I’m feeling a bit anxious due to having a thought that I’m not up to this, I’m not going to be able to do this mediation. My conceptual structure is that I have thoughts as a strategy to meet my needs, but judgmental thoughts are phrased in a way that obscures the need they are seeking to meet.

This whole process tends to happen unconsciously. We have a need that we seek to meet through certain thoughts and actions, and we are often unaware of what the need is, or the connection between the need and the thought. The connection is often very old, a habitual pattern perhaps from childhood that occurs without conscious reflection. The process I use is a way of bringing conscious reflection back into the picture.

When I empathize with myself around this issue, I ask myself what need am I unconsciously seeking to meet by having the thought that I am not capable of doing this? This inquiry is pursued by me with a kind of curious questioning, not an analytical determination. My internal inquiry might proceed in the following way:

What need am I seeking to meet with the thought that I am not going to be able to do this mediation? Perhaps it’s to protect myself. It’s a way of guarding against getting into a situation in which I will be hurt. Hearing myself say that, I think perhaps it’s really to take care of myself, to nurture myself, to have a kind of tenderness towards myself, because I want to matter through contributing to the well-being of others.

My measure of whether I have correctly articulated the need I am seeking to meet is felt in my body; when I have named the need there will be a physiological shift to openness, a space where compassion arises. In this example, that shift comes from realizing that the need that I was seeking to meet was a longing for a kind of tenderness and to matter by contributing to the well-being of others. My first thought – that the need I was seeking to meet was protection – didn’t really create the shift, but it was a starting place so I stayed with the inquiry until I felt the shift happen.

Working with Enemy Images: Judgments Directed at Others

When I have empathized with my doubts about myself, I shift to empathizing with my enemy images of the others involved in the mediation. Leading up to the mediation I have likely gathered some information through meetings or telephone calls with the parties. Through these interactions I may have formed preliminary conclusions, perhaps thinking that this is going to be a difficult mediation, one or more of the conflictants is going to be difficult, is a jerk, crazy, in the wrong, not being rational, not very bright, or perhaps is very bright. If I have any of those types of thoughts in preparation, then I want to go into a similar inquiry, asking what needs am I seeking to meet on an unconscious level by having that thought.

For example, I have a thought that one of the conflictants is going to be difficult and will make a resolution impossible. Again, I hold the inquiry lightly, with curiosity; it is not analytically driven or in itself judgmental. My thinking might proceed as follows:

What need am I seeking to meet that I’m not conscious of but am trying to make conscious now, by saying that this person is going to be impossible? What comes to mind is that I’m needing consideration and support in creating the kind of world I would like to see more broadly and specifically in this mediation. I’m needing consideration and mutuality, the kind of support that would result from mutuality.

What occurs in me when I name it in this way is that my heart softens and I feel a kind of relief and release. I can imagine myself being with this person without holding the judgment that he or she is going to be difficult or impossible; it creates space for him or her to be who they are and for me to respond freshly to what they say and do in the moment. This physiological and psychological shift seems to come simply from my naming the need. I don’t have an explanation for why this shift occurs; yet over and over again I have experienced it. I am imagining that if you haven’t experienced this then in reading the above you may be feeling skeptical and doubtful. The invitation is to try it, and try it with someone who has had some training in identifying needs as that term is used within this approach.

If I have specific information about the other person that I’m basing my judgments on, at this point, having experienced the shift described above, my mind tends to go to the other person. My initial judgment is based on some information that I have judged and created an enemy image about; now I am softened and am open to receiving the other person’s humanity without a judgment that dehumanizes them. In the same kind of curious inquiry, I wonder what needs they might be attempting to meet by the conduct that I have judged. They are not present so it is not an inquiry into truth, it is inquiry for the purpose of inquiry; the process produces another opportunity for me to experience the shift that gives space for my humanity and their humanity to be present in the moment.

For example, say in a pre-mediation phone call, on three occasions Attorney A began talking while Attorney B was in the middle of a sentence. At the time I felt irritated and judged Attorney A for this conduct, thinking that this person was going to be difficult during the mediation. I’m imagining that the need they may have been attempting to meet by their conduct was a need for consideration and to be heard, or perhaps trust that they’ll be heard in a way that they want. Naming this possible need they might be seeking to meet brings me back to that shifted place that opens up their humanity; I’m not living in the judgment.

During Mediation

Typically, as I am actually traveling to or walking into the mediation, I have a whole other set of feelings of trepidation and concern; generally at that time it is not about enemy images, it is about wanting to contribute and wanting to trust that I’ll be able to contribute in a way that I’ll enjoy. In that moment I just reconnect with those needs. Reconnecting is not about doing away with these feelings; it shifts me back into being able to be present with myself and the others in the room without being caught up in the anxiety or distress of those thoughts.

During the course of the mediation, my intention is to foster connection among the parties. I do that by translating what the parties say into feelings and needs and helping craft specific requests, and by translating judgments that are voiced by the parties during the course of the mediation. As a corollary, if I realize that I am having judgments in my own thinking, then I will take time in a pause or while someone else is talking to translate that judgment into the need I am seeking to meet in having that judgment. I find this is critical – if I’ve been stimulated so that I can’t do it immediately then I’ll need to take a break and go into the hall to reconnect. If I do not, I can feel disconnection being created in the room.

Of course, this skill does not develop overnight. When I first began to practice this, it at times took three weeks to go through the process of being stimulated, realizing that I’d been stimulated, gaining awareness of my judgment, and then undertaking the process of translating that judgment. With that practice and other practices to develop awareness of my feelings and needs, I have been able to shorten that period of time so that I can have awareness during the course of a conversation and choose to do something other than live out of the judgment.

Having another person to support me in inquiring into needs has been crucial in this learning process. I have found it very valuable over the years, and continue to find it valuable, to have another person be involved in the non-analytical, curious inquiry into the need underlying my reaction. It helps both for training and for the in-the-moment benefit of getting connected to the need and experiencing that shifted space that results from naming the need. My ability to stay in connection with others and help facilitate connection between conflicting parties depends on my being able to continuously work with my enemy images to return to that shifted space.


Ike Lasater

Ike Lasater teaches and coaches individuals and organizations in communication and conflict resolution skills. He has extensive training in Nonviolent Communication with Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D. and others, and has facilitated workshops based on Nonviolent Communication across the U.S. and in Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Ike has served as a… MORE >


Julie Stiles

Julie Stiles completed her Master's degree in Consciousness Studies from John F. Kennedy University. She has a background in education and technology, and currently works as a writer helping professionals articulate and shape their ideas for publication. She has also completed a manuscript on the process of transformation of consciousness,… MORE >

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