Here are three things your good mediator probably won’t tell you (and why you should hire them anyway).
1. I’m not necessarily good at handling conflict in my own life
I used to think it was just me, that I was the only mediator in the world who occasionally totally sucked at conflict in my own life. When I sucked at it, I’d beat myself up about it too. Just so I could suffer some more. (Buddhists call this the second arrow — the first arrow is the initial pain, the second arrow is the suffering based on our reaction.)
But then I started teaching interpersonal conflict resolution in a mediation master’s program I co-founded and discovered that I am not alone. Once students were comfortable enough to be forthcoming with me, virtually everyone would admit that they also had an uneasy and inept relationship with conflict too, sometimes. Most were quite familiar with that second arrow as well.
And as I grew in the profession and got to know more mediators as friends, they let their hair down. And I saw they sucked at it to, occasionally. Sometimes much more often than occasionally.
Of course, this makes total sense. Is there a human who gets any complex behavior consistently right? Maybe I’m just in denial and trying to protect my own ego, but I don’t think so. We’re a messy bunch, we humans. Why would mediators be any different?
What really matters: The experience of being a flawed human is terrific experience for mediators. It reminds us to stay off our high horses. It reminds us that our clients are our equals and helps us keep our judgmental selves where they belong — outside the mediation room. It keeps us humble and, lest we forget for a little while what the pain of conflict gone awry feels like, it helps us remember and it helps us feel real empathy, not the fake empathy that’s taught as a technique.
And it’s important to understand this, too: A mediator can be an exceptional mediator even when they don’t ace conflict at home or among colleagues. It’s a lot easier to help someone else than it is to get it right for oneself. This isn’t to say that mediators who occasionally suck at conflict in their own lives deserve a free pass. We don’t. I think we have to try to walk our own talk.
But the goal isn’t perfection. The goal is better.
2. I’m not really neutral
I’m setting myself for a barrage of email from angry mediators with this one, I know. After all, one of the great promises of mediation is neutrality. We say, “I won’t take sides.” Mediator identity is intertwined tightly with the word neutral and here I am, casting aspersions.
True confession: I don’t feel emotional neutrality when I’m mediating. I don’t know how. And I don’t believe there is a single mediator in the world who does, either. Impartial makes me a little bit happier, but it gives me pause, too.
Because sometimes I am a little partial. For a few minutes.
Instead of being a stable, rock solid anchor of neutrality or impartiality, when I’m mediating it’s more like the experience of walking my two dogs when each wants to go in the opposite direction. There I am, arms outstretched, leashes pulling me in two directions, both dogs dug in, me rocking side to side as each tugs and then the other tugs more.
In mediation, one side tells me their story and I think to myself, Yes, how frustrating for you! I totally see your point!. Then the other side speaks and I think to myself, OMG! That’s true too! Wobble, wobble, sway, sway, back and forth, internally.
We mediators pretend to be perfect stone pillars of perfect balance and perfect neutrality. We don’t let you see our swaying back and forth (hopefully). Some mediators will die on the cross of neutrality, swearing they never sway. I don’t buy it for one second.
What really matters: Short of robot mediators, what’s important is that we treat people in a fair and balanced way. That we take a good hard look inside and acknowledge to ourselves when we’re swaying back and forth, instead of kidding ourselves. That when we sway too much, we have a stern conversation with ourselves. Or extricate ourselves from that case and get the fine people we were serving to one our colleagues.
And it’s important to understand this, too: A mediator can be an exceptional mediator without being emotionally neutral (in fact, I’d argue that the more we let our emotional selves have a seat at the table, the better we’ll serve — they’re there whether we admit it or not, just waiting for a seat) and without being perfectly impartial every second.
The goal isn’t perfection. The goal is balance.
3. Sometimes I have no idea what I’m doing
Some days I feel like Superman. Everything that comes out of my mouth is perfect. I drive home feeling light as air, as though I could put on a cape and fly home.
Some days, it feels like everything that comes out of my mouth needs to be immediately reeled back in. I wish I had a fishing rod and reel on those days, so I could just wind it back in.
Some days, it’s both. The mediation will be going along swimmingly, then something will come at me that knocks me clean off my feet. Sitting there dazed, I will try out some responses. I’ll still look calm and collected, but inside, I’ll be thinking, Holy crap! What do I do with that?
Occasionally, the voice in my head responds with the worst possible answer: I have no idea. You’re on your own. Good luck.
Just when I think I’m a good mediator, the universe reminds me that I’m only as good as my last mediation. That there’s always something more to learn. That I can never stop learning or I will die as a mediator. That there are as many things that could come at me as there are people in the world, each with their own particular spin on things, their own gifts, their own challenges.
What really matters: The experience of having no clue, right there in the middle of a mediation, is good for us. It reminds us that, just when we think we’ve got it figured out, we don’t — and never will. We’re only seeing a slice of people’s lives and a slice of who and how they are in the world. Just when we think we know what we’re doing, the universe reminds us that settling into complacency is not a good state of being for a mediator.
And it’s important to understand this, too: A mediator can still be an exceptional mediator even if they have no clue, right there in the middle of a mediation. Or a bad day. Or a run of bad days. Screwing up isn’t the goal, of course, nor is it a free pass to accept a lower standard. On balance, we ought to have more of the Superman days than of the rod-and-reel days. Many more. But when we don’t, what separates the good mediator from others is the willingness to step closer to the pain of screwing up, embrace it, and figure out what to do differently next time.
The goal, after all, isn’t perfection. The goal is learning. The goal is balance. The goal is better.