I recently finished co-teaching a basic mediation workshop I deliver about four times a year to people from many different backgrounds. In this most recent workshop, we had a social worker, several attorneys, a nurse practitioner, a teacher, a builder, two human resources directors, a college student, a human development trainer, and a long-retired World War II vet, among others. All were there because they had an interest in either becoming mediators or integrating dispute resolution skills into their professional work in some way.
On the first evening of the training we tell participants we really have just one rule: No advice giving. We tell them they can’t give disputing parties any advice or suggestions for resolving their problems because that’s something they already know how to do, perhaps a bit too well. No sense in coming to a training and just doing what you already know. We tell them we want to develop and stretch some new brain muscles and that we’ll spend the coming days teaching them other ways to approach problem-solving.
That single rule creates some real havoc for many of our participants. Over the four days we’re together, we usually hear responses like this, usually at the moment we stop a participant from solving someone else’s problem for them:
“But I know what those people should do! They can’t see it and I can. Why shouldn’t I just tell them?”
“It’s hard to stop giving advice when that’s what I’ve been paid to do for 20 years.”
“I don’t know what else to do instead! Advice-giving is like a crutch.”
“But it makes me feel powerful and helpful!”
I’m sure it does. For people who want to be helpful, making suggestions feels like a normal way to be of service. And I’m struck, after teaching mediation and conflict resolution for almost a decade, just how insidious a tool advice-giving is for many professionals and how skeptical some are that there might be another way to be helpful.
Here’s why, as a mediator, I refrain from listening to parties and then suggesting what they should do:
- It would be arrogant of me to assume I understand the complexities of their lives and minds sufficiently well to know that my advice is what’s best for them. They know themselves far better than I ever will.
- I could easily insult my clients. If it were such an easy or obvious solution that a mediator (or co-worker or boss) can see it, they probably wouldn’t be stuck in the conflict. Complex problems usually call for less obvious solutions.
- When I’m mediating (or when you’re supervising), I have power I can misuse, even inadvertently. It’s too easy for a participant to assume my expertise is best and to give up control to my ideas. People may say “yes” without fully considering the implications ‘til later. Or they may well know the implications, say yes anyway, and then the advice is ignored or avoided.
- Most of us, including me, tend to follow through better on ideas that are our own. Whether you call it buy-in or ownership, the chances of an agreement lasting are greater when a solution isn’t imposed.
- When I give advice, I risk becoming too enamored of my own creativity and brilliance. When I do that, I’ve started to make the mediation a platform for my own power and knowledge instead of a place for folks to tap into their own.
By the end of four days, our participants were starting to have some powerful light-bulb moments. Said one, on the last day: “Shining a light on a problem is a whole lot more elegant and effective than yelling through the darkness that they should just follow the sound of your voice.”
How can you shine a light for others?
A version of this article was originally published in my regular column for The Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.