Saturday, November 13, 2010

Nonviolent communication as intervention

We were co-mediators, a former student of mine and I. We were asked to help mediate a conflict between a family and a non-profit organization. Of course the circumstances are confidential, but the lessons that emerged for me are provocative and weave the ethos of nonviolent communication into the competencies we strive toward in conflict transformation. Working with the parties, we helped enable them to transform the conflict from destructive to constructive.
Yes, the conflict is still there and it will flare up, but they all worked so hard, and pushed through so much pain, that I am impressed by the willingness to suffer the slings and arrows in the pursuit of something so elusive. They hurt each other over the period of weeks and multiple mediation sessions. They despaired. I despaired. My mediation partner despaired--somewhat.
But she and one of the family members seemed to have the most hope. I was dubious; how could people hurt one another so roughly, with such pointed words, and fix it? I had gone from overly optimistic to decidedly pessimistic, mirroring the wild swings of behavior from the most pained family members and nonprofit staff. And those of us who were the most doubtful about the chances for salvaging the relationship were the ones who spoke the most.
Charges. Counter-charges. The family v the organization. It was a conflict that involved children, so emotions erupted explosively, when hot buttons were pushed. I made too many observations, thinking they were somehow from a place of cooler professionalism, but the hottest members of both groups only used my statements as evidence of the others' bad faith.
Meanwhile, a family member, the Grandmother, who said little, and my co-mediator were doing the actually helpful communication. At one point, deep into the third of our four sessions, she told the lead of the nonprofit, "We asked for a mediation because you talked over us, you wouldn't listen."

There had been so many charges and countercharges by that time that the nonprofit leader simply treated that as yet another unfair accusation. But the seed was planted and it was done in a place of safety, which is sometimes all a mediation can provide. A place where those who don't listen can finally be told that.
The circumstances of the various episodes that had been described, all the events that led to and fed the elaborate character attacks were relegated to their proper, less relevant place, but that took some intervening time and another mediation session. The Grandmother had calmly stated the greater truth. There was no heat in that statement, only light.
My co-mediator did the heavy spade work. She pulled out the deeper information from the parties, probing, eliciting, turning to each of the aggrieved and asking them, in turn, to paraphrase each other, teaching us all better active listening. Finally, they seemed to feel, someone is actually helping us search for what is wrong.
Before the final session I had privately expressed strong doubts about chances for real progress. My mediation partner had said, well, we aren't going to show any of that--unhopeful is unhelpful. We don't want to discourage them from doing that eleventh hour miracle.
She was spot-on. We were mediating in a special room at a special time at another nonprofit organization gracious enough to host us. The staff person was sweet but clearly needed a commitment from us to vacate the room and the building by 6:30 p.m. We promised and I meant it. By this time, after this many sessions, all the parties knew I would end the session on time.
And so, at 6:26, four minutes before The End, my mediation partner asked for commitment from each party to honor the new boundaries that had emerged from her queries of the most angry and vocal parties. I started packing up the medation paraphernalis--the water pitcher, the glasses, the pens and pads of paper--and each of them flipped and made those commitments.
These people were making dates as we left. They were agreeing to regard some of the others' areas as essentially sacrosanct. The nonprofit people would not appear to be telling the family members how to parent their children or the children how to treat their parents. The family members would not second guess all the ways in which the nonprofit staffers conducted their activities.
Poor is the pupil who does not surpass his master.
— Leonardo da Vinci
'Aphorisms', in The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, trans. E. MacCurdy (1938 ), Vol. 1, 98.
It was a diving catch, a beautiful thing to watch, to sweat through alongside everyone, and from which an elder like me could learn yet more lessons from his former student. The obverse of Leonardo's judgment about pupils is that it is a poor teacher whose student does not surpass him. It was my joy to be surpassed by my former student. Her emotional intelligence was far more dispositive in the end than all the cognitive case building. She and the Grandmother were the keys to breaking the logjam of destructive conflict, turning it into a knitting project for peace.

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