Whether you’re mediating informally (as a leader, manager, friend) or professionally, this everyday activity can help you set the stage for a better conversation.
Back in my dean days, when I had staff who were in difficult conflict, it was my habit to invite them out to lunch. I had just one rule for our lunchtime conversation: No discussion of whatever was dividing them.
Occasionally, I’d take them somewhere other than a restaurant. I once took two department directors who’d been avoiding each other to the Champlain Valley Fair. We ate fried dough, watched the racing pigs, and took carnival rides together. There’s nothing like screaming in fear while being whipped through the air to take your mind off a conflict. They weren’t excited by the idea to go but by the end the three of us were in hysterics about the expressions on each others’ faces while we were on the most frightening ride.
Whenever possible, I like to start mediations this way, too (well, minus the heart-stopping carnival rides). No discussion of the conflict, just gathering over coffee or a meal. Sometimes, over wine. Same rule as from my dean days: No discussion of the conflict.
Breaking bread together beforehand makes sense for several good reasons:
- One of the first things to go by the wayside when conflict develops is the kind of informal, water-cooler conversation that’s a common hallmark of comfortable relationships. People stop hanging out and talking about their work and their lives. The unintended consequence is that the conflict becomes the (only) thing between them, and they stop getting all the other everyday data that rounds out their view of the other person. We want to get that back. The U.S. Supreme Court understands this; the justices have lunches where discussion of court business is forbidden.
- Good stage-setting improves the quality of what comes later. Sometimes the indirect path is more effective and efficient than the direct one. [tweet this]
- There’s intriguing evidence that a simple shared experience — even a superficial one — can help people generate meaningful levels of empathy. I’ll take that, yes I will.
- There’s something about breaking bread together that strengthens trust in me as the mediator, perhaps because they get to know me a bit personally before we begin. I’ve noticed that even when the formal mediation is days later, we ease into it together differently than other times.
Does it have to be over coffee or a meal? No. Country fairs work, as do other simple shared experiences. It’s the shared experience that matters, the time out from the conflict just to be in proximity again, to see the other person in fuller form, to be reminded there’s more to them than the conflict wants us to believe.