Suits of Armour

Posted: Category: Personal, Reflections, Conflict and Mediation

 Nigel Singer

Are you carrying too much around with you?

One of the things that tends to occur when we get into conflict with someone else is that we get hurt.

When we get hurt our inclination is to try to protect ourselves.

We often do this by donning a suit of armour, a protective layer which has the purpose of stopping us receiving further hurt from the other person.

The consequence of putting on the armour is that the other person then sees someone in front of them in a suit of armour, perhaps carrying a sword.  This can seem threatening to them.  So what do they do, they put on their own suit of armour in case they might get hurt by the armoured, sword wielding person in front of them.

Our experience from inside the armour is that we feel vulnerable and that what we are doing is a good way to protect ourselves.  To other people we can look aggressive and possibly dangerous.

We now have two people wearing armour, weighed down by it but also protected by it.  Each of them are waiting for the other to stop being so threatening.  Neither of them will take off their armour because it is of course protecting them.

We have a situation that can last for excessive amounts of time.  My relationship with my dad looked like this and was uncomfortable for both of us for 30 years.  30 years of pain, distress and we and other people being negatively affected.  The armour becomes normal after a while, we stop noticing that we are carrying it with us, it’s just who we are.  In fact it can get bigger and heavier, we pick up more weapons and shields, get a thicker breast plate in case our heart gets hurt.

Clearly it is okay to protect ourselves – especially when an event triggers us into putting on our armour, the question is how long might we want to carry it around with us?

Some situations seem to demand that we keep it in place, situations of abuse or where we are at the lower end of a huge power imbalance.  Situations where in our estimation it genuinely isn’t safe to remove it.

As a mediator I have individual meetings with people in dispute.  Part of what I am trying to assess and that I talk about with them, is whether it is safe enough for them to take part in a mediation meeting with the other party where they might be able to take off some of their armour.

It’s always a risk to take off our armour – to show our vulnerability – but it is the only way of creating change.

If you can take the risk of removing a bit of your armour – it invites the same response in the other person.  They may not be able to join you but they will feel the difference.

What it does for you is that it makes you lighter, more open and more ready for change.

We often need help to do this, to be in a safe enough environment with sufficient support but it changes our lives when we do it.

Which bit of your armour do you need to put down?

The Mediator as healer

Posted: Category: Conflict and Mediation

 Nigel Singer

About 5 years ago, whilst on a process oriented psychology course, we were dealing with issues of our own identity, exploring our bigger self – the thing that drives and motivates us.  The exercise had a shamanic aspect and was not using rational, intellectual processes.  What appeared for me through the process was an identity as a healer.

My immediate reaction was one of discomfort and awkwardness.  It somehow felt too big or weird or unlike my general view of myself – the temptation was to push it away and give it no more notice.

To some extent I succeeded, I got on with my life, worked with conflict and only occasional thought about healing.

Recently though it has resurfaced, and this time it has come back again as a body based experience whilst on another course.  I wasn’t looking for it, it found me.

To be comfortably English about this I feel discombobulated – do I ignore it again or do I try it on for size and see what happens?

If I do pick up this identity how do I do what I do through this filter?  Who am I if this is the approach I take to my work, my relationships and in fact to any interaction?

To explore this it seems important to think about my views and prejudices about healing?

From the initial experience, I noticed that my reaction was to view healing as something to do with the ‘laying on of hands’, and that this was mainly oriented towards helping the body.  I did this despite recognising that healing has many forms and works on all aspects of our humanness, but my prejudices were intact and working well – which of course meant that I wasn’t a healer.

As I thought more about healing I gently allowed myself to think about working with conflict as a form of healing, even though I continued to identify working with the mind and emotions as somehow less significant, from a healing perspective, than working with or through the body.

After the second experience of being told I was a healer – I felt as if I had to pay attention. 

So, when I engage with people as a mediator, what is my underlying intent?  Why am I making this engagement?  Is it to earn money, is it a job or is it something deeper.  For me it is all of these – I earn a living and it is a vocation, something I discovered that delights and fascinates me and in which I have built some ability.

