Extreme Mediation

I have long been drawn to forms of mediation that are more direct and transformative for the participants and make real differences in people’s lives or in the effectiveness of large-group processes. Most of us are taught mediation in a style that is ultra-facilitative; we are allowed only to elicit the participants’ own thoughts and ideas and are taught never to step in with any part of ourselves or our own ideas or suggestions. Asking questions, providing structure for dialogue, and thoughtful silences are used to guide the participants through a process of their own making.

Most likely, this is a good way to learn. When you’re inexperienced and working with people in volatile and vulnerable circumstances, such as divorce and custody proceedings, it’s critical that you proceed as carefully as possible. Above all, it is important to guide people to their own solutions rather than one of yours that they may seize upon in the moment but later decide doesn’t suit them. It also helps curb the problem-solving tendencies that most of us learn as experts in our chosen field pre-mediation, forcing us to step back and help others help themselves.

On the other hand, as one becomes more experienced, one finds that there are many cases in which a purely facilitative approach does not cut it. It simply does not get the job done, especially in highly complex and controversial situations. It’s just too much like that therapist who always sits back and says, “and how did that make you FEEL?” There are times when you are chosen by a group to carry a message, consciously or unconsciously, because you are the only person who feels safe enough to do it. Or when they are so muddled and the process is so complex that only a person who stands somewhat outside of it can see the common thread or a set of possible solutions.

Then there’s the contradiction between the hiring process for facilitators/mediators, which has become very content- and expertise-specific, and the idea that we are not supposed to inject any of that knowledge or expertise into the process. Generally, the groups we work with expect us to help them in more direct ways than the theoreticians of our profession believe is appropriate, particularly since few groups have the funds to hire both content and process experts when they can get both in one person. One of my greatest skills is synthesizing the work of a group into a coherent, consensus product – which goes well beyond where many “authorities” in the field would have us go, yet I know it is of great value to my clients.

One of my favorite books in the field is Extreme Facilitation: Guiding Groups through Controversy and Complexity. This is all about applying creativity, flexibility, and adaptability to the needs of the parties or the group and crafting a process that works for them. When purely facilitative approaches will do the trick, great. When you need to step in and cut through the muddle, do it. Use every technique at your disposal to help move the situation. Practitioners who get stuck in only one box can find themselves quite at a loss when that approach doesn’t work, as is so often the case in my primary field of environmental mediation.

In addition to environmental work, I do divorce mediations – partly because I am apparently the only professional family mediator in my community, and I feel like it is a necessary public service. However, I do get discouraged that our skills are only called into use at the point where couples have already decided to divorce. While I know that helping two people end their marriage on a positive and constructive note is a valuable service, especially when kids are involved, I know that it would be even more valuable to help people before it gets that far. Not to mention that we have so many disputes and conflicts in daily life, and people don’t even consider mediation. Perhaps it’s because it seems too formal, too expensive, too… something. Like therapy (that comparison again).

Recently, I read a blog that inspired me like nothing has in a long time, about a man who mediates in half-hour sessions at Burning Man. Half an hour – wow. He’s designed a process that dispenses with, well, a lot of the process that bogs down those interminable approaches you learn as a volunteer in divorce court. He sets up his booth right in Burning Man, and takes all comers. Anything and everything gets mediated, in keeping with the principle of radical inclusion that the festival espouses. Several things excited me about this – first, it’s short. This approach could be adapted to an hour and be really affordable – or provided for free in any number of community settings. Second, it’s accessible enough that any and all issues are brought to be mediated – including a lot of marital issues that if not addressed, could ultimately lead to divorce. Yay for getting these early! Third, I just like the idea that people would walk right by, and even if they didn’t take advantage of it, they would know it existed and could be used at any time.

Maybe I need to stop waiting for cases to come to me (they do, but always at the divorce stage), and get out into the community somehow and do these (a church, farmer’s market, YMCA, community center?). I never thought of a one-hour mediation before, but I can really see it working. It’s like a combination of zen listening, focused commitment, and directed problem-solving. I can’t wait to try it!


How you can both get what you want

Every now and then, I’m posting some thoughts from the field of mediation, partly because it’s what I do and partly because it’s so helpful in everyday life. I posted a blog a while back on how to say no positively, and it’s one of the most frequently googled posts I have. So for your consideration, a few thoughts on how to get through your next conflict, whether it be at work, at home, with a neighbor or a business.

First, some basic negotiation theory. Most people approach negotiations as if there’s a pie that needs to be split. If one person gets more, the other gets less. Dealing with money is a good example – if your department has only so much funding, what each person gets has to add up to that and no more. But even when dealing with money, there’s another way, and it’s called “interest-based” negotiation.

