A Mediator’s Bookshelf

No matter what I’m reading, I try to see if it can help me better understand conflict. Insights can come from unlikely places if we are open to them. None of these books is specifically about mediation, although one is co-authored by a mediator. All have informed my thinking about conflict and my dispute resolution practice

White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism by Robin DiAngelo

Calls for white people to educate themselves about racism have come in the wake of police shootings and violence against African American men and women. While this book is flawed, it is a good place to start.

DiAngelo is a sociologist, and so her perspective on racism is a welcome change from psychological or individualistic accounts. She offers a clear explanation of structural or systematic racism. Racism not simply a matter of racist or ignorant individuals; it is equally something embedded in our laws and practices. She also draws on years of experience as a corporate “diversity trainer” to provide vivid examples of what she calls “white fragility” – the defensive manoeuvres that some individuals undertake to resist the idea that racism is real, and that their actions might support it.

White Fragility is written from an American perspective. (Canadian readers may be amused that participants in DiAngelo’s US-based workshops have told her, “I’m not racist. I’m Canadian.”) While Canadians are not immune to racism, its contours are different here than in the U.S. DiAngelo’s focus is anti-black racism, and she has little to say about anti-indigenous racism.

In my experience as a Toronto-based mediator, race is a complicating factor in many conflicts and failing to understand this can be a barrier to resolution. I have seen race play out in different ways in personal injury mediation, community disputes, workplace conflict, and restorative justice conferences. More than ever, dispute resolution professionals need to make the effort to understand the systemic nature of racism and white privilege. White Fragility deserves a place on the mediator’s bookshelf.

Less than Human: Why we demean, enslave, and exterminate others by David Livingstone Smith

If you looked at the title and thought, “That sounds depressing,” you’re right. Philosopher David Livingstone Smith draws on research in social science, history, and evolutionary psychology to explain why human beings de-humanize others. That is, how we can come to see our fellow human beings not as creatures like ourselves but as some kind of lesser beings. Dehumanizing others in this way is all too often the first step on the path to mistreatment.

Livingston provides a wealth of examples. The chapter on the de-humanization of North American native peoples by European colonizers is particularly relevant. These events seem far in the past, yet their reverberations extend to the present time. As I knew not much more than the outlines of this history, the material here was particularly eye-opening.

This book reinforced for me how important it is to listen to how people talk about those with whom they are in conflict, and whenever possible to reinforce the humanity of those on the “other side.”

Virtuous Violence: Hurting and killing to create, sustain, end, and honor social relations by Alan Page Fiske and Tage Shakti Rai

These authors offer a radically different analysis than Livingstone Smith, and indeed from most others who have thought about conflict and violence. Fiske and Rai argue that the motive for much violence is the regulation of social relations, and that people who commit violence feel that their cause is righteous – even morally required. They provide evidence from a variety of different cultures and historical eras.

People in conflict are rarely at their best, and as mediators we’re sometimes required to understand the perspective of people who hold positions that we may find offensive. This book helped me understand how actions can look “right” from the inside while being morally problematic to those on the outside.

Feast: Why Humans Share Food by Martin Jones

Did you know that human beings are the only animals to share food outside of our immediate social groups? Jones, an archeologist of food remains, investigates the history of the meal in order to understand why. He takes us from a prehistoric communal butchery of a wild horse after it is felled by a hunting party, to the emergence of the restaurant in 18th century Europe, to a contemporary solitary diner with a newspaper and TV dinner.

Feast prompted me to think about the ways in which humans come together, cooperate, and celebrate. Attention to the social dimension of food (as opposed to its nutritional value) gives us a new perspective on lavish buffets set up in mediation spaces.

Brainfishing: A Practice Guide to Questioning Skills by Gary Furlong and Jim Harrison

If you’ve had the pleasure of being in one of Gary Furlong’s courses, it will be no surprise that Brainfishing is lively, engaging, and full of practical wisdom. Asking questions is at the heart of mediation. We ask questions to unpack parties’ positions, understand their interests, and build rapport. The authors draw on recent research in neuroscience as well as their years of experience in mediation, negotiation, and consulting.

