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The Mindful Mediator

  • Posted by: Ellen Kandell


We all strive to develop practices that help us become better leaders, better practitioners, better team members. And given that so many of these goals rest on interpersonal relationships, this means developing practices to navigate misunderstandings, diverging viewpoints and, inevitably, conflict.

Mindfulness can be a crucial mental tool for handling interpersonal interactions, but this term has become so popular that it’s not always clear what it entails. In this newsletter I explore the role of mindfulness in conflict, and how a mindful mediator can change the tide of a conflict.

Today “mindfulness” has become a mainstream meme for dealing with the hectic fray of modernity while still trying to cultivate some inner peace and meaning in our lives. From The Huffington post’s “3rd Metric” page, to mindfulness trainings at work, to the yoga studios popping up all over our communities, we are being encouraged to address the physical and mental fallout from lives lived on the run by being more mindful. Conflict, too, we often say, will benefit from a mindful approach – it’s a word that admittedly shows up frequently in my posts. But mindfulness can’t be tacked on to the end of a to-do list or scheduled in like an extra Bikram class. Changing a situation through mindfulness requires altering your approach while the scenario plays out. This is not a small challenge – especially when tensions run high.

In conflict, a mediator takes on the task of extra mindfulness. As a neutral with some separation from the mired personal interests and feelings of the disputing parties, a mediator’s energy goes into adding a dose of mindfulness to the conflict and doing his or her best to then make that perspective accessible to disputants in order to change the outcome.

This post is about how mindfulness fits into a mediator’s practice, and how it can make a mediator a vital addition when it comes to transforming a conflict.

Mindfulness in conflict

Most broadly, mindfulness refers to attention-training practices. Honing your observations into a “moment-by-moment awareness of… thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment.” This sounds simple, but it can be incredibly challenging.  Being aware of all these components in simultaneity means accepting them: if we are busy judging our feelings or someone else’s we aren’t being very observing of our thoughts, for example. Mindfulness is about letting the observations filter in without all the attachments we often have to whether something feels pleasant or unpleasant, or if it seems right or wrong. This is why so many proponents of mindfulness emphasize mindfulness practices such as meditation. It’s often necessary to develop mindful habits in a space that is insulated from the push and pull of immediate life pressures.

In conflict situations, our emotions are intensified, and our tendency towards reactiveness (and away from mindfulness) heightens – otherwise why would we have found ourselves in conflict at all? Perfect mindfulness would itself keep a disagreement from escalating into conflict, but life can blindside us and catch us off balance, especially when we are under pressure at home or work to meet deadlines. Thus once you find yourself caught up in conflict, the mindfulness you practiced in your morning meditation might help you keep it from worsening, but you may not be able to call on the mindfulness that is necessary to sort it out. It’s not an expression of failure to recognize that – in fact, it would be a mindful observation to see that communication has really fallen through and that you and your fellow disputant(s) might need a new perspective.

A Mediator’s Mindfulness

Now I’m going to back track for a moment.   People in conflict often generate their own transformations and solutions.   That is the opportunity that is inherent in conflict. As a mediator, it is a privilege to assist  people in a dispute so they can access their own inherent wisdom needed to get beyond it. What is, however, frequently missing is the ability to access that wisdom, because the conflict has clouded their vision and a preoccupied them with the underlying  pain, hurt feelings, high stakes, and misunderstanding.

A mediator’s mindfulness thus attempts to draw out that wisdom. Intensely observing the moment-by-moment situation without judgment of the disputants, their feelings, or their responses, a mediator can choose from a myriad of strategies to facilitate problem solving discussions. It may be a literal recounting of their mindful observations, at times “mediators act like translators, repeating back what they have heard [or seen or felt] and asking for clarification when necessary.” But it is also the embodied practice of mindfulness by a mediator which can help to transform a conflict: “Ideally, in mediation a mediator moves from a doing mind into a being mind that models for the parties calmness and smooth energy.  Once the business of the opening statements and information gathering are done, the mediator shifts into a different mindset and posture.  The mediator is setting the tone and the standard of the mediation simply through his or her presence.  Calm helps to create calm.

Recognizing the value of mindfulness in our busy and stressful lives means being able to recognize when we’ve lost hold of it, and this may often be the case in conflict. In this case, consider calling on the mindfulness of a mediator to bring the benefits of this mental practice back into your life when you, your family, or your colleagues might need it most!

Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.

Author: Ellen Kandell

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