Mediation – A tool for Successful Relations

by Luke Lara, Ed.D.

Ever wonder why conflicts exist? I do not shy away from conflict, yet I’m not a fighter and my instinct is to freeze in intense situations (e.g., disagreements). However, I am willing to dive deeper to understand what is at the heart of the issue. At the crux of all conflicts is a difference of perception around resources, needs, or values, based on any number of factors such as beliefs, values, cultural traditions, religion, education, ideology, and lived experiences. Conflict is natural and when we are stuck in conflict, we may need a bit of help. Mediation or “facilitated dialogue” is a tool to support successful relations with others.

As a trained counselor, I developed strong great listening skills and the ability to help people problem solve. Counseling is often done with individual clients. Mine happen to be college students. Their conflicts were personal (e.g., negative self-talk, meeting basic needs, navigating college) or issues with others (e.g., a teacher, family member, employer). In contrast, mediation involves two or more parties. While mediation and counseling may share similar aspects, the goal of mediation is to reach agreement on future behaviors that address underlying needs and interests.

I recently completed a mediation training hosted by the National Conflict Resolution Center. They provided a week-long, interactive institute with highly skilled facilitators. I learned a great deal about mediation and how it can be an incredibly rewarding tool for bringing conflicting parties into agreement. Mediation, while a legal tool, has roots in collectivist societies (e.g., African Societies, Indigenous groups) as a means of justice and community healing. Mediation, at least in California, has the added benefit of being a confidential process.

I’ll use the metaphor of an iceberg to illustrate what a conflict represents and how mediation can improve strained relationships. Imagine an iceberg representing a party’s perception of a conflict: a frozen piece of ice protruding from the cold ocean’s surface. Most of the ice formation lies below the surface. It may seem as though there are two icebergs set to inevitably collide (e.g., in the case of two parties). The protrusions represent the solid positions (e.g., statements) each party stands firmly upon (e.g., “We need to focus on Equity,” “I have a right to Academic Freedom”). Each statement seems mutually exclusive and completely in opposition. Yet, what lies underneath the surface are the underlying needs and interests that motivate these positions. By diving below the surface, we may find that the two seemingly distinct protruding tips are formed of a common foundation of needs and interests (i.e., the same iceberg).

Image: CC-by-sa 3.0 by Uwe Kils (iceberg) and User:Wiska Bodo (sky).

The real work of mediation is to understand the underlying needs and interests. The mediation process is not about changing people’s minds. It is about helping conflicting parties understand each other’s perspectives, identify the intersecting interests, and empower the parties to be future-oriented to find a resolution. Author William Raspberry wrote, “The opportunity for cooperation is there, even in our most vexatious disputes, if we’ll only bother to look for it.” In other words, if we look under the surface to understand the other party’s needs and interests, we may find an opportunity to cooperate. This is not to say that the interests are in common, but that through cooperation, a mutually beneficial resolution can be achieved.

A skilled mediator is a neutral party and facilitates dialogue while listening carefully, uses tools including, acknowledging feelings, identifying interests, summarizing/paraphrasing, translating, identifying expectations, caucusing (e.g., private meetings), and asking questions. Mediators must set a tone of hope through neutral language that reframes and builds connections. Through facilitated dialogue, mediators become the conduit through which communication is jumpstarted and nurtured, helping the parties stay resolution focused.

Mediators facilitate the process, and the parties are responsible for the content. A well-facilitated dialogue can empower the parties to creatively address their issues and come to an agreement on future behaviors through SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound) goals. Not all mediated issues result in a resolution. However, the communication skills learned in the process can still help those involved grow as a person, employee, and/or a leader. The parties can always agree to enter mediation again later.

Don’t let conflict stop you from preserving important relationships (personal or professional). Let mediation help you before issues escalate. It helps if all parties are willing to engage in the mediation process. Next time you have a conflict with a colleague, a neighbor, a friend, or a family member, consider a neutral mediator to facilitate a dialogue. Many employers, city offices, and community groups offer free or sliding-fee-based mediation services.

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Reflections on Leadership Communication Styles

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by Luke Lara

I spent Thanksgiving with immediate and extended family. Two family members (husband & wife) are both executives in the banking industry. The wife (I’ll call her Carla) started sharing how her husband (I’ll call him Pedro) is having a rough time at work because of his boss. Pedro is a nice guy, knows the industry, and is well respected by his team. His boss (a man) takes his ideas, gives poor direction, and has little regard for anyone but himself. His boss reports directly to the CEO ( a woman). Carla argued that Pedro is not approaching the situation correctly. She gave examples of how her husband has argued with his boss (i.e., let his emotions get the best of him). Carla also stated that Pedro isn’t building a relationship with his CEO.

At this point in the conversation, I agreed with her that arguing with your boss is not a wise strategy and that building a relationship with the CEO is a wiser strategy. However, Carla began to give an example of how the CEO went on vacation and posted a picture of herself on the beach. What I mean by a picture of herself on the beach is just a frame showing her toes. The unspoken expectation is that people in the office should “like” her pictures. Pedro said he didn’t “like” the picture. I agreed, in fact, that seemed to me like the CEO was creating a hostile work environment and potentially leaning into sexual harassment territory. Carla, and another female family member (also in a leadership position in another industry) began to argue that “liking” the picture of the toes must be done to play the game of politics.

Where do you draw the line? What does politics at work mean to you? Is it different in higher education? What have you done, just to play the game of politics? What are you not willing to do?

Another story came about this interesting Thanksgiving dinner. Carla shared that her leadership style is about the people. To back this up, she gave the following example: One day she came to one of her branches and saw a teller with a wrinkled shirt. She immediately went across the street and bought an iron. She pulled the worker aside and said, “Take this iron and go to the break room and iron your shirt. The good thing is that you now have an iron.”

I asked her, “Was that your employee?” She replied, “No, but technically he works under me.” (She is the boss of the branch managers). Someone at the dinner table said, “Oh, that sounds like you were trying to mentor that fellow.” I think it was said, to reframe the conversation because it was a little awkward there for a minute.

Is that mentoring? Is it micro-managing? Maybe there were more details to the story. Maybe several glasses of gin and tonic may have distorted the facts?

In any case, both of these stories made me think about my own leadership communication style. That night, I tossed and turned, thinking and thinking. I came up with the following acronym: L.A.R.A. That is my last name. Believe me, I didn’t do it on purpose. I also have a counseling background, so it does mirror my counseling training and my understanding of mindfulness communication. It stands for the following:

Listen

Acknowledge

Reflect

Act

So, L.A.R.A. leadership communication begins with listening. That is something I didn’t hear in the stories above. We need to listen, gather information by asking questions, and hear the message behind the message. Listen to learn.

Second, after listening, we need to acknowledge what we’ve heard. Repeat it back to get clarification. Summarize the speaker’s thoughts and reflect it back. Acknowledge to respect.

Third, after acknowledging the message, we must reflect on what we’ve heard. Is it true? Do I need to apologize? What is it that I am being asked to do? How has what I’ve done impacted this person? How can I reply with mindful communication? Reflect to take responsibility.

Lastly, after reflection, we need to act. Through this mutual and collective dialogue, we have listened, acknowledged, and reflected. Now it is time to act respectfully, to commit to an action that represents the appropriate culmination of this process.