I had no expectations of this event! I knew that I would benefit by the break from the Melbourne winter, and the notion of some time to ponder on my passion for mediation in the setting of Tuscany, seemed perfect! Little did I know when I booked late in 2017 how important this would be for me and how much I would gain.
This was a gathering of 10 mediators from different parts of the globe- Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, the UK and Canada, and each of us in the midst of our own very different mediation journey. We were very ably lead by Greg, Margie and Barbara, and each offered a part of ourselves to produce a collective understanding and shared experience, that was certainly much greater than the sum of these parts. I am extremely grateful for the honesty and generosity of all who participated.
We were based at the Fattoria L’Ottavo, a farm run by a family of four brothers, specialising in the local Chianti wine, olive oil, and accommodation. Our hostess, Anna-Maria was extremely attentive and ensured that everything ran very smoothly and our every need was met. The farm sits down the hill from the village of Lucolena, a quaint Italian village that I imagine has been much the same for decades. This is a very special place where everything seems at one with the universe and just the way it should be. The vista is over rolling hills that gently take the eye to the horizon with a sense of grandeur but at the same time humility for the natural order of things. The sky is brilliant blue, and the hills a deep, emerald green fading to a dark blue off into the distance. The higher slopes are covered by forest, spreading down to where this intersects with vineyards and olive groves. Here and there are farm houses of stone with orange roofs, narrow pale roads winding along, and an intensity in the valley floor indicating the possibility of a stream or river.
The road-sides are covered with a mass of wild flowers of all colours but including wild orange poppies, many varieties of yellow, white and blue trumpets, daisies and blooms. The houses are often accompanied by terracotta pots of brilliant geraniums, rose bushes, pots of succulents and hydrangeas. The colours are magnificent. There are also banks of climbers mostly a variety of jasmine that create a cloud of heady perfume that is stunning. I recall we drove through one small village that had this creeper outside a number of houses and the scent as we drove through the village was overwhelming and unforgettable!
The first impression of this scene is complete tranquility and peace! Everything appears so still, such a perfect setting allowing everything to come to a stop and to appreciate the surrounding beauty and be in this moment so completely. But attempting this task leads to another experience entirely! All at once the chirping of the birds becomes apparent- I do not think I have ever noticed so many different varieties of birds all showcasing their beautiful song at once. This symphony comes from all directions, and your eye is lead to the little sparrows, the starlings diving and playing chasey, the pigeons, doves and many others that appear to be announcing with joy their pleasure at this glorious day!
Focusing on the flowers, you immediately see a buzz of bees, the butterflies and the other insects going about their business. You look to the ground and quickly come to see that this is a world teeming with life, but all living side by side in harmony with each other. Even the many cats lazing in the sun or loping from place to place are at peace with the world. At night time we were amazed to see the fire flies lighting up all the dark hollows with a magic of fairy lights that just has to be seen to be believed!
How easy it is to let go of petty worries about the past, and concerns for the future in such a setting and focus on the here and now. It might have been a slight struggle the first day to put these to one side, but after a few days they slid away very easily, and by the end of the week they were a hazy memory that I deliberately kept covered in fog! This for me was the greatest benefit of my retreat in Tuscany. I was able to be centered and regain my equilibrium. I was able to stand back and confirm my priorities in the here and now and appreciate with gratitude where I was, the human connections I was making with the people around me, and the interesting ideas that were being explored in this moment!
One of the first ideas that Greg introduced us to on the first day, is the notion of time. He explained that this is the main feature of what we have to offer those we work with-sharing our time with those who come to us for assistance. It is by spending time with our clients that we create an opportunity to work with them and assist them. It is in this human connection that we have the power to effect them and assist them to reach a better place. Time creates space not only for our connection with our clients, but for fresh connections between those we are working with. The more time that we can spend with them, the more opportunities there are for options to emerge and relationships to rebuild.
As mediator or professional, we work with our clients to support them through a difficult time with a view to assisting them to get to a better place. We join with them in different ways depending upon how we see our role, and what needs are identified by the person we are working with. This can easily be seen as forming a partnership with a shared goal in mind, although from very different perspectives.
We spent some time exploring the nature of this partnership and I found this exercise very enlightening. We began by looking at the notion of partnership exemplified by the orchestra. This has some very interesting parallels for dispute resolution as there are many different perspectives that come together to produce a great performance-the conductor, the instruments of the orchestra, the soloist, the musical score, the interpretation of each of these, as well as the audience. How is this managed? Some questions that spring to mind would include-Is it in the hands of the conductor? What contribution do the musicians make? How does communication take place between all the various components?