Here’s a story often used to illustrate it. Two sisters are arguing over some oranges. Each insists that she needs all of them for a breakfast they are making for Mother’s Day. The oranges come from Mom’s garden, but this is all there is.

If this were a standard negotiation, the mediator might ask each sister if there is any way they could do with less, and divide up what there is. Or maybe they could go the store and buy more, and each could have some of the ones from the garden and some store-bought ones. Neither sister goes away with what she wants, and chances are both are unhappy.

Now we go to interest-based negotiation. The mediator asks each sister WHY she wants the oranges. She might not see the point, but she’ll probably answer the question. The first says she wants the rind to bake a coffee cake. The second says she needs the fruit to make orange juice. The mediator splits the rind from the fruit, passes out the pieces, and everyone gets 100% of what she wants. The idea is to increase the size of the pie rather than splitting a smaller pie.

Now of course, it’s not always this easy. But a surprising amount of the time, people come into a dispute assuming that there’s only one way to get what they need. And if that way isn’t acceptable to the other person, an intractable problem arises.

Here’s a more typical problem. An employee has decided she needs a raise. Her boss doesn’t have any more money to give her a raise, so he says no. She continues to press the issue, saying that she must earn more money or take another job. Not wanting to lose her but not knowing where to get the money, the boss calls the company mediator.

The mediator starts by exploring both sides a little more, mainly by asking why – getting to the interests underneath the positions. Her position is that she needs more money, but the reason she needs more money is her interests – her daycare is charging more and gas prices have gone up. So you could summarize her interests as childcare and transportation costs.

Her boss has no additional money to give, but cares about his employee. His interests are keeping a good employee and her general well-being. He also cares about his budget and keeping his own job, but is willing to think about what else he could offer her. Previously, he did not know her interests. Now that he knows what they are, he can try to find another way to meet them.

Maybe he can offer her ways to offset her gas costs, like rideshare, free bus passes, flex-time, a shorter week, or telecommuting. Possibly some of these could also help with her child-care costs, by reducing the amount of time her child spends at the daycare. The ability to know her interests and offer her something else that meets them (especially if he can give her choices) demonstrates that he cares about her and may actually provide a better solution. Maybe she will find that she loves working at home or having an extra day off, more than she would have appreciated the extra money that would just go to rising costs anyway.

Now you don’t need a mediator to use these ideas in your own conflicts, as long as you keep some basic principles in mind.

1) Positions are just that – they always represent underlying interests that are usually much more important than the surface positions. Explore what’s underneath.

2) Find out what the other person’s interests are by asking questions. They will appreciate that you care why they hold the position they do and will usually want you to understand. Use active listening – a time set aside when you are just listening to them and not making your own points.

3) Make sure that you understand that your own positions are just that, and may not be the only good solution. Try to identify your own underlying interests and communicate those to the other person. It is just possible that they may be able to think of ways you haven’t thought of to meet them which would work out better for both of you.

4) Repeat the other person’s interest and state your own. Ask if you got their side of the issue right. Then ask for their help in coming up with a way you can both get what you need.

Try not to overwhelm the other person all at once. You may have thought this all out, but they may need time to reflect. Try to think of it as a conversation over time that may lead to a solution. Once you really understand where they’re coming from, you may also need time to figure out how to meet their needs – this is a two-way street, and it has to work for both people or the agreement won’t last.

How to say “no,” positively

You may have heard of the book “Getting to Yes” by Bill Ury – a book that revolutionized negotiations and formed the basis for most of what we do in mediation. He put into words the idea of negotiating from underlying interests rather than surface positions, and creating solutions that benefit both parties’ basic needs rather than simply compromising – which tends to make neither person happy.

Now he’s written a new book, called “The Power of a Positive No.” I learned about it at a dispute resolution conference last week, but I’m writing about it here because I think everyone can use this book and the ideas in it to help set boundaries, stand up for yourself and for social justice, and learn how to say no anytime you really need to in life.

So what is a positive no? Not surprisingly, it’s a “no” that starts with a yes and ends with a yes. The first yes is to yourself – why are you saying no? What alternative principle are you saying yes to which requires you to say no to the other person? Being very clear with yourself about this and being able to affirmatively communicate it to the other person is key to saying no positively.

The second part is the actual no. What is it that you don’t want to do or can’t do? What principle or part of the other person’s proposal are you not accepting? Saying no in a respectful and firm way is important for this part.

Lastly, there is a final yes, this time to the other person. This comes in the form of another way that that person can get their needs met, or another alternative you can propose that you can say yes to. This final yes reaches out and reaffirms that you value your relationship with the other person.

So what does this look like? Suppose your boss comes to you and asks you to work weekends for the next month in order to finish a critical project that the company has fallen behind on for an important client. You need and want to say no, but you are afraid of losing your job, losing your boss’s respect, disappointing your client, not pulling your weight with other co-workers, etc.