Brainfishing is well worth reading through, and also having to hand as a refresher.

About the image: “Part of a bookshelf containing books by ancient philosophers” a photo by Roman Eisele, Wiki Media Commons

Why we can’t get along: Confirmation Bias

Why is it sometimes so hard for people to get along?

I don’t have all of the answers, but something I see again and again in my work is confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek out information that confirms beliefs we already hold, and to disregard or even suppress information that conflicts with our beliefs. I explain it in the video above.

There are lots of examples. People tend to chose the news outlets and columnists whose worldview echoes their own. We’ve all heard of cases where the police fixed on a suspect and marshaled evidence for a conviction, only to later learn that someone else has confessed to the crime.

I see it happening in workplaces where one employee or manager comes to be seen as “the problem.” It is very hard for them to overcome the label.

How to escape confirmation bias? Suspend judgement. Keep an open mind, and consider accepting an olive branch if one is offered.

Unrepresented Parties in Mediation

The other day a young man called to ask if I could mediate a dispute between him and a developer over the return of his deposit on a pre-construction condominium. He desperately needed the money back. When I asked if he had a lawyer, he told me in frustration that he was an engineer, and he felt he could get this resolved without a lawyer. My heart sank, as I realized there was little chance he could be successful without the help of a lawyer.

By the time a party in a dispute gets to the stage of a mediation, he or she will have experienced enough of the legal system to feel demoralized and extremely frustrated. No doubt their dignity will have taken a hit at some point. Many unrepresented litigants report having been treated poorly. The mediation process should not be a further affront. As the mediator, control the process to ensure that it is fair and respectful.

  1. The ADRIC Code of Conduct 3.4 states that, “the Mediator shall, where appropriate, advise unrepresented parties to obtain independent legal advice.” I always suggest that parties without a lawyer get legal advice, and I keep a list of lawyers whom I feel are both effective and good with people. Parties in mediation should know that it isn’t too late to work with a lawyer. You can also suggest that they contact the Law Society of Ontario Referral Service for a referral and a free half-hour consultation.
  2. If you have stereotypes about the kind of people who forgo legal help, forget them now. A recent Ontario survey found that over half of the people attempting to represent themselves in court had a university education.
  3. Make sure that unrepresented parties understand that they will be responsible for half of the cost of mediation, including the mediator’s fees and any fees for renting space. If a lawyer on the other side offers to hold the mediator in his or her office to save on costs, make sure that the unrepresented party is comfortable with this.
  4. I explain to unrepresented parties before the mediation that we will probably start off with a joint session and later move to separate rooms, and that I will be going between the rooms. Therefore they might end up spending a lot of time alone, and if they want, it is OK to bring a friend or support person.
  5. Unrepresented parties often see the mediation session as a hurdle to jump over so that they can get in front of a judge. One of the mediator’s challenges is to get them to take the process seriously and as a real chance to resolve their dispute.
  6. Some lawyers, facing an unrepresented party on the other side of the table, go out of their way to be patient and respectful. Others, unfortunately, will struggle to work with someone who lacks expert knowledge. If you find a lawyer cannot hide her irritation and impatience towards an unrepresented party, take her aside and give her an opportunity to vent. Then make it clear that you expect a professional demeanor.
  7. It can also help to contextualize a lawyer’s behaviour. I have found many parties in mediation, whether they have their own lawyer or not, become convinced that the other party’s lawyer “doesn’t like them” and this is why the case won’t settle. I try to help parties understand that the lawyer’s job is to advocate forcefully for his or her client. The lawyer’s personal feelings rarely enter into it.

I have met mediators who refuse to work with unrepresented parties. No doubt, it is more challenging to convene a fair process when one party is at a strong disadvantage. Yet unrepresented parties are not going away. Mediators, like other parts of the legal system, must adapt to the challenge.

“Pillars of Justice” by Edwina Sandys. Photo by author.

Mediation: Help for Self-represented parties

The unfortunate reality is that unrepresented (self-represented) parties do not do well in the Canadian legal system. The Canadian courts are not designed for a DIY approach. Legal procedures are very complex and were never meant to accommodate non-experts.

