By Janet M. Powers
In this time of cultural polarization, we hear people on all sides of the political spectrum ranting about the opposition, blaming each other and threatening dire consequences. Even those with human rights on their side may believe so strongly that they occupy the moral high ground that they lose sight of those struggling on the plains below. Rushing to judgment is usually a mistake, no matter how justified the action.
One thing emphasized again and again in mediation is the importance of hearing all sides of a dispute. Indeed, mediators bend over backwards to silence interruptions so that a full story can be told by each party to the conflict. Often, in the telling, disputants hear unexpected explanations for actions or opinions, points that they had previously opposed or brushed aside. Hearing these can result in an “aha” moment for the parties.
Taking time to listen to an opponent’s story is frequently a discovery key, a crucial way of finding solutions to the problem. Silencing voices of opposition has the opposite effect, leading to anger, frustration, and an urge to retaliate. The feeling that nobody is listening or paying attention to the problems that you struggle with can be more than painful. We have begun to understand that it has given rise to a deeply-divided nation.
Being heard is an important need for virtually everyone, whether adult or child, business owner or customer, office-holder or constituents. A healthy family is one that periodically has family meetings where everyone has a voice. The wise boss is one who takes time to consider whether everyone’s needs have been met before making a decision. Human-right advocates need to understand fully why some people oppose proposed changes before pushing them through.
In a mediation, even when both sides have found common ground and agreed to potential solutions, the mediator pauses to ask the disputants whether they have anything more to add. “Do you have any other concerns?” is a common question. Usually, neither has anything more to say, but sometimes a disputant says, “Well, yes, there is one more thing.” The mediator, thinking the session was over, may inwardly groan, but he/she knows that a good agreement is not a speedy one. A good agreement is one that results from giving every concern a chance to breathe.
As a mediator, I confess to confusing my roles as representative of MSAC and that of private citizen. Mediation by letter-to-the-editor is probably not a good strategy. The risks of being misunderstood or misrepresenting one’s organization are great. Yet so strongly do I believe in the principles of mediation that I hope to see them constantly at work in our governing councils as well as our media and daily lives. While that may be too much to expect, mindful listening offers an ideal to strive for and a way of easing the pressure valve of an overheated society.