The negative no: “No way! Thanksgiving is coming up – I can’t believe you would ask me to do that.” or “I don’t get paid enough to work weekends!” or even “Sorry, I just can’t. My wife will kill me.” All of these are negative nos that don’t come across very well. Don’t make excuses, stand for a positive principle.

The positive no: “In our family, Thanksgiving is the main holiday of the year, and we will have relatives visiting from out of town. My daughter’s soccer finals are also next weekend. It’s important to me to be with the family for these events. So, I can’t work weekends for the next month. But, I can work this weekend and I can work late Wednesday and Thursday evenings. I can also talk to June and see if she’d be willing to help out. We’ll find a way to get it done!”

Of course, if this boss is always asking you to give up your weekends and holidays, you might be less forthcoming about putting in the extra time. In that case, you have to really look at your values and what’s important to you. You may need a Plan B if your boss doesn’t accept your positive no – for example, looking for a new job.

Thinking about it this deeply whenever you feel like you want to say no helps you identify your underlying priorities, and take whatever action is appropriate. In the first case above, it may be to find a way to get both of your needs met. In the second case, it may be to recognize that your current job is incompatible with those deeper values.

Notes from Phoenix

I’m here in Phoenix at an Association for Conflict Resolution conference. Since I don’t know anyone here, I was determined to try to overcome my natural shyness in situations like this and TALK to people. Right away, I discovered that mediators are nice people :) I’ve never been to a conference before where so many people just in the lobby, elevator and standing in the checkout line would make eye contact, smile, and talk to you – actually engaging in meaningful conversation with people they don’t even know with apparent interest. Since mediators are naturally curious about other people (or we couldn’t do our jobs), that may explain some of it.

In any case, it bolstered my resolve and I’ve been practicing all day, talking to anyone who appears accessible and interesting. There was a dinner and dancing party out in a local park, and that gave me lots of chances. It was a warm Phoenix night, which in itself was enough to make me want to stay out in it. One memorable visual image was from my hotel room on the 19th floor, of the full moon hanging over downtown Phoenix in late afternoon, with the red hills ringing the city behind. I’m sorry I don’t have a photo to share with you (when I left I couldn’t think of a reason I would need my camera…).

This morning I had a session on metaphors and their value in mediation. All kinds of metaphors – verbal, visual, kinetic, even musical. Then later in the day I was watching a group of people dancing to YMCA (which totally dates us) – and they ALL knew the YMCA move. It was pretty hilarious to watch. There was one lone man out there, probably from another country, who was looking around in bewilderment ;D Now THAT was a cultural metaphor if I ever saw one – for what, I’m not entirely sure.

So that’s what I’m up to this week! Brrr… my room feels cold at 72 after the Phoenix night.

Giving to your work

This has been the busiest summer of my working career (hence, the somewhat sporadic blogging – sorry about that!). I’ve given up much to it, in order to complete some very important projects and start a new business at the same time. A sailing vacation – lost to business travel. Time with friends and family spent working instead. My deck, hammock, and hot tub just calling out to be enjoyed, but empty – the weather hasn’t quite cooperated either, but still.

This last week took it to a new dimension. I had an opportunity to be involved in something I consider very important – be the facilitator for the start of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process for the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. As part of the Superfund cleanup, chemicals and nuclear wastes are being dealt with in such a way that they will reduce risks to human health and contain the wastes and chemicals that have been released. This process, in contrast, is intended to restore the natural environment and the natural resources that have been damaged at Hanford over the past 70 years.

In service to the river, the salmon, the groundwater for future generations, the sage-steppe habitat, the Indian nations that have used this area for thousands of years, eight agencies and tribes met together to take the first step down this path – hiring a contractor to look at the vast amounts of data that exist, figure out what more we need to know, and give us the first look at what natural resources have been damaged so we can set about restoring them. The US Dept. of Energy has the unenviable position of being at once the agency responsible for the legacy of contamination, cleaning it up, and restoring it.

So, over four days, and many days spent preparing for this workshop, we charted the future course. It was my pleasure (and hard work) to facilitate this event, which meant many hours before, during, and after the workshops each day to keep it running smoothly and efficiently, anticipate problems (we had some big ones, like lack of funding and decades of distrust), and try to think of ways to help others find their solutions.

As the week went on, I became more and more exhausted. I always found that I had the energy for the workshops, and just enough to do the prep work, but then I started sleeping for 10 hours a night and battling daily migraines. This has been a constant problem throughout my career, but at least that means I’m used to it and usually no-one can tell the difference – I’ve learned ways to cope and compensate.

Reflecting back on this event, we met all our goals and then some. I feel I did a good job, and everyone seems happy with the outcome. It was one of the longer, more difficult, and more meaningful events I have conducted in a very long time, just as I embark on a full-time career doing this kind of work.