A lot could be said about the wider societal trends and economic realities that compel so many people to show up in court without legal assistance. According to Statistics Canada, the number of unrepresented parties in Canada’s legal system is increasing. In Toronto close to 80% of litigants in family court are not represented by a lawyer, and in civil court (including personal injury, employment, and condominium matters), the number is 30-40%.

Dr. Julie MacFarlane leads the National Self-Represented Litigants Project (NSRLP) and has studied the issue extensively. She has found that the biggest challenge facing non-represented parties is unfamiliarity with legal procedure. This, combined with outsize expectations, leads parties who do not have the benefit of legal counsel to pursue their claims when they would likely to do better to settle them. I see both of these trends when I work with unrepresented parties. Many treat the mediation session as a hurdle to be mounted before they can appear before a judge. Unfortunately, they do not realize that mediation should be treated as an end in itself and may be their best chance for some kind of positive resolution.

Every year, some of those 30-40% of unrepresented litigants arrive for a mediation session with me. Sometimes they are plaintiffs in claims where the defendant is an insurance company. Sometimes they are condominium owners who are brought to mediation by their neighbours or by the condominium corporation. Almost without exception, the other party has legal counsel. I can’t speak for family mediators since I do not practice in that area. Here are some things that I would like unrepresented parties in civil mediation to know:

  1. Some people prepare for mediation and court by doing research in the form of reading case law. This is admirable, to be sure. However the danger is that, without a legal education, they do not understand the wider legal context in which the cases have been decided. Without this wider context it is very easy to misinterpret individual decisions. It can also be challenging to see the relevance of particular cases to your own situation.
  2. Even if a non-lawyer masters a specific area of law, he or she usually misses something that is equally important: an understanding of how lawyers think. Lawyers are advocates for their clients and their main concern is what is best for their client. Their role is not to ensure a fair outcome. (It is also not the mediator’s role to ensure a fair outcome. However a mediator does have to convene a fair process.)
  3. In order to give the best advice to their clients, lawyers consider what would happen if the case went to court. They weigh many factors, including damages and liability. “Damages” means the loss that the plaintiff has suffered, whether this is bodily harm (such as a broken leg caused by a car accident) or monetary loss (say, if a contract is not fulfilled.) “Liability” means (roughly) who is to blame, and to what degree. To convince a lawyer that you have a good case, you have to address both factors.
  4. The more evidence you can provide of damages and liability, the more likely you will be to convince a lawyer that her client should settle your claim. (If you a defendant, then the reverse applies: you need to provide evidence that you are not responsible for the other side’s damages.)
  5. If a lawyer believes that your case is weak, she will advise her client not to settle. If a lawyer does advise her client to make a monetary offer, it is because she believes that her client has some “exposure” or risk. This does not necessarily mean that she believes you could prevail in court. It might be enough that she believes you could get her client entangled in a court case.
  6. The mediator will ask both sides to provide a written document (a “brief”) outlining their position, and for each side to exchange this document with the other side. (I ask to receive this at least one week before the date of mediation.) When you receive the other side’s brief, study it carefully, as it will tell you where the other side perceives the weaknesses in your position.
  7. If the mediation fails, the next step is not necessarily a trial. Rather, it is likely that the represented party will move for a summary judgement. This means that the other party will ask a judge to rule that the claim has no reasonable chance of success and should be dismissed. According to Dr. MacFarlane’s research, a staggering 95% of these motions brought against unrepresented parties are successful.

To sum up: Mediation might be your best opportunity to settle your claim, so prepare. Bring your best evidence and arguments. Treat the mediation session as an end in itself and a real chance to resolve the dispute.

This may also be relevant: I’m in mediation. Why do I need a lawyer?

Breaking up a Business Partnership Doesn’t Have to Be a Trial

Men fightingA few months ago I wrote about Sam and John. They built a successful app together but personal conflict lead to a break-up of their business relationship. A large portion of their profit went to pay legal fees.

The legal mess cost them in other ways, too. It took up so much time and energy that other projects each wanted to pursue had to be put on hold. There were personal costs as well. The constant stress caused both men’s personal relationships to suffer.

