Good mediators are good at conversation
I thought I knew a lot about human communication. After all, I’d been trained to be a priest, to be a public speaker, as a Redemptorist missioner (not, I may add, of the hellfire variety – they were dying out). But being trained to be a speaker, and especially to be a preacher, is to be trained in the art of monologue, and of one-way talking.
I liked to think that I did my listening in the confessional box – which I did – and also whenever individual people came to see me, or if I visited them in their homes. I have been inside thousands of homes in the UK, as a parish missioner, and could be regarded as something of an expert on interior design!
But when it comes to the awkward business of public meetings – parish finance committee, parish council – or any other kind of assembly, where other voices and other views may be aired and expressed, I can be as defensive, as cautious and as withheld as the next man.
We had no training for the joys and delights of a democratic world, and no experience of it. In college you obeyed your superiors (a giveaway title!) and when you got into a parish, the system expected people to give way to you.
When, in my final years as a priest, I found myself in the honoured position of being a parish priest, I felt very awkward in meetings, where a democratic spirit was trying to flourish in us all, and yet real power was only invested in me. It made for battle lines to be drawn, if only in our heads.
In these later years of my life, I have trained (do we ever stop!) to be a mediator. This training opened my eyes! Not only did it give me mental and verbal skills for helping warring, angry and upset parents to address their issues, it also began to provide me with the same skills to relate better to my wife, my son, and indeed with every other person in my life. May I share some of these skills with you?
Human Acceptance and Respect
We all know that respect for one another is a basic requirement of human living. In the mediation room mediators are taught that this is the first quality expected of them. Of course it is easier for mediators. They are not emotionally involved in the family/relationship turmoil. But by speaking respectfully always to the clients, we are a living reminder to them of what they are struggling to maintain between their two selves. It is always a humbling sight to see people who once loved each other, still maintaining some consideration towards one another in the midst of their sorrows.
I remember my father telling me how the Allied soldiers in North Africa had great respect for General Rommel, the German commander in the field, and for his qualities as a leader of men, even as they fought against him in the North African desert. They were all soldiers in the hot sun, suffering in a war, but they did not lose sight of the need to respect one another.
“Never Reinforce a Negative”
A wonderful lady, by the name of Sandra Farquhar, was my mentor and guide and my ‘boss’ here in Stirling at family mediation. It was Sandra who gave me this maxim – “Never reinforce a negative”. People come to us, she said, with many negative things to say. It is the negative expression of the positive things that they dearly want their life to be. It is our job to turn negative statements into positive ones. This is not a false attitude, pretending it is sunny when it is pouring rain. The sun is always in the sky, just as the rain clouds often are. In speaking in positive terms we are letting the sunshine pierce the clouds.
When a person expresses him/herself in a negative way, they are still trying to communicate something positive. For example, “You never do any work!” is really trying to say, “Could you, please, help me to clean the house today.”
The first expression is an angry, negative accusation. The second is a calm and positive request. We find the second expression easier to deal with. The first only drives our energy into positions of self-defense.
So, one of the skills of a good mediator, and by extension, of a good human conversationalist, is to be able to be calm in conversation, sometimes in the face of an upset or provocative other, and to be able to ‘translate’ poorly expressed speech – angry accusations – into straightforward sentences. To understand what a person is trying to say, even as in their upset state they are saying it badly.
Clearly, great stores of patience, self-discipline, and self-possession are required for this. This is not impossible. Just demanding!
In the days of the early church, Saint Paul stood up to Saint Peter, face to face, and told him straight that he was being dishonest in his behaviour towards the new Gentile converts. He said it to his face. It would have been very instructive for us to have been flies on the wall for that encounter. But I am sure it was a good conversation! Courage is much needed in our dialogues with one another.
Blame, however, is a nasty poison. Pointing accusing fingers at others, using verbal spite is enormously destructive of human relationships and wears down good will. Accusations, spoken as blame, only invite self-defense, and when this happens, people have stopped talking about an issue, and have simply started to push one another about in the playground. Blaming language is like putting a sharpened arrowhead on your sentences and firing them at the other. All they do his wound our opponent and increase his/her determination to hit back at us.
All Human Emotion Is Here
In our mediator training we are taken through the emotional territory of loss and grief, to try and understand how we feel and how limited we become in our ability to talk to one another when sorrow bends our head. In matters of the heart, in matters that affect our human life, understanding our emotions and having due regard for them is a tremendous wisdom.
For, human conversations are not exercises in simple logic. (All men take note!) If they were, we would solve the world’s problems in no time.
Our lives are filled with fears, insecurities, uncertainties, lack of confidence, shyness, anger and aggressiveness. We do not stand at the outset of a conversation in pure and untroubled equanimity. We may approach the ‘pow-wow’ with a tranquil mind, but if someone presses the wrong button, our inner world suddenly changes. We need to find the avenues that lead us into trust, and not look for high ground from which to out-manoeuvre one another.
If someone is fearful, she/he will not move. We will need to help them to face their fear first, and if we face many problems, it is good to begin by choosing one and addressing that. Begin somewhere.
Anger can take us all by surprise. Only yesterday I had an explosive argument with my son. I misread him and he misread me in something we were planning to do.
When we calmed down, we both apologized. We love each other very much. Later I questioned myself. Where did all that anger come from? It took me completely by surprise – let alone my poor son.
Then the image of a volcano came to mind. Before a volcano erupts, before it finds that weak point where it can break surface, it has been smouldering, and magma has been building up inside for a long time. Here was my lesson, my answer.
I often ‘let things go’ when I should address them. For peace reasons, I say to myself. But those things do not go away, they simply ‘go’ inside, and when they build up and the burden becomes too much, it all explodes, and God help anybody who is near the mountain.
It is a common weakness in many of us ‘peace-lovers’, that we do not address issues at the time when we should. We say we do not like confrontation – but it is possible to be face to face with someone and to say what should be said, and avoid being nasty. Ask Saint Paul. Ask Saint Peter.
People can only deal with what is in front of them, with the person they see with their own eyes. If we do not present our real selves and our real feelings, at least to some degree, how can others respond to us! How can they know who we really are!
The commandment to ‘love one another’ is not meant to be used as a control mechanism! It has been my experience, in church and religious circles, that the exhortation to be kind and charitable to one another, has often taken away from good people, the power to say what they really feel and think about many things. The criticism that comes from outside Christianity, that charity reduces people to ineffectual wimps, has a good point to it. The commandment to love has often been used, by some people in authority, as a mechanism of control – to stop people saying uncomfortable things, to stop them rocking the boat.
The very thing that got Jesus into trouble at every turn!
The art of human conversation? I am only a beginner!
• Brian Fahey served as a Redemptorist in the English province