Conflicts often involve intense emotions. These emotions might arise out of the substantive issues. For example, one of the parties may have been seriously injured in an accident, with pain and suffering and an overall decline in their physical well-being, ability to work, and effects on their family.
The emotions might arise out of the procedural history of the particular situation. Often a conflict ends up before a mediation with prior, heart-felt and good faith efforts at resolution having failed. There might be a good deal of frustration, of the sense with the individuals involved that they have failed and that it’s specific to them. Not having done this type of thing before, they may have a sense of isolation, that no one else has ever felt the way I do, and the mindscape is that this conflict cannot be resolved.
The procedure of mediation itself might engender some anxiety and uncertainty. Though mediation maintains for the parties a greater degree of control over their fate than an arbitrator, judge or jury, the parties may feel at least at the beginning, unsettled and that they are giving themselves into the hands of a stranger, the mediator.
Some attorneys contribute to the problem. They seem to believe that the only way to keep clients happy is to mirror the client’s emotional state. If they represent the plaintiff, these attorneys are the conduit for every expression of hurt, injustice and outrage. If for the defense, they say every allegation is libelous, outrageous, unfounded, foolish, and must be wrestled to the ground and have its brains beaten out.
The challenge for the mediator is to contain the emotional states of the parties, to get the parties to a collaborative mindframe. At the same time, the parties should feel they are being heard and that their emotions, which are obviously important, are not being shunted aside. One of the tools a mediator may use is the principle of “normalization.”
The principle of normalization involves two overlapping processes, organization and listening. The point is to get to a position of integration, of the participants and the specific dispute.
The process of organization begins with the structure of convening and begins its effect on the participants at the opening session, whether that session is joint (all parties present together) or individual (in “caucus”). In this opening session, which should not be rushed or short-changed, the mediator should calming introduce themselves and describe the procedures for the session, even if the information is know from prior communications among the participants.
Organization necessitates naming, categorizing, and giving a place, to every bit of information relevant to the conversation, including hard “facts,” which may include costs, damages, medical bills, lost earnings, etc., and the emotional impact or effect of the dispute. It is the process of getting one’s mind “around” the dispute, the way you might try to scoop up a herd of kittens in your arms. The art in organization is having a sense of rigor, to patiently elicit what might previously have been only partly thought-out by a party, and may be vague but accompanied by strong emotions.
Listening, in the context of the topic of Normalization, is the critical activity of first having a party tell (to the mediator, perhaps not in joint session) what the dispute is about from their perspective, then patiently eliciting further issues, again, those which might only be partially considered. The art here is partly of rigor (attention and memory) and partly of affect (patience, calm, tenacity and poise).
With organization and listening, the mediator can foster a mindscape of inclusion, the belief that others have settled similar cases, others have felt the same way as these parties do and have arrived at collaborative solutions, and all will be well. We’ve done this kind of thing before, we know what to do, and it will be OK.
The art is to meet the people where they are, accept where they are, and yet move the conversation forward.
Paraphrasing Eckhart Tolle:
Do not fight the darkness. Bring the light.