Even if Sam and John had decided that they didn’t want to work together anymore, things could have ended differently. Too many business partnerships end up in costly litigation. It doesn’t have to be that way. Doing things differently can save money, time, preserve relationships, and protect your reputation.

Most people now know that, if your marriage breaks down, you don’t have to fight it out in court. But there is less awareness about alternative dispute resolution (ADR) for business partnership break-ups.

The two main forms of ADR are mediation and arbitration. Both are private, and both are likely to save you time and money.

In mediation, the parties sit down together with a neutral third party whose role is to facilitate discussion.  Mediation is very flexible and allows for creative solutions.  In the best case, mediation is a collaborative process; the parties exchange information and work towards a solution together.  Because the parties are working together to reach common goals, mediation can preserve and even strengthen relationships.

Arbitration is like a private trial, with the arbitrator acting as a private judge chosen by the parties.  (If the parties cannot agree on an arbitrator, one side may be able to ask the court to appoint the arbitrator.)  An arbitrator’s judgment is binding, like a court’s judgment, and can be appealed only in very special circumstances.  The arbitrator also has the power to decide costs.  This means that he or she can determine that one of the parties (usually the losing side) will have to pay the other side’s legal costs as well as their own.

Arbitration is more risky than mediation, because a third party is making the decisions. In mediation, the parties have control over the outcome, and you don’t have to agree to anything you don’t want to. Arbitration also tends to be more expensive than mediation.  Arbitrators charge more for their time than do mediators, and legal costs tend to be higher because it takes lawyers longer to prepare for an arbitration than for a mediation.  The advantage of arbitration over mediation is that, at the end of the process, there is an enforceable judgment and the dispute is over.  If mediation fails the parties may be left without a resolution.

As in the case of marital separation, each business partner should have independent legal advice. This is to make sure that each person understands their legal rights and responsibilities. (A lawyer cannot give “independent” advice to two parties in the same dispute.) Finding the right lawyer is crucial, if you mean to stay out of court.  When you’re consulting a lawyer, make sure that he or she is open to options other than litigation. If not, then the lawyer may not be a good fit. (Not convinced you need your own lawyer – or any lawyer? Read my “I’m in mediation. Why do I need a lawyer?”)

Finally, “Begin with the end in mind.” When setting up a business partnership agreement, include a clause that, in the event that the partnership is to be dissolved, the partners will try ADR before heading for court.

About the Image: Drawing by George Fitch, Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons.

Can this Partnership be Saved? (2)

(This is the second in an occasional series. Don’t miss the first installment.)

Sam and John are working together on an app they hope will dominate in its category on iTunes. Actually, John is doing most of the work. Sam is more an “ideas” guy. He also put up some capital to seed the project. Besides, Sam doesn’t have the time to do the actual development work. He has a family, a full-time job, and plays guitar in a pick-up band on the weekends. This collaboration with John is just one of several side projects. John is the “execution” guy. He’s single, has a part-time job to pay the bills, and spends the rest of his time on the app.

At the start, Sam and John agreed that they would share future profits from the app on a 50/50 basis. A couple of months in, both are unhappy about the arrangement although neither has said anything to the other. Sam is frustrated that the app isn’t ready yet and feels that John hasn’t worked hard enough. He also believes that, since the idea for the app was his and he put up the initial investment, his profit share should be greater than 50%. John feels like he is the one doing all the work and that Sam is treating him like an employee rather than a partner. He doesn’t see why Sam should be eligible for half of the profits, based solely on the strength of his idea and a little start-up money. Neither has any idea that the other is unhappy with the arrangement.

Can Sam and John’s partnership be saved?

Probably not, and almost certainly not without some drastic change or an outside intervention. Sam and John have two major challenges to overcome: Differing ideas as to what is “fair” and a pattern of conflict avoidance.

The perception of unfairness is one of the main sources of workplace conflict that I see. The idea that one person is working less hard or less effectively than someone else in the same role, or that rules are being applied in an arbitrary manner, can be corrosive of workplace relations. Similarly, the perception that a partnership structure is unfair, if not addressed, is likely to result in the dissolution of the partnership.