Very interesting ideas on this topic were sparked by watching a TedTalk by the conductor Italy Talgum. He examines the work of various leading world conductors to try to understand what produces the best results.
The outcome of this exploration is that the best and richest performances are where all participants are able to contribute together. Where the conductor is micromanaging the performers and they not able to have an input, the musicians are unhappy, do not produce their best performances, and are dissatisfied with the results. On the other hand, where the conductor allows the musicians to communicate with each other and contribute to the interpretation of the music, they rise to the occasion, find inner resources they perhaps did not realise existed, and produce together with everyone else involved, a unique and enriched result in that moment. The best conductor is described as the one that “does without doing”-has such trust in his orchestra and knows them so well, that he can stand back and allow them the space to work to their best capacity together, with him, but not being led by him.
This is indeed a very different notion of partnership and one that can have a lot to offer mediators or other professionals working in the dispute resolution world. We need to be conductors like Leonard Bernstein who have the courage and faith to work with our clients to empower them to make the journey to a better place. We can guide them and prepare them to make this journey, without feeling that we have to be the ones to lead them each step of the way.
So, if we start from the premise that one of the greatest benefits we can offer those we are working with, is an opportunity to share understanding, what might this look like? This was another notion that we explored together. We did this by examining the work of a Scottish psychiatrist R D Laing. Laing was a psychiatrist from 1927 to 1989 who wrote extensively on mental illness. His ideas were influenced by existential philosophy and ran counter to the chemical and electroshock methods that had become psychiatric orthodoxy. He advocated taking the expressed feelings of the individual patient or client as valid descriptions of their lived experience rather than simply as symptoms of mental illness.
We viewed an interview of him describing his work in an interview:
From the perspective of the mediator or dispute resolution professional, we investigated his notion of being with someone in the moment, and sharing their space with them, without judgement or interpretation. This is perhaps akin to what might be an extension of perceptive listening, a very different sense of “co-presence” or risk-taking.
We shared some stories about Laing, one when he was invited to visit a patient in detention, who was in a cell and sitting hunched on the floor without any clothes on. His first reaction was to take off all his clothes before entering the room, and then to just sit on the floor along side this person in the same position. He did not initiate any conversation, being content to share the space in as non-threatening a way as he could, he saw this as the best beginning to being able to connect with someone. Co-presence, just being, not thinking operationally, harmless, inviting presence, not offering a threat, just a viable being alongside! he described this as psychotherapy on a subtle level!!
Laing did not believe that it was often useful to find out how you got into a situation, in order to be able to move out of it. Likewise, he did not think it was necessary or always useful to take a history for a patient, but rather to establish a co-presence, just being, sitting with a story, coasting, cruising together in a quiet mood. He describes the importance of rapport, or connection, as a sense of security and safety within with to commence a conversation. His videos show him hanging on every word of the person he is talking with, his listening is reflected vividly in the muscles of his face, so that his face and voice become one resonating together a safety and acceptance of what is being presented to him.
Laing describes the way most likely to keep someone depressed as focusing on the depression, so his approach is not to delve into this, but to take the person to somewhere else. His strategy is to distract them so that they go somewhere other than this place, around it or beyond it, and that by doing so they can begin to imagine the possibility of a world without their depression. For instance he might ask “What made you happy? What can you remember that made you happy?” As as way to encourage thought of a more positive nature. He also makes great use of refraining as a skill to assist someone to do this. For example he might be presented with someone who complains of an inability to sleep, which he will skilfully reframe into a conversation about their ability to stay awake!
Laing has a lot to offer those interested in the soft skills around dispute resolution. His notion of co-presence and his very subtle development of rapport are very powerful and I am looking forward to reading more of his work and understanding these more. He offers some great keys into developing greater depth in our connection with our clients including:
- The perceptive listener
- Reflective listening
- Maintaining a sense of security for difficult conversations
Various questions arise that need further exploration including: What could be the role of lawyers in these conversations? What is the most respectful language for this type of conversation? And where is the notion of healing in this space to allow movement forward?
Underpinning our exploration of the different ideas about approaching clients in distress, was a discussion we came back to from time to time about “expertise” and what this means for us. What is it that we do that enables us to work with our clients, and how do we know what it is that we do?
