Too Hot to Handle!

Someone once gave me a cup holder with the words ‘Joe Bloggs never mediates anything too hot to handle!’ Well apart from my usual distaste for American glitch it got me thinking what sorts of disputes we might not wish to handle. Therefore Joe Bloggs might have been telling a few porkies if there was something that he ought not to accept. We all like challenges and there is hardly a mediator I know who is a shrinking violet when it comes to saying ‘nay thank you’. So what guidelines should I give?

I start from the premise that parties always should be willing to negotiate no matter how awful the other side may seem in the eyes of the first. We have seen what I call seemingly intractable disputes (what Peter Coleman in his book calls the 5% – Finding solutions to seemingly impossible conflicts). Well we have all seen how parties tend to demonise each other, and far too often one is left wondering how the hell two or more perfectly normal level headed and seemingly nice people got thus far. Maybe it is that demonization which takes them beyond the pale so that in the mind of the other they become untouchable and far too irrational to sit around the table doing deals with in a mediation. Take for example a mediation I recently did between two brothers both farmers and farmers of the same jointly owned farm. Incredible though it might seem, neither had actually spoken to the other since 1988. You need to take it back to the play pen almost to see how the dispute might have developed, with the parents doing something that perhaps acted as the trigger point. Anyway the real bone of contention wasn’t the 400 odd acres which ultimately were easily dividable; but it was a small patch of ground known as the ‘pound’ that in times gone by had been used as a village pillory. That little piece of ground owned by brother B was in brother A’s garden. Giving it up meant giving up control that B might have in the future over his elder brother. Suffice to say they did meet and they did talk about uncontentious things leaving the nitty gritty stuff to be dealt with elsewhere.

My point is that time is both the great healer and also the receptacle of greater memories of hurts long gone by but not forgotten or forgiven. I suppose they were within the 5% that Coleman talks about. It’s worthwhile remembering five basic questions that are useful for most conflicts :

· What are A and B’s interests?

· What are both their alternatives to negotiation?

· Would a deal satisfy both parties interests better than those alternatives to negotiation?

· What are the costs implications of negotiating or not negotiating?

· If they reach some sort of deal what would be the prospect of it being implemented?

So even in the most intractable self-perpetuating disputes like that between Israelis and Palestinians there is a golden rule never say no to the opportunity of negotiating as the answers to these questions shouldn’t be looked at negatively because the other side are perceived as so awful that nothing agreed will be implemented anyway. The alternative just isn’t worth thinking about and won’t satisfy those base line interests – unless your principles are akin to those of Isis. I may dwell a little on this theme of being too hot to handle during my forthcoming trip to Israel and Palestine or Judea and Samaria or Land of Caanan – whoever thought history wasn’t complicated!

Musings on empathy

I am due to travel shortly to Israel and Palestine. No my mission isn’t to resolve the conflict there. It is for a small kid’s charity called ABCD Bethlehem. I wanted to digress a little and discuss empathy particularly in mediations. I was at a trustee meeting for a mediation charity last night and our CEO said that he had an offer he couldn’t resist from another charity rescuing animals and he showed us lots of cuddly pictures of animals, with commensurate responses from all my co-trustees. It is easy to be empathetic to what you see that’s nice and cuddly whether that is for animals or disabled children in a conflict zone; it is more difficult to be empathetic about people having difficult discussions within a mediation. Look at the website and you will see starchy lawyers and smartly dressed clients around the table – maybe they are shaking hands. Some websites go all natural with pictures of flowers, trees or rolling fields – maybe that is supposed to make us feel all cosy about conflict resolution. In reality conflict is bloody and a messy business.


So like the box of chocolates we tend to show the end result the handshake and the glow of contentment following the settlement over the stresses and strains of actually getting there. I have always thought that we are terribly lucky being mediators as we briefly enter into the very private lives of those in conflict; we exude confidence patience and empathy with a firm handle on controlling the process. Being empathetic means the ability to understand and share the feelings or experiences of others by putting yourself in their shoes. That rapport building with each party is one of the essential skills if not the essential skills that make mediation work. But I often ask myself where empathy ends and sympathy begins. We are told that being sympathetic to the views and opinions of one party is a cardinal sin – absolutely verboten! But like the cuddly animals in the picture it’s so easy for some of us to turn that impartial rapport into something akin to bias.