Sam and John are making different kinds of contributions to their business, and different kinds of contributions are notoriously difficult to measure against one another. Each of us has a bias towards thinking that our own contribution is the more valuable. So Sam thinks that ideas are the core of a successful business, and John thinks that the elegant software  development is the key to success. And if they were to join forces with a designer or marketer, that person would likely believe that her contribution was the most significant. This is only natural. Each of us knows how hard we’re working and what kind of a contribution we’re making. And we all too often have little insight into the work that goes into contributions made by others.

Now, this difficulty in itself can be overcome. There are lots of successful partnerships where the partners make different kinds of contributions and they’re able to come to a distribution of profit that seems fair to all. But it is unlikely that Sam and John will be able to overcome their differences and come to a shared understanding of what is fair if they continue to avoid the issue.

I can think of at least three ways in which their story might end.

1) Sam and John continue their pattern of non-confrontation. Neither tells the other how he feels. Sam doesn’t talk about his frustration that his ideas aren’t yet a reality. John doesn’t talk about how he feels undervalued. Resentment builds on both sides. John stops working on the app and the friendship deteriorates. Sam looks for another developer and chalks up the loss of time and money to experience.

2) Sam and John continue their pattern of non-confrontation until the app gets built and is a huge success. Money starts coming in. John’s friends tell him that the deal he made for half the profits wasn’t fair and advise him to get a lawyer. The lawyer files suit. Sam is outraged and hires his own lawyer. The former friends now only speak through their lawyers. A large portion of the money that the app has brought in goes to pay legal fees.

3) John tells his girlfriend about his frustration with Sam and with bringing the app to market. She advises him to confront Sam and tell Sam what he’s been feeling. She reminds him that not speaking up has cost him in the past. John realizes that, as much as he dreads conversations like the one he needs to have with Sam, knowing how to handle them is important. Another friend puts him in touch with a coach. They work together. When Sam finds out how John has been feeling, he’s pretty taken aback. Yet the two of them are able to sit down and work out a new delivery schedule and a profit sharing agreement that works for both of them.

Which ending would you rather see?

Will Mediation Make it Worse?

Elephant Charging by Vikram Gupchup

Sometimes the people who reach out to me recognize that they’re in a bad situation, but they fear that trying mediation (or some other type of intervention) will only make things worse.

There is a powerful appeal to simply living with the devil one knows. These people are coping. They know that things could be better, but they haven’t reached a crisis point where some kind of intervention seems necessary. If you’ll forgive another cliché, they see the elephant in the room but they fear that talking about it might provoke the elephant and cause a scene. And so they resolve to handle things as best as they can, sometimes venting to sympathetic friends and family.

The fear that intervening in a situation will make it worse is far from irrational. Sometimes an intervention does makes things worse. We’ve all heard about the person who went into hospital for some relatively minor matter and ended up with an antibiotic resistant infection.

Hospitals aside, for the most part only ill-timed or inept interventions make a conflict situation worse. When I first meet with clients and hear the history of their conflict, there is often a point at which a bad but stable situation deteriorates and becomes untenable. I can often trace that point of deterioration to some kind of intervention that went wrong. Maybe a manager intervened between two co-workers in a way that revealed a bias. Maybe harsh things were said that the speaker now regrets. Maybe an investigation didn’t probe deeply enough and felt more like a whitewash than an impartial inquiry.

So I can well understand the feelings of those who would rather put up with a difficult situation than take steps to change it. Once the elephant in the room has been acknowledged there is no going back to the days when everyone could see it but said nothing. That anticipation can increase anxiety.

When I’m working with a client who is struggling about whether to raise an issue or continue to live with things as they are, I often ask them to do this: Imagine it is one year from now. You’re getting up and getting ready for your day, and you know that this same issue is still alive. Nothing about it has changed. How do you feel?

Sometimes, when I ask someone to do this thought experiment, their face falls and they look stricken. The thought of living another year and confronting the same issue is just too much. At that point, they realize that they had better do something. Inaction and “coping” are no longer viable options, and they’re ready to let me help them.

