We all strive to develop practices that help us become better leaders, better practitioners, and 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, especially, 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 means. 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 mindfulness training at work to the proliferation of yoga studios and mindfulness books, 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. But mindfulness can’t be tacked on to the end of a to-do list or scheduled in. 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 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. Let us explore the role of mindfulness in conflict, and how a mindful mediator can change the tide of a conflict.
Most broadly, mindfulness refers to attention-training practices. Honing your observations into an awareness of thoughts and feelings is at the foundation of being mindful. This sounds simple, but it can be incredibly challenging. Being aware of all these components means accepting them: if we are busy judging our feelings or someone else’s, we aren’t being very observant of our thoughts. 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 heighten, and our tendency toward reactiveness (and away from mindfulness) increases. Perfect mindfulness would 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.
So, what is a mediator’s role in the practice of mindfulness? Effective mediators assist people in a dispute as they dig deep to access their knowledge and skills that can de-escalate conflict. When people experience conflict that clouds their vision and preoccupies them with the underlying pain, hurt feelings, and misunderstanding, the process is complicated and, possibly, hampered. Mediators rely on their own mindfulness to draw out the parties’ inherent wisdom of how to resolve conflict. By observing the moment-by-moment situation without judgment of the disputants, their feelings, or their responses, a mediator can choose strategies to facilitate problem solving discussions. It may be a literal recounting of their mindful observations, reflecting what they have heard and seen while prompting clarification when necessary. But it is also the embodied practice of mindfulness by a mediator which can help to transform a conflict: A seasoned mediator sets the tone of the mediation with his or her calm presence, ideally creating a calm environment in which conflict can be addressed.
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 is one of eight Maryland mediators featured on a statewide demonstration video of good mediation practice. Ellen is certified by the International Mediation Institute. She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse clients in Washington, DC and the US. Get in touch with her via email, and follow her on LinkedIn, and Twitter.