We all agreed that over time our practice has developed from the application of more mechanical skills based on our primary background and training, into a kind of “artistry” involving more of a flow of connection and the application of a range and variety of skills to suit the unique features of each situation we are faced with. Our learning has resulted in knowledge, application has built on this to produce understanding, reflection to gain greater sophistication, and further exploration for expertise. This gives us increased productivity, greater satisfaction with what we are doing, heightened self-esteem and enhanced creativity. Barbara suggested that the results of this journey are not merely an outcome oriented experience of the mind, but “an affair of the heart”.
Barbara demonstrated an approached based on the work of Gary Klein which we practiced in groups to identify how we go about how work, and what makes us decide on the interventions that we make. An interesting discussion followed of
- the heuristics and bias that we bring to this area from our primary training and we develop from our training and experience in this field
- The pattern recognition that arises from our personal style, structural constraints and professional requirements
- Intuition based on our qualifications and experience, giving us the confidence to try, take risks and experiment to produce unique, tailored but targeted options.
As mediators, our work needs to be capable of evaluation, and we need to be reflecting on our work to ensure that we are accountable for producing ethical and effectual work, and that we are working towards best practice. Mediation is not a mechanical, replicable process but a dynamic interaction that changes with each unique set of circumstances. We have core skills based on fundamental conflict resolution theories, but over time we develop our own set of micro-skills or “soft skills” and our own ability to apply these “expertly” in each unique situation that we are presented with. Reflective practice must be incorporated into what we do, in order to ensure that we are accountable to the extent possible in light of the uncertainties encountered with each fresh situation.
We were very lucky to be introduced to the work of Jacqueline Morineau during our retreat. Jacqueline is now a lady in her 80s who set up mediation in France from 1983 as a possible way to humanise the law. She developed a very different and profound way of resolving conflict and transforming pain.
For Jacqueline, at the heart of every crisis are deep human truths that need to be flushed out to enable the space for a new inner peace. As mediators we can provide a door to allow this to happen by being receptive to the suffering in others, by reflecting this back to them in a safe and supportive and non-judgemental way, that allows for a new awareness and the ability to move on. This unique meeting between people separated by conflict, enables a transformation, and the opportunity for the rebirth of a new vision of ourselves, the other and the situation.
As mediators, we witness the struggle with pain and conflict, with humility and without judgment. In this method we hear, listen and look, not with the senses of the professional, but with the language of the heart, to be able to reunite that which is often separated-the body and the soul. This is a very spiritual approach which allows others to feel understood and to open to the cry of pain within them so that they can express this and transform their vision of themselves and their situation in the process. The aim is relationship focused rather than problem based, with the main emphasis on reaching people’s deeper selves so that they can express their highest aspirations and deepest values such as respect, dignity and freedom.
Jacqueline sees the mediation session as a communal meeting that provides an individual as well as a collective experience. The mediator invites the participants to concentrate on what has brought them to the session, and go to what is underlying their problem. The mediator mirrors back to them what they are saying and feeling through body language, silent presence, and summarising. For instance, they may say “ I am feeling uncertainty” or “I am feeling fear” or “I am feeling rejection”. It is interesting to ponder on the lessons from Laing regarding the importance of this close sharing of connection. The mediator sits with the person in their profound suffering. They name this suffering that perhaps has not been able to be spoken about or acknowledged. This allows that person to leave the “fortress of their convictions” and listen to what the other is expressing.
The mediators encourage the parties in this way to express their emotions, confront each other’s pain and to go beyond emotions which can be an endless source of pain from the past. They move the discussion from the acknowledgement of pain to the sharing of deep values personal to each, such as respect, dignity, liberty or love. This leads to release or overcoming of pain and a shift from the personal to shared values and interests, and from there to a new vision of the situation and the potential for mutual agreement. The important elements are:
- Explaining the perspective for each of the problem
- Sharing together in this moment the painful experience of the past
- Acquisition of a new shared view of the situation and the transformation of behaviour.
For me this triggers some very interesting parallels with Restorative Engagement, and the opportunity for healing around family disputes.
This method requires some very sophisticated soft skills on the part of the mediator. We must be able to set aside any suggestion of classifying, categorising, judging or confining people to roles. We must be free our minds to be able to concentrate on the body and its feelings. We need to become an empty receptacle of an inner space which receives an image from those we are working with and mirrors this back. We are silent, open to receiving this information, patient with what is growing within us, until we recognise that feeling and can convey this back. We must pay attention to the present moment through the sensations of the body and the breath. We must become a source of inspiration fore others and not a mirror for their own confusion. This is a very advanced skill which we realised as made our first tentative attempts to try out this humanistic method of mediation!