An intervention by a mediator who has the skills, experience, and objectivity to assess a situation is unlikely to make things worse. A good mediator will help you send the message that you want to send, make sure that everyone has a chance to share their perspective, and generally ensure mutual respect.

Conflicts rarely go away on their own. You have to take action to resolve them, but you don’t have to do it on your own.

Moving On after Conflict

By BrokenSphere (Own Work)

While conflict can end a relationship, sometimes people have no choice but to continue their relationship after a conflict. Management and labour must work together after a strike, separating couples share decisions about their children and feuding neighbours may go on living side-by-side. Even opposing sides in a civil war must find ways to co-exist in the aftermath. How a conflict is managed makes a big difference in whether or not an ongoing relationship is tolerable.

Mediation is an excellent choice for resolving many kinds of disputes because it can preserve and even strengthen relationships. A mediation is basically a structured conversation. Mediators facilitate negotiation and help parties communicate with one another effectively so that they can craft their own resolutions. Mediation does not create “winners” and “losers.” Everyone can walk out of a mediation with dignity intact. Unlike judges or arbitrators, mediators do not impose solutions or make judgments. Instead parties in a dispute have control over the outcome of their conflict. This is important, because research indicates that people are more likely to respect a settlement if they have had a hand in shaping it.

Yet mediation is not always possible or advisable and sometimes a friendly resolution is out of reach. There are still things parties in a dispute can do to minimize the harm done by conflict.

Pick your battles. Think carefully before initiating or joining in a conflict. Is the issue really important to you? If it is, then deal with it as soon as you can. Confrontation may be uncomfortable, but letting things fester almost always makes them worse.

Is the conflict structural? Are the conditions that led to the present conflict likely to recur? If so, see what can be done to change those conditions. For example, have misunderstandings arisen because people have not had the same access to information? If the conflict is in a workplace, has weak or ineffective managment failed to intervene in the early stages of a potential problem?

Recognize your own part in what has gone on. It might be comforting to believe that one “bad apple” is responsible for the conflict. This is rarely the case. While one-sided conflicts exist, it is much more common that a conflict between two or more competent adults has been fed by contributions from all sides.  This does not mean, of course, that the contributions are necessarily equal.  Avoiding a conflict can prolong it, just as surely as can angry words. Recognizing one’s own share in a conflict is part of ensuring that it will not flare up again. At the same time, be aware that disruptive behavior may be a consequence of mental illness or addiction. Seek professional advice if you suspect this is the case.

Acknowledge hurt feelings and apologize if appropriate. Nearly everyone finds conflict stressful. A sincere apology or an acknowledgement of the other party’s feelings can be a powerful first step in helping everyone move on. Remember that feelings are legitimate, even if the reasons for the feelings may not be. Yet don’t apologize if you can’t be sincere. Most people are good at detecting insincerity, and an insincere apology usually makes things worse. (And whatever you do, don’t say, “I’m sorry but….”)

Want to know more about apologies? Try Apologies 101, Apologies 201 (Advanced Course), Asking for an Apology and Asking for an Apology (Part 2).

Don’t gossip. Even if your conflict has ended without formal confidentiality provisions, resist the urge to discuss it with others who may have been involved. Gossip is prohibited by the ancient moral codes of many cultures, from Judaism to Buddhism to Confucianism, because our ancestors recognized that although we may have an urge to engage in idle talk about others, to do so can damage social relations. If you need to discuss the conflict, find someone who is not involved.

Focus on what you can control – your own actions and responses. You cannot make another person apologize, take responsibility for their actions, or do the right thing. Yet you can control your own actions. You can choose to put the conflict behind you and behave with grace. You can choose to treat others with respect. And you can resist the impulse to define yourself and others through the lens of the conflict.

Finally, begin with the end in mind. When Steven Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, identified this as Habit No. 2, he had in mind the simple idea that we need to set a goal before taking action. This rule applies equally well to conflict situations. What kinds of relationships do you envision post-conflict? How do you want to see yourself when you think back over your actions? A clear sense of your own values and priorities should guide your behavior in the conflict and help you make decisions that you can be proud of later.

This post first appeared in a slightly different form in the May 2014 issue of Condo Business.