My intent has often been to help, to see if I can support a conflict to unfold, so that the way forward becomes clear.  I have looked at my own need to feel good by ‘sorting’ the parties and believe I am not driven by this any longer (I was when I started).

If I pick up the healer aspect, what happens?  Is the experience different or new, does my intent change, do I or they behave differently?

I have yet to discover, this feels like a work in progress and I will happily receive any help that is offered.

Whichever aspect of a person I engage with, I am involved in a process of healing and I need to face this directly.  It is bigger than earning a living or feeling good that I helped within a dispute.  It is about saying clearly that mediation offers an opportunity to heal and then dealing with the consequence of this statement.

The consequences run in two directions; toward me and to the people that I work with.

When looking at the impact on me, does this internal stance change me?   My immediate thought is something to do with responsibility.  My usual stance as a mediator is to say that I have a responsibility to the people I work with but not for them – this stance offers me a bit of psychological distance and I believe helps me care without becoming over involved – I can be effectively multipartial.

As a healer, who happens to mediate, I have a sense that this responsibility has shifted but I’m not yet sure how.

Part of my limited understanding of ‘healing’ is that it is something that occurs through the healer – it is not them doing healing, rather that they provide a channel that enable the healing to occur.  The system ‘knows’ what it needs and the healer provides an opportunity for this to start to happen.  The healer needs to clear some space in themselves to support this movement through them and so will have required some training, healing and support for this to happen.

Is this different from the practice of interactive/facilitative mediation?

I am in uncharted territory – I want to know if others who happen to mediate also share this sense of identity, are you at ease with it, does it help or hinder.  Do you talk about it with clients?  If you don’t, what might happen if you did?  Can I offer my services as a healer rather than as a mediator?

How does faith or the lack of it influence this conversation?

At its best, mediation has had its magic moments, those times when my presence becomes irrelevant, the parties have moved into their own process and no longer need any assistance.  Something that had been broken has been fixed, perhaps even healed.  The parties have stepped through a pain into a different relationship.  My interventions have been graceful and fluid – I have been part of something much bigger than me.

Any thoughts, ideas or help will be appreciated on this journey.

Training Mediators

Posted: Category: Conflict and Mediation, Training

 Nigel Singer

It’s been a few months since I last trained a group of mediators and I had almost forgotten the pleasure of this process.

People in organisations come on this sort of course because they are looking to develop their skills - they get this but they also get challenged, pushed and nudged into a different way of thinking.

Most of us, whatever our job or hierarchical level, spend much of our time as paid problem solvers.    This may be about deciding which room to clean first or whether or not to merge with a particular company.  This tendency with our tasks can overlap into how we deal with people.  Someone presents us with a problem that they have and we often try to sort it (or them) out.

We feel like we have to give answers and know the right thing or suggestion to make.

Training in interactive mediation requires a letting go of this tendency, sitting back and letting the parties deal with the situation.  It takes some time and effort – and often some discomfort in quietening our desire to ‘sort it’.

In order to become a skilled mediator we also need to have a good understanding of the mediation process and possibly more importantly, we need to be able to manage our reactions to others’ conflictual behaviour.   This requires us to look at our own relationship to conflict and our conflict history – which is not always a comfortable journey.

The pleasure of being the trainer is that of guiding people through this journey; helping them stop problem solving and to become more confident with allowing conflict to happen.

They need to become conflict enablers.  Well that’s a new thought!

 Nigel Singer

This post has a workplace orientation but I hope it is also relevant in other contexts.

It is important to remember that most disagreements never escalate into conflict. Usually an event happens, you say something, the other person says, "Oh sorry about that" and both of you are satisfied. What turns a disagreement into a conflict is when you say something and you don't get the response you hoped for. Instead you are ignored, not taken seriously, not listened to, dismissed as trivial, not acknowledged or get what seems to be an over-reaction.One of the key principles to dealing effectively with a conflict situation is to separate your reactions from responses.  A reaction is where I don't feel as if I have a choice about what I am saying, feeling or doing whereas when I make a response I have moved to an internal place where I can choose what I say and how I say it.

