What was the best moment of your life, when it comes to ADR? I just read this collection in the Guardian of the best moment of people’s lives and felt inspired to think about happy times.
For me, one of the best ADR moments of my life happened when I was mediating a business dispute. It was early in my mediation practice and I did not have a lot of confidence. I was especially nervous for this mediation because it was taking place in a male-dominated industry and all the participants were men, and I was worried about not seeming credible to them. Specifically, I was worried that they would think of me as soft and emotional and unable to help them navigate the tough business parts of their dispute.
So I did thorough pre-mediation interviews with everyone and by the time we had our first session, I had a pretty detailed understanding of the fights that had happened and how organizational deficiencies may have created or exacerbated those fights. I went into the session wanting them to see me as competent and trustworthy, someone they could depend upon to help them think through things.
After laying out the process and ground rules, I invited them to set an agenda for our discussion. Everyone began bringing up issues related to the business. No one mentioned disputes or any of the contentiousness that had led them to hire me in the first place. And so as I was writing up the agenda items on the whiteboard, I was having an internal conversation with myself around whether we should just proceed with their agenda items without more, because maybe those really were the issues they found important and they wouldn’t appreciate extraneous mention of emotions, or whether I should prompt them to think more about emotions from the beginning. I did not want them to think of me as too focused on feelings and interpersonal interactions, but I also did not want to ignore the reported fractures in their relationships.
With all this in mind, before we moved on to our first agenda item, I said, very tentatively, “From what you’ve said, it sounds like you would like to focus on business structures, and not so much on emotions or feelings …?” I trailed off. One of the participants said immediately, “Oh no, we have got to talk about feelings, I want to talk about feelings,” and the others said the same.
As it turned out, they MOSTLY wanted to talk about their feelings, about the frustration and anger and hurt they had experienced at work over the past several months. Poorly designed business structures were contributors to these feelings, but the feelings themselves needed to be primary in our initial conversations as a group.
I count this among the best experiences of my ADR life because it validated my sense that emotions are important and because it revealed assumptions I had around what others find valuable and what I can offer as a mediator. So much of our experience, professional and personal, is shaped by social constructs and stereotypes, by what we think other people think. One of the best things about ADR is the way it keeps us and others from falling into restrictive roles and inflexible processes. When we practice ADR, we are continually reassessing the situation and asking ourselves what is actually happening here? and what can I do to help?.
What about you? I invite you to reflect on (and share, if you are so moved!) your best ADR moments. ADR is such a complex, rewarding practice; it is worth remembering why we are drawn to it and what it provides.