We mediators are a confidential bunch, good at holding private what’s been told in trust. But there’s one secret mediators should never keep, because the telling of it, the acknowledging of it, and the owning of it hold the promise of reaching greater heights in our work.
When I’m teaching a mediation class to conflict resolution grad students, I’m fond of starting things off with this question: Why do you want to be a mediator?
I ask on the first day of class and they usually stare back at me pleasantly, though I suspect in their heads they are thinking things like, “Is this professor daft?” and “Is this a trick question?” and “Can I get away with saying d’oh! to my teacher?”
They respond with poetic statements that usually contain words and phrases like Gandhi, world peace, Dalai Lama, make a difference, happy families, happier children, healthier workplaces, and career change. The air in the room positively sings with all the good will.
“Ok,” I say, “those are the predictable answers. Now tell me why you’re really here.”
It’s a good thing my conflict resolution work has taught me to be comfortable with silence, because the ensuing hush in the room can be lengthy. Table tops and the floor suddenly seem to require a great deal of scrutiny.
So I start them off. “I’ll go first. I was a college dean and kept getting called upon by my president to help sort out conflicts between colleagues and in other departments. Eventually she started giving my name to other presidents, who began to call me for assistance. I discovered I liked it, thought I might be good at it, and decided to take a basic mediation course. The rest is history.
“That’s a nice story and every detail of it is true. It is a correct story but it is not the full story.”
They’re not looking at the floor anymore.
“The full story includes the motivations mediators often don’t talk about. I wasn’t proud of how I handled myself in conflict. I will never be perfect but I wanted to be much better. I graduated college at 20 and got married almost immediately, started grad school and my first career in higher education, and got divorced when the marriage was only a few years old.
“The conflict in the marriage was awful and I acted badly. When I met my man from the Midwest 30 years ago, I wanted things to be different. I started teaching myself more about conflict resolution. When the chance to study mediation came around, I knew that learning to mediate would offer me insights I couldn’t get in other ways.
“So the underlying reason was all about me and my frailties and my desires for my own life. I became a mediator to help people solve problems in ways that saved important relationships, and I became a mediator to become a better human. Ok. Your turn.”
A brave soul begins the wave of truth-telling in the room, and others follow quickly, as though finally relieved to be able to say it out loud.
I am here because I fear conflict.
I am here because I’m the king of conflict.
I am here because I’m good at helping others solve problems but struggle to do the same in my own life.
I am here because conflict tore my family apart and it’s been eating me alive.
I am here because I feel the need to balance out the universe after years as a litigator.
Truth-telling is freeing, and it’s not just the verbalizing that frees us. What frees us is the acknowledgement of our own imperfections, the personal flaws we will carry into the mediation room with us, the very beginning of awareness that our own relationship with conflict will have an impact on every mediation we conduct, whether we’re conscious of it or not.
When we acknowledge the full story, we begin the journey not only of being better mediators, but also of shaping our mediation work so it has congruence with our truest intentions.