  1. In a moment of conflict try to pause - take a breath - in this way you can start to step out of your reaction and move towards a response.
  2. Pay attention to the other person’s tone. If they are 'out of character' there is probably a reason for this. Try and ask them a neutral question like "I'm not following what you mean, can you say a bit more"
  3. It is easy to criticise what is not okay about someone else's behaviour, but you also need to think about the positive things that you want (e.g. asking to be treated respectfully)
  4. If you are feeling really negative you will need to find a way of letting go of some of this. Talk to someone you trust and express lots of your negativity, this can free you to think more creatively.
  5. Remember that both of you will have your own perspectives and understandings of the situation. If you can, put yourself into the other person's shoes it may help you gain some insight about what action to take.
  6. Pay attention to power. It is easy to notice the power you don't have in a situation but what are you doing with the power you do have? What influence do you have?
  7. Everyone in your place of work is busy so you need to make time for a potentially difficult conversation but remember that the earlier you take action the better.
  8. Don't wait for them to do something - take responsibility for changing the situation.
  9. Plan what you want to say and then gather your courage. Relax, breathe, write it out if this helps you.
  10. Go and see them - don't use email or text or phone, do it face to face wherever possible. Be prepared to listen more than you talk.

Dealing with conflict often feels difficult and for many of us it is something we would rather avoid. It takes effort and is sometimes risky but a small stretch out of our comfort zone can sometimes stop a conflict escalating to truly damaging proportions.A version of this article appeared in the Times Educational Supplement

Relating to Conflict - part 3

Posted: Category: Conflict and Mediation

 Nigel Singer

Positions, interests and needs

Understanding positions, interests and needs are the fundamental requirement to dealing with any conflict situation.

  • A position is the behaviour that appears on the surface, it is known and visible.
  • An interest is what we actually want, it is often unknown and invisible.
  • Needs are our fundamental requirements (like safety and belonging) that drive our interests.

A position is a stance that we take in a difficult situation that we presume will get us what we want.  Positions are often ‘unexamined’; they are a loud and direct reaction to a given stimulus.

‘Just go to your room’

‘I want him sacked’

‘Why do you never wash the dishes?’

‘How dare you say that to me?’

‘You’re a complete incompetent’

Shouting at another driver due to road rage

These are all examples of positional statements, they are what comes out of our mouths when we are frustrated, angry, had enough or can’t take any more.  At one level, they are our attempt to get us what we want.  They often contain lots of emotion, sometimes clearly expressed sometimes hidden within the statement.

These statements are often heard by others as if they are coming out of the mouth of a persecutor, although when we say them we are usually feeling like the victim of someone else’s persecution.

They are the tip of an iceberg and in order to work effectively with conflict we need to explore the interests that lie under the surface.

Let’s use road rage as an example:

I’m driving happily along and someone turns out of a minor road in front of me causing me to slam on the brakes to avoid driving into them.

I then swear loudly, flash my lights, beep my horn and drive very close to them.  All of these are positional reactions to the situation.

As the driver, what happened to me when the car pulled out?

I was shocked and possibly scared, I reacted by braking quickly and then the rest of my reaction got channelled into aggressive behaviour.  What is seen by the other driver is my aggression not my fear.

What did I want? 

Generally, I want other road users to drive safely so that my life doesn’t get threatened.  In this example, my interest is that other road users drive with care and my need is that my own safety is maintained.

What’s the likely consequence of my positional behaviour.  The driver who pulled out may be embarrassed or even humiliated by having driven poorly, my aggression may spark their aggression back to me and at its worst, both cars stop and the drivers get out and start fighting.

The underlying need for both people is their safety and they are now fighting in the middle of the road – this is often the consequence of conflicts that remain at a positional level, it may not be a physical fight but it is often some form of fight.

Let’s look at another example

I was talking with a medical advocate – a woman who works with people who are upset or angry at the way that they or someone close to them, have been treated by the medical services.

It was in the middle of a mediation training course and I asked the group if they had any examples of using the position and interest concept since I had last seen them.

