Sometimes, the most direct path into a difficult conversation or mediation is the most indirect one. Taking the time to help people ease into the work of conflict resolution can turn out to be very efficient.
My mediator friend N knows how to start a mediation like no one else. His approach works equally well when you’re mediating someone else’s conflict as when you’re in a negotiation of your own.
He once had a mediation between two men who were not talking to one another. They came in and sat down facing away from each other, arms folded across their chests.
“I’m here and I’ll talk to you,” said one of the men to N, “but I’m not talking to him.” He gestured over his shoulder toward the other man. Said the other, “I’m not talking to him, either.”
Faced with such a deep-sigh-inducing start, most mediators would have done one of three things. Some would have ignored the declarations and plowed ahead, dragging the two men into the mediation by sheer force of will. They would have been so focused on the business ahead that they missed the opportunity right in front of them.
Others would turn to polite chit chat about the crappy weather on the drive in that morning, or how awful the traffic was two blocks down at the corner of West and Elm and it didn’t look like they were going to get here on time. They would have chit chatted away about meaningless things and then finally run out of things to say about the weather or the traffic. After the inevitable awkward silence, they would formally begin the mediation. This is not an awful approach. It can work well enough. But it is rather painful to be chipper and chatty when you could cut the air in the room with a knife. And it fails to capitalize on the real opportunity.
Still others would take the communication impasse head on, courageously pointing to the large pink elephant in the room, demanding it be named and addressed. It can be a pivotal act of courage to stop avoiding the toe-crushing pink feet and that trunk waving around and threatening to send the water pitcher flying through the air, drenching everyone in its path. But, as with everything in a mediation, timing matters. One minute after they’ve walked in the room, have barely taken off their coats, don’t even yet have a clue what a mediation will be like, is not the time.
So, many mediators would have chosen one of those three approaches. But not N. Because he is an artist.
N noticed that the cap one of the men was wearing had flies attached to it, the kind used in fly fishing. “Do you fly fish?” asked N.
“Yes,” said the man, not yet ready to converse much beyond monosyllables.
“I’ve been thinking about learning to fly fish,” said N.
The man in the cap turned to face N a bit more, and gestured up to the flies on his head. “I tied these myself.”
“I’ve heard that’s pretty much its own art form,” said N.
The man beamed. “Yes, there are those who do say that. I have to agree.”
The other man chimed in over his shoulder, “If you decide to go fly fishing, I recommend you go up to Willoughby River in the Northeast Kingdom. That’s where I go and the fishing is just terrific there.”
The fly-wearing gentleman replied, “That’s a good recommendation. I also like fishing the Clyde.” The second man nodded his agreement.
After 20 minutes discussing the best fly fishing spots in northern Vermont, the best way to learn fly fishing, and the art of fly tying, N said, “Well, shall we get started?”
“Sure,” said both men as they sat facing N and each other around the small table, having turned toward each other during their fly fishing conversation.
Next time you’re trying to figure out how to start a negotiation or mediation, think of N. He knew that genuinely building real connection is the right way to start and is worth the investment of time, because it becomes the strong foundation for everything that comes after.