At the conclusion of a mediation I did some years ago, one of the parties did something weird. Really weird. They said “thank you” to the other side.
Had these parties mid-read the standard mediation script? The other party was clearly taken aback, and I remember feeling almost awkward. “Thank you”?! They were “supposed” to grumble about the whole dispute, bellyache that the other side got more than they deserved, complain that it took so long to settle. Standard protocol might suggest thanking me, the mediator. Even articulating some relief that the dispute was behind them would be in bounds. But the standard script does not call for expressions of gratitude to the other side.
The case itself had been a contentious, drawn-out business dispute. A contractual arrangement gone bad. It felt, in many ways, like a typical mediation case. Mismatching perceptions of the past. Hurt feelings. Complex relationships. Differing predictions about probable litigation outcomes. Etc etc. And as is often the case (although I seem largely incapable of persuading my law students of the truth in this assertion), the disputants had feelings, cared about relationships, and cared about both financial and non-financial issues.
The mediation unfolded in a largely unremarkable way for most of its life. At the end of a series of meetings, the pair of representatives on one side (the eventual “thankers”) asked to speak with me privately. They told me they remained convinced that their case had more merit than was reflected in the current draft of a settlement. It seemed important to them that I understand the motivation for their move toward agreement. “We believe firmly that these sorts of things should be worked out, as a matter of principle. It’s not that we think [the other side] is right on this.” I urged them to think carefully about what matters most to them, and to make sure that any agreement adequately protected those interests. The two of them met privately for some time, and within an hour, the four of us were engaged in drafting a settlement agreement containing a relatively mundane and un-creative solution to the dispute. It was after the signature ink was dry that one of them blurted out, “Thank you” to the other side.
It may have been mere habit. A social nicety without actual intended meaning, akin to asking someone “How are you?” as you pass them in the hallways, without any intention of stopping to hear the actual answer.
But I don’t think so.
There was something different about these disputants or about this dispute. I wish I knew what. This is not a story with a neatly-wrapped conclusion. It is, at most, a story with a neatly-framed question. “Thank you”?