Suspending one own bias and stopping that internal evaluative tendency isn’t as easy as it seems. Getting inside the dispute into the eyes ears and minds of each party, and getting the message across that you do understand how they feel without going over the top isn’t as easily learn skill. If party A tells you privately that he absolutely cannot stand party B in the other room and gives you a very grisly story, your tendency is to gloss over the grisly bits and tell it differently in the other room – we called it reframing. Of course it is easier to let the parties lose in a joint meeting when they can expound their emotions at will. Tempering those emotions and extreme positions into digestible messages whilst acknowledging the strength of each parties’ feelings in an empathetic way is the balancing act we all have to achieve – and sometimes it is easier to be a referee in joint caucus than being the messenger twixt one room and the other.


I recently stayed the night in the Tower of London in the same tower as Anne Boleyn and Sir Thomas More. It was an enormous treat of course, but it made me think about ‘incarceration’ in the sense of separation from ordinary life. We live in an age where communication is incredibly easy – at the flick of an IPhone you can communicate with the world. Having that freedom is easily taken for granted. When I think of prisoners in the Tower or wherever I am reminded that freedom to talk to those we wish to communicate with gives us the choice of not only who to communicate with but the quality of that contact.

Hitler’s Loo

Although we have a very much shared humanity, we tend to become typecast by race, creed, religion, background, economic resources, nationalism and all those other facets of nature and nurture than destiny throws at us. So all of us come with our own value systems and prejudices that may or may not colour how we look at those who are not like us – so much for the neutrality of mediators! Outside the extremes of fight or flight, we can communicate our views or our responses to the views of others as we are able to do so – we are free to do so. Where conflict arises there is a tendency to adopt positional stances as we categorise these as either right or wrong, perhaps more so given our legal training where we are governed by rights and obligations. In reality most of the time there is no absolute right or wrong, but variations of the truth and of course loads of other issues and concerns in the background. The resolution of conflict is more about acknowledging and appreciating each other’s differences and finding a solution that fits. We often use the words ‘we have agreed to disagree’ but that doesn’t mean that the dialogue wasn’t constructive. You are still left with the question – well what are we going to do about it?

We hear a lot about the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians about which we all no doubt have very firm views and opinions that I am not going into now. That takes me back to ‘incarceration’ where you are locking in or locking out the views of others – in other words you are emasculating constructive dialogue. If you lock the door and throw away the key, the quality of communication between you both is hardly likely to be productive. In Nelson Mandela’s years of incarceration he couldn’t have had many opportunities to communicate – I believe he talked about the close bond he developed with one of his prison guards. That may have been one small step on the way to changing hearts and minds, but it was nothing compared to the power of brilliantly articulated forgiveness and reconciliation after his release.

Walled in Warned out

Locking out Jewish Israelis from Palestinian areas and locking in Palestinians in increasingly smaller areas, and the adopting of gradually more and more extreme positions destroys what Jonathan Sachs calls the dignity of Diversity in his book of the same name. As someone outside looking in and experiencing the generosity kindness and genuine humanity of those on either side, with no holds barred as to where I went and who I talked to, I really felt that this surely reflects God’s goodness. If they could be as nice to me as a stranger in their midst, what prevented them from experiencing the same warm feelings as I did. I could if I wished voice an opinion and I have many, in a principled sort of way – so I was adopting sides when I did. But that shouldn’t stop us all as mediators and facilitators from standing up for solutions over adopting sides. So out there the message should be not I am pro-Palestinian or Pro Israeli and encouraging dislike and disrespect for the other side, but I am pro-Solution which means enormous sacrifices of principle over pragmatism and energised humanity. So this blog begins with a simple plea that blessed are the peacemakers. Bring back compassion understanding and forgiveness over retaliation and incarceration.