On Mediation


July 15, 2003


Dealing with different perspectives: A mediator in Italy

I recently returned from a wonderful spring trip to Italy during our country's war with Iraq. When I left San Diego, U.S. flags were hanging everywhere in support of the troops and the war effort. In Italy, peace flags hung everywhere in opposition to the war -- beautiful, rainbow-striped flags with "Pace" written on them, placed on apartment balconies, storefronts, in public parks and even at the Doges Palace in Venice.

As a mediator, I was fascinated by these displays of differing perspectives in my country and in the country I was visiting. But another observation fascinated me more: Most Europeans I spoke with opposed the U.S. military intervention and assumed that all Americans had wanted to go to war with Iraq. I explained that instead, Americans were in robust debate about all aspects of the war. This surprised my European friends. On the surface, the American position looked simple and monolithic.

Let's place this in a conflict resolution context. Conflict often looks simple and monolithic. Well-rehearsed opposing viewpoints escalate into easy sound bytes that we hurl at one another. Our opponent becomes one-dimensional in our eyes at the same time that we begin to appear one-dimensional and unreasonable to the other side. It's simple: We're right and they're wrong.

In reality, though, conflict is not simple, because life is not simple. There is change and flux in every situation, every workplace, every neighborhood, every family. We can never know exactly how things look to another person, because we each operate from a unique vantage point. This can produce conflict that stifles forward movement. We become temporarily paralyzed. We lose our ability to maneuver through the many landmines of conflict, including communication breakdowns, blocked information flow, false assumptions about each other's motivations, and polarization of positions.

What are opponents to do? A smart thing to do is to seek the services of a skilled mediator. Conflict, if well managed, can be the impetus for growth and learning.

What does mediation have to offer in managing conflict? Many things. Here are just a few:

  • A neutral, confidential venue. Because of the rule of confidentiality, what parties say in mediation cannot be used as evidence if the case proceeds to litigation later. Statements made in the mediation do not become part of an evidentiary record. This encourages frankness and openness.

  • A neutral facilitator who defines the issues. Issue analysis is a central skill of a good mediator. What is this conflict actually about? People in conflict often don't know exactly. The San Diego Mediation Center has a rule of thumb: If they're saying "It's about money," it's usually about some underlying principle that appears to have been violated. On the other hand, if they're saying, "It's about the principle of the thing," it's usually about money. But whatever it's about is important and needs to be respectfully articulated. A mediator knows how to do this.

  • A chance to explain positions and the reasons behind them. When we disagree, we usually focus on our own viewpoints, which we try to drive home over and over. We stop listening because we are guarding our own positions and planning brilliant rebuttal arguments. Mediation can break this cycle by helping opponents to slow down the reaction time. This helps us to listen and think. Positions begin to appear more reasonable when we each have the chance to explain why we hold them. We begin to appear more multidimensional, more interesting to each other and more capable of solving the problem.

    This brings me, somewhat circuitously, back to my recent sojourn in Italy, where I gained more insights about the nature of perspective during a visit to see Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper" in Milan. I have seen reproductions of this fresco all my life -- on postcards, in Bibles, on key chains, on funeral parlor fans. I assumed that seeing the original would be like seeing an old friend. It was not. Seeing the "Last Supper" on the actual wall where Leonardo painted it, across the entire back wall of a long narrow room, was an astonishing experience. The painting belonged in that room. The scale was right, the light was right. The lines of Leonardo's painted ceiling continued the lines of the actual ceiling of the room. Seen in context, the painting took on a whole new life. In just a few moments, my old image of the painting was replaced with a new one.

    When we come to the mediation table, our perspectives on the issues in dispute can change dramatically as well, under the guidance of a skilled mediator. Assumptions fall away, and positions become more flexible when the larger context is considered.

    I would love to explore this subject further. Perhaps next spring in Rome?

    Mc Manus, J.D., manages the Mediator Credentialing Program for the San Diego Mediation Center. She has been a mediator since 1985. She can be contacted at betty.mcmanus@sddt.com


    July 15, 2003