Secrets of Peacemaking: Understanding-Based Guides for Opening a Dialogue With Our Inner Selves
It is no secret among legal and mental health mediating professionals that the opportunities we enjoy to serve people in economic and emotional crisis pay dividends far beyond merely disengaging from the role of lawyer/warrior or therapist/evaluator that dominated our early careers.
Being a mediator is a metaphor that speaks to our desire to live whole, meaningful, and generous lives. We are blessed with an invitation to redeem our personal stories in the course of helping others, and thus to live more wakefully in the present. The disputants who share their conflicts with us offer a path to such open-heartedness. Those we hope to lead themselves remind we facilitators that each one of us lives fully only in relationship with others. That is their great gift to us in return for our efforts, and one reason why we are drawn to this practice.
This is why many of us view mediation as a form of spiritual practice. But blissful allusions aside, the inter-dynamics between mediator and the parties may benefit from a dedication to cultivating a self-reflective practice, as well as from the basic knowledge of the nuts and bolts of mediation practice and procedures that we accumulate early on.
Few trainings dare to combine the inner and outer worlds, however. This may be one reason why some of us tend to become perpetual trainees, contributing what our spouses and partners may complain looks to be (okay, what is) a disproportionate amount of time and money on mediation retreats and workshops - far more than when satisfying basic continuing ed requirements.
As responsible consumers of mediation training content, we do need to balance our desire for accumulating skills and so seek out programs that are aimed at both professional and personal development. There are mediation trainings that do risk some spiritual dialogue in ways that are not intrusive or presumptuous.
Together with my mediation partner, retired Judge Gretchen W. Taylor, I recently returned from a six day February, 2011 workshop among a passionate group of professionals from the United States and Europe, led by mediation pioneers Gary J. Friedman, Jack Himmelstein and Norman Fischer of the Center for Understanding in Conflict. This advanced mediator program focused on overcoming and working with impasse and emotion dynamics that sometimes threaten to derail the process, by learning to use the power of our own caring, curiosity, and authenticity together with some wisdom developed by Buddhist psychology.
The Center's approach not only addresses the real time struggles of mediating challenging cases, but its understanding-based model offers to nourish our souls while simultaneously expanding our toolboxes by accessing the most authentic parts of ourselves - not something we usually discuss in Mediation 101. This reference is all I really mean to suggest the program promotes when I use the word "spirituality" in this article; the group leaves all the nuances to its members to determine.
These teachings are especially important for divorce and family law mediators. People in the midst of relationship focused mediation are experiencing a range of emotions that can be triggered or inflamed by something that is said or felt during the process in visceral ways that are relevant to our approach to their troubles.
This is common when participants engage in persistent and back and forth recriminatory speech, or other exchanges that erupt outside of mediation. Such dynamics can harden positions and threaten to derail the mediation if not addressed in a skillful manner. Certainly they can challenge mediators in framing a constructive response, and may even lead to a desperate sense of inadequacy for the task.
Gary Friedman is a peacemaking trainer and mediator whose home is north of San Francisco. Jack Himmelstein is a conflict theorist, mediator, and mediation trainer who was formerly a law professor at the Columbia University Law School and who resides in New York, N.Y. Norman Fischer is a non-lawyer author and former Zen abbot who teaches mindfulness practices to lawyers, mediators, and many others.
For those who appreciate the contributions of Buddhist psychology to our professional and personal lives (thank you Jack Kornfield!), this team presents a unique combination of skill-sets. Their website can be found at http://www.UnderstandingInConflict.org. This retreat was held at Chacala, Mexico (at the remote zen center of Mar de Jade) in an workshop intensive entitled "Self-Reflection in Action: Using Our Inner Selves to Help People in Conflict."
The professionals who were drawn to the training were a deeply authentic and spiritually minded community. The Mar de Jade program is offered once every two years and requires that participants have first completed the Advanced Mediation Training offered through the Center for Understanding. It is also available at the Green Gulch Zen Center in northern California, and at Bailey Farms in New York, each Spring and Fall. The training combines easily with the more familiar fare of group role plays and lectures. It is the first time while with a group of lawyers that I have been asked to participate in regular seated and walking meditations, and to listen to guided mediation dealing with compassion, forgiveness, or joy, all choreographed by an honored Zen abbot with decades of mindfulness training.
This experience was something that all participants reported was immensely helpful for centering our intention and as a method for overcoming the anxieties that we admit do arise in ourselves in the course of our practices. Besides the role plays, other techniques were explored and practiced that were useful for understanding what underlies conflict. These include mechanisms for physical and emotional feedback to help remain 'present' with the parties and with ourselves, and for establishing relationships with other peer mediators in our communities in ways that extend beyond valuable study-groups. The Center for Understanding team has developed useful techniques for becoming unstuck when strong emotions threaten to overwhelm mediation, reframing those moments as opportunities to aid the process and our own progress.
Of particular focus was how the parties' emotions can strike chords within us that generate the kind of response or reactivity we are more usually familiar with from the parties. These can be intensely negative or positive feelings. By looking at what underlies them, we are helped to better understand how resentment ripens into judgments, including unconscious biases and opinions we may form about the parties, that interrupt or render impossible the openness required for crafting workable resolutions.
It is possible to "out" of these judgments in ways that help to diminish the otherwise co-optive power they might assume over wise and sensitive decision-making for all the mediation participants, but only if we can shine some amount of light upon them.
When high conflict family law matters feel to be spinning out of control during mediation, the Friedman team shows us that by our reflecting upon the pain or fear that underlies the parties' strong emotions, like anger and hurt, and our own, we can develop a deeper curiosity and a genuine interest in what is really going on beneath the surface of what is said or expressed. This connectedness will be sensed by the parties, and is a big step towards softening reactivity and opening to mutuality and hence to locating workable compromises. We all recognize that the parties' suffering is almost always an elephant in the room in family-related cases, threatening to trample the process.
The back stories of our own lives provide a beautiful jewel of experience that potentially offers wise empathy and intuitive solutions; however, in order to share this wisdom we need to know how to access it. For those of us who seek the benefits of any kind of spirituality within our mediation practices, we can benefit by blending our mediator signatures with our inner 'presentness' along with our outer legal knowledge, mental health techniques, and the strategies of various styles that can be applied according to what works best as we triage our way through the parties' processes.
The Understanding-Based approach offers something larger than simply improving our skills as mediator technicians (always a good thing). For some this may resonate with the 'why' and the 'how' we recall from a time when we first began our mediating wanderings. Mediators interested in these aspects of the journey might investigate whether the Center for Understanding offers them a different paradigm with deep personal relevance. I certainly am grateful that I bumped into it.
T.W. Arnold III, CFLS http://www.DesertFamilyMediationServices.com