I volunteer with Common Ground, an East London community mediation service. I came into mediation as a result of my social policy work, which was increasingly giving me the feeling that we are stifling our individual and collective creativity – the primary cause being poor communication (see ‘Why See & Connect’?). In 2007, I came to the conclusion that mediation skills would be a valuable asset in my future policy-making and advocacy work. I didn’t intend, when I trained, to practice formal dispute resolution. But it turned out that formal mediation is something I love doing. Also the art of mediation has provided me with skills that are proving very useful across all my professional activities and in my personal life – and it is all about communication.
This morning I witnessed the power of good communication while I co-mediated, with my colleague Kweku, a dispute between neighbours. Kweku and I both thoroughly enjoyed the experience, agreeing that it was a quintessential example of our capacity to forge connections with each other – even with the people we see as our adversaries or ‘enemies’. When we take the risk – and it often does feel like a risk – to see and connect with each other in different ways, we open up possibilities we previously did not believe could exist.
Wow. When I started to type this post, I thought I was simply going to describe this wonderful mediation we experienced. Now, having written the above paragraph, I am choosing to focus on one aspect of it: risk and vulnerability. And I thank Kweku for this, because in the course of the mediation it was he that openly articulated to all of us the risks the parties had been taking – and commended them for it – too right; they were courageous. Let me explain.
The issue at hand, at face value, was that a couple was feeling threatened by their next door neighbor’s behaviour. This is not the place for the details, but suffice to say the session began with the two parties in different rooms. The plan was for Kweku and I to shuttle between the two. Thankfully, very quickly, everyone agreed to meet and talk directly to each other.
In the course of the dialogue, emotions went up and they went down. Most importantly, honest questions were asked – and honest answers were given. Thus, the question ‘Why did you do x, that just does not seem normal?’ was met with reflection and the answer ‘I’m not sure, but I agree it is not right.’ To ask direct questions – questions that can make the person doing the asking and the person being asked uncomfortable, is brave. Answering them by being thoughtful and not defensive or judgmental is also brave. The three people sitting across from each other at the table took risks in being forthright – they allowed themselves to be vulnerable to being disbelieved, to being judged for what they were saying/asking, to a defensive or angry response, to the process not giving them what they wanted.
We ended up with a list of five agreements – practical steps to sustain an on-going amicable relationship between the neighbours. Kweku and I watched as tense shoulders lowered, as looks of puzzlement, frustration and confusion turned into smiles and we even had an occasional laugh shared by all. We heard sincere apologies and conclusive ‘we agree to disagree’ statements. We saw how supposedly opposing sides had a lot in common in what was important to them, e.g., freedom in their personal space, friendliness among neighbours, a respect for personal property, direct and honest communication.
I confidently assert that we all have way more in common than we often think. We have shared values. However, when we feel these values are being undermined and ignored, we understandably become angry and defensive. In turn, our creative possibilities for changing the situation become stifled; we become suffocated by our focus on everything different between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and all that is wrong about the current situation. How do we move beyond this? By being prepared to take off our masks – and accept the risk that comes with honesty, openness, and self-reflection. This applies equally to disputing neighbours, co-workers in the office, government officials and politicians designing policy, and the campaigners/advocates trying to influence them – just to name a few situations.
Of course, getting to the point of risk-taking is a journey. The people involved need to feel safe and in this mediation we had to build up to a face to face meeting. The people holding the space for others need to be fully present and prepared to ask expansive and challenging questions, to listen carefully for what is alive in everyone in the room and to reflect back what they are seeing/hearing. Today I had the honour, with Kweku, of holding a safe space for three people who were willing to journey and take risks. They and we reaped the benefits of it. What a gift.