One of the most difficult things a mediator must do is resist judging the outcome of a mediation before it convenes. If we pre-judge the dispute we won’t engage in active listening. We’ll be listening through the ears of our judgment.
It’s so easy to lapse into thinking that we know what the problem is and how to solve it. We are not problem-solvers; we are conversation catalysts who have to remain objective so that we can help advance the dialogue between the disputants. We can serve as mirrors of self-reflection. We can play devil’s advocate with each disputant and ask if there are other ways that they can characterize and define the dispute, and look at it from the opposing party’s point of view. But the second that we think we got what the “real” problem is, something will come up with the disputants that will shatter our carefully organized solution.
The way each disputant sees the problem is different. They look at the events that led to the conflict through the prism of their own experiences, values or method of approaching the situation in dispute. People never entirely agree on the details, and don’t tell their entire story in their briefs; they either don’t remember everything that led to the dispute, or they may not want to explain everything in advance. Purposely leaving information out is part of some people’s recounting, but not everyone’s.
By not engaging in advance problem-solving the mediator has a much harder job. Mediators are a much more active part of the mediation by not pre-judging; we are distanced from the mediation if we aren’t working in present moment awareness of the dynamics unfolding in front of us. I’ve seen mediators guide disputants in the direction of where they thought the solution should be; I’ve seen disputants reluctantly accept terms that didn’t completely suit them because of the mediator’s influence.
Listening without judgment is the most important thing a mediator can do. The parties trust us with their cases. We have a huge responsibility to the disputants who allow us to mediate their cases. In order to act in the best interest of the mediation process, we must listen without judgment and without problem-solving. Seriously hard to do!