I recall one case I mediated that seemed at first to be a rather straightforward two-party dispute over a parcel of land. A farmer wished to have some of his land rezoned to extend his pasture. Approval had to be granted by the local municipality. Both sides agreed to mediation without much ado. The Mayor and head of the planning department represented the Municipality; across the table sat the farmer with his teenage son at his side.
We followed the classic mediation model and as I was trying to get the Mayor, who was doing all the talking for her side, and the farmer to come to what should have been a relatively simple arrangement that would meet both sides’ expressed interests; it was obvious they would not agree. We began to repeat what had already been said, and it really was a case of both people ‘talking past the other’. Neither was prepared to acknowledge anything positive that the other put on the table, as though neither had even heard what was offered.
While this was taking place, another kind of energy crept into the ‘exchange’, a negative undercurrent that I could not understand. Previously courteous behaviour turned hostile, and blood pressures were visibly going up faces turned red. Even though they had each offered and conceded enough to be able to reach an agreement, this had turned personal. The department head had now withdrawn from the table and was visibly embarrassed by the Mayor’s behaviour. The farmer, a large and physically strong man, had taken on a fighting stance, aggressively leaning forward and into the Mayer’s face. His son sat passively with his head drooped.
I broke in. I took command and, like a primary school teacher, I stood and said this had gone far enough, that I wanted to see both of them in private. I stood up, turned and walked towards the small room in the back that had been set aside for private caucuses. As I entered the room, my body language clearly ordering them to join me, now, I could see they were shocked. But they were getting up as a great silence filled the room. The department head and the farmer’s son just watched in amazement.
I closed the door behind them and told them that I could not believe their behaviour; that they were acting like children when they were obviously adults and leaders in their community who should be showing respect for one another. I told them I was not willing to waste any more of their or my time and needed to know whether or not they wished to reach an agreement, which I said was obviously possible.
This was when I began to learn what was really driving them. Their relationship went back decades. The farmer’s family, fiercely independent, had been fighting ‘city hall’ for years and the Mayor represented everything he detested. For her part, the Mayor had been offended years ago by the farmer’s father and she thought the farmer was ‘cut from the same cloth’, rough and ignorant. The negative energy I was dealing with here involved rivalry, injury, and suspicion associated with an ancestor who was not at the table.
We spent quite some time in the private meeting and I am sure the others left outside must have wondered what was going on. But I was not going to lose this opportunity for people, who lived as neighbours in a small community. In the process of telling each other what they really thought of one another, more constructively now with my strong yet calming presence, something shifted. The latent hostility that had surfaced at the mediation table dissipated and they began to listen and to hear one another. They stopped trying to bully each other, and while they didn’t get to warm and fuzzy feelings or an apology, they did reach a level where they could cooperate.
I sensed that and suggested we go back to the table and settle the re-zoning issue. The head of department and the farmer’s son were waiting expectantly and were relieved to see everyone still in one piece. It did not take very long at all to reach an agreement.
By: Dr. Ben Hoffman, from “Peaceweaving: Shamanistic Insights Into Mediating the Transformation of Power”.