She said that a client had come to her, very angry about how her husband had been treated by the ambulance service.  He was ill and dying, the ambulance service took a long time to get to him and he died before they arrived. She was blaming the ambulance service and full of emotion – this was her position.  The advocate acknowledged her emotion and started asking her client what it was she wanted.  During a long conversation what emerged was that the client had always promised her husband that she would make sure he died at home.  On this day as he had become increasingly ill she ended up calling the ambulance and telling him that this is what she had done.  He died before they arrived but she felt awful because this was the last conversation she had with him and she felt that she had broken her word to him.

The advocate helped her to talk about this and then pointed her toward some help for her distress.

For me it is a stark and powerful story of someone feeling really bad and needing to blame someone else, the ambulance service.  By recognising that something was driving the bad feeling, the advocate was able to get at the interest and the needs (feeling guilty and needing recognition). The outcome hopefully will be much more beneficial for the client than a potential pursuit of the ambulance service for financial compensation or an apology, neither of which would have directly addressed the interests or needs – and in fact may have left them entirely unspoken.

 Nigel Singer

Changing my mind about conflict My last post finished with the suggestion that we should change our mind about conflict and I want to start to explore what this means.

‘Changing my mind’ is a phrase I have stolen from my partner, who wanted to reclaim it from its usual negative connotation and meaning and instead, use it as a way of making a deliberate and positive choice.

So, what I am suggesting is that when we are in conflict and viewing it as ‘bad’, it may help us if we can change our mind and see it in a different light.

Let me take a couple of examples to explore......

You are a parent and your young child is having a tantrum in the middle of a supermarket.

There are many possible reactions and the one I saw today was the parent starting to shout at the child who then got even louder and more distressed.

Changing your mind in this situation is tough because you may be grappling with a sense of embarrassment, feeling very visible and perhaps being judged as a ‘bad’ parent.  The parent will also be running into a bunch of ‘rules’ that exist inside them about how they are meant to behave.  These are the rules that we all have - the ones that define our sense of what is normal.  The issue with these rules is that we often don’t know we have them until they get broken.

To change your mind, you may need to take a breath and internally go ‘my child is upset about something, I wonder what it is?’

This might enable you to stay relaxed and find a way of interacting with your child other than just shouting.  The process of changing your mind is about being able to look at the same situation in a new manner – it requires an effort.

Your boss...

A different example might be that your boss at work, who you usually get on well with, has been abrupt, short and a bit aggressive with you for the last week. You are confused, upset and hurt, you may have started to use the word bullying about their behaviour. Your relationship with them is professional, so you don’t know much about the person aside from how you see them at work.

It will be easy to drop into a very negative place about this type of conflict.  If you are not very assertive you may stay quiet – suffer in silence – and hope it stops.  If it does than that’s great because things get back to normal and you don’t have to worry about it – or do you, might you be a bit more vigilant for this type of behaviour from your boss?

What happens if the behaviour continues?  You may be able to deal with it but it might build up to an outburst from you back at your manager or that you head off to HR and put in a complaint.

So where does changing your mind fit in this picture?

It can kick in at any point but the easiest is when you start to notice the different and uncomfortable behaviour from your boss.

Rather than feeling like the victim of this behaviour – if you can change your mind you create an opportunity to say to yourself ‘something is going on here and I don’t understand what it is’. 

Perhaps you can approach them directly, ‘You seem to be behaving differently over the last few days, are things okay?’

Or ‘I’m noticing your seem a bit distracted, can I help?’ 

The difficulty with these types of approach is that you need a degree of confidence and assertion to be so direct.

If it is difficult for you to be this assertive it may be that you can take a step back from your reaction to their behaviour and start to wonder about what is causing them to behave this way. 

This process may not change their behaviour but it can start to change your reaction to their behaviour.

You don’t have to be a victim, you may be able to become an observer and this might give you some space to think what you want to do.

My key thought is, no matter what the circumstance, can I look differently at this situation? 

Can I (or am I prepared to) make the effort to change my mind?

What is it that I need to do if I want to change my mind?