It’s as if my physical struggles are my personal gift to the process. I know now I can do the work well. While sometimes I wonder how much better it would be if I had the energy and stamina of a “normal” person, I am who I am, and I will continue to give what I can. If it comes at the cost of a few headaches and lost days, so be it.

Creative conflict resolution


I’ve been pretty busy lately, and just wanted to write a little about what has taken up so much of my time and effort. I’m ready to launch a new business, Mediation Solutions. This business is all about preventing and resolving conflicts – in the workplace, in personal life, business, and the environment/public policy field. After nearly 20 years of working for the environment as a technical consultant, I have come to appreciate the critical importance of conflict as a barrier to getting anything done – in nearly all realms of life.

I’m very excited to have a partner join me in this effort – Stephanie Stirling, whom some of you may know. She is a person that I have grown to admire over the almost 15 years we have worked together – in various roles: as fellow regulators, client-consultant, workshop and training organizers… Like me, she has worked within her federal role as a facilitator-on-the-side of her normal biological/regulatory duties. This is a good fit for her at this time in her professional career, and it’s a neat feeling for me to have a partner for the first time.

The other very interesting thing we’re doing with this is, in addition to the traditional face-to-face approaches, getting set up for an increasing focus on online conflict resolution. Online conflict resolution fills many niches – it helps address international commerce and workplace issues, and provides software and techniques for working with people in widely varying geographic locations and timezones.

Aside from these more obvious uses, it turns out that it is helpful in a lot of practical ways also – participants do not need to be online at the same time, do not need to take time off work, travel anywhere, or arrange childcare. One can participate from anywhere – home, office, airport, wi-fi cafe, hotel room… It is useful in situations where emotions are so high that it is hard for participants to sit in the same room and communicate effectively. Translation issues can be dealt with. And lastly – younger generations are growing up doing everything online. They’re going to expect to be able to resolve their issues and conflicts there also.

So, we’re jumping into the bold new world of online conflict resolution. It may not generate much traffic at first, but I think it will be a fast-growing market someday. And then maybe Stephanie can relax in her new home on Whidbey Island and I can relax in my hacienda in Ecuador and we can tap away and resolve the world’s conflicts :) Oh… if only it were that easy!

In search of the now

One of the things I have been frequently reminded of over the last few years is the need to live in the now, and how amazingly hard that can be. We all know how much time we spend thinking about the past, and planning for, or worrying about, the future. All of this at the expense of the now, which is of course, all there really is. The past is unchangeable, and the future may look nothing like we imagine.

The other night I was reading a chapter in a book on mediation about how meditation helps prepare one for mediation by teaching you to be fully present in the now. This is critical in a mediation because of the need to keep constant tabs on the ebb and flow of energies in the room, the responses and reactions of all the participants, and all factual and emotional details you are trying to keep track of. If you let your mind wander, you’re sunk, and valuable opportunities could be lost.

So as I’m reading this chapter, the author keeps yanking me back to the present by asking questions like “what were you thinking about as you read that last page?” Over and over I realized I was not in the moment with this book. I was worrying about what a friend was going to do in the future, and I couldn’t seem to stop. I finally put the book down and went to sleep, when it became clear I wasn’t getting full value out of it.

Later, I got to thinking about when I’m good at being in the now, and when I’m not. During mediations I don’t really have a problem with it – they’re so compelling they hold your interest like little else. Other times – watching a movie, reading a book (fiction – which for me is a lot like watching a movie), having an intense conversation with a friend, making love, being in nature and/or traveling to a new place, sitting in the hot tub, cooking and enjoying great food, petting the cat, yoga, playing games with friends… those are all things that keep me firmly in the now.

Sadly, work is not one of those things, unless it’s really difficult. My mind seems to constantly wander. Any kind of chores, exercise, all lead to avoidance by escaping into the past or future. That’s not really good – if I could learn to be present while exercising, maybe I would find a way to like it more. And procrastinate less with work and chores.

Then there’s relationships. Soooo much thinking about the past and future, over the last few years. Perhaps exacerbated by being in a long-distance relationship for so long in which there was way more time to think in between visits than to actually get to enjoy it. I invested so much in that… in spite of all my efforts had really high hopes and expectations, which made the loss so much harder.

Going through that roller-coaster of emotions has left me in an interesting state. I have been noticing lately that I am much more capable of just being present with someone, even someone with romantic possibilities – and even with the person that I hoped for so greatly. Not worrying about what else they’ve been doing, not wondering where we’re going from here, just enjoying being with them or talking with them. It’s really a nice feeling and a place I’d like to be for a while. This is a true gift that I gained from that experience, and its nice to feel I have learned something about how to be present in relationships. I hope it lasts!