Saturday, August 04, 2007

How Communication can help in Mediation

For many people involved in disputes, mediation offers an ideal opportunity for engaging in constructive dialogue about their differences. The mediator attempts to establish a safe environment in which the parties can listen to and understand one another. Attention is focused on clarifying the interests of both parties in an effort to assist them in reaching mutually agreeable solutions to their disputes. Even under these "ideal" conditions, disputants sometimes engage in behaviors which seem to increase the resistance of the other party to resolving the dispute.

This paper will identify a number of "resistance-evoking" behaviors, as well as behaviors which seem to lead to cooperation and understanding between disputants. In addition, the possible relevance of these observations to constructive confrontation of seemingly intractable societal conflicts will be explored.

I have repeatedly observed that, regardless of the content of the dispute, how one disputant communicates with the other usually has a significant impact on the outcome of mediation. Disputes that start with one issue often evolve into two different issues when either of the disputants exhibits certain behaviors in mediation. While numerous disputant behaviors may result in increased resistance by the other party (e.g., focusing on what appear to the other party to be minute, seemingly irrelevant details or insisting on the use of a tape recorder during the mediation), for many participants in mediation, the perception that "disrespect" has been communicated by the other party presents a significant barrier to their desire to cooperate and reach agreements. While eliminating or avoiding behaviors which communicate disrespect to the other party is no guarantee of reaching an agreement in mediation, when one party's goal is to encourage the other party to reach agreements with him/her, "communicating disrespect" does not seem to be a "strategy" that usually works! It is one that, most often, "backfires!"

I hasten to add that because of cultural or other differences between disputants, perceptions sometimes differ about what is--and is not--"disrespectful" communication. Admittedly, individuals may also differ as to the significance attached to "disrespectful communication" within the context of a dispute. For example, in some cultures (or families), boisterous, verbally aggressive behavior during disputes is more accepted than in others. However, for most people I have observed, when they feel disrespected by the other party, I have seldom, if ever, seen an increase in their desire to cooperate and try to settle the dispute! Also, there are some behaviors that seem to be consistently perceived as "disrespectful," regardless of cultural or family background, etc.

For some participants in mediation, avoiding engaging in the behaviors which increase resistance from the other party is extremely difficult. And for some, engaging in behaviors which encourage cooperation from the other party can be equally--if not more--difficult. A disputant may feel angry, fearful, insulted, mistrustful, defensive, or misunderstood by the other party. Additionally, a disputant may have little or no genuine respect for the other party. Given these kinds of feelings and attitudes, what often seems to be a "normal" or "natural" human response is an urge to behave in exactly the opposite manner from that which seems most likely to encourage the other party to listen and to cooperate. Unfortunately, even when disputants recognize in advance that engaging in these behaviors may be counter-productive, they cannot always refrain from engaging in them. The "temptation" is sometimes too great.
Common disputant behaviors which seem to increase resistance during mediation are presented below. Many, if not all of these, are often perceived by the "receiving" party as a sign of "disrespect." Examples are provided wherever possible to illustrate the behaviors.

1. Negative labeling, insulting, or calling the other party offensive names. (Example: "You are a liar.")
2. Minimizing or ignoring the other's feelings. (Example: "Frankly, I don't care if you are upset!")
3. Lying about, denying, or misrepresenting information known to the other party.
4. Blaming the other for the problem with "you" statements. (Example: "You make me mad when you forget to lock the door when you leave the office!")
5. Communicating condescension. (Example: "You mean to tell me that you are just now figuring that out?")
6. Questioning the other party's honesty, integrity, intelligence, or competence. (Example: "How do you expect me to trust you this time?")
7. Making offensive or hostile non-verbal expressions or gestures. (Examples: rolling the eyes, loud sighs, laughing, "giving the finger," sticking one's tongue out at the other, or groaning when the other party speaks.)
8. Making interpretations of what the other party says based on stereotypes or prejudicial beliefs. (Example: "All you people ever think about is how you can avoid working!")
9. Insisting that the other party "admit