Why mediation works

As a Harvard law student two decades ago, I became involved in the well-known Harvard mediation program. After being trained as a volunteer mediator, I was sent to local small claims courts to help disputants resolve their conflict through a mediated agreement, rather than through a judge’s decision.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that the vast majority of cases did, in fact, reach a mutually agreed-upon settlement. I was delighted with the outcomes, and increasingly interested in a specific question: why did mediation work? This question is heightened when you consider the limited tools which a mediator has. I could not force parties to agree. I could not give an expert opinion as to what they should do. I did not even have a strong relationship with these people – they were total strangers, who I had never met before and would never meet again.

And yet, something powerful happened in mediation that worked. I dedicated my career to exploring that dynamic and using it with my clients in training, coaching, mediation, facilitation and other conflict resolution services.

A key element I have taken from those early experiences is appreciating the power of telling people’s stories. As a mediator, I was able to listen to one person’s point of view, understand it, and even validate it, while simultaneously doing the same for the other side. Disputing parties that are stuck are typically unable to tell each other’s stories. Instead, while in the heat of the battle, they ignore, misunderstand, distort or otherwise fail to truly hear the other side’s point of view. This ability to mentally “hold” both stories together, without either trumping the other, is the mediator’s unique contribution to conflict resolution.

Ask a passenger fighting with a gate attendant over having her seat reassigned, “Why is the gate attendant resisting?” You are likely to hear, “It’s because she is a jerk,” or “Because she is lazy,” or other caricatures of the gate agent’s story. Conversely, a passenger who really tries hard to tell the other side’s story may say, “Well, she is probably trying to be fair to the other passengers,” or “She has limited authority to move things around,” or even “She is tired and overworked and needs a break.” And a passenger who tries to tell the gate attendant’s story will often find her ability to negotiate a mutually acceptable outcome is dramatically enhanced.

Much of my work, including my book, I Hear You, is based on this core idea. To improve at resolving your own conflicts, try to become your own mediator, your own neutral party, or your own coach.

9 Adar on the Jewish calendar has been designated as a day of Constructive Conflict. If you can learn how to step outside your own perspective and tell the other side’s story as that person would themself, you will find your ability to resolve conflicts will be much improved.

9AdarLOGOfullThis post is part of the 9 Adar project, an initiative of the Pardes Center for Judaism and Conflict Resolution, part of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies.

Click for more 9 Adar posts about Constructive Conflict.

About the Author
Donny Ebenstein is an expert in negotiation, communication, and conflict resolution. He has trained and coached clients in both the public and private sectors across five continents, including extensive work in the Middle East. A graduate of Harvard Law School, Donny runs his own consulting firm, Ebenstein Consulting. He is the author of I Hear You: Repair Communication Breakdowns, Negotiate Successfully, and Build Consensus . . . In Three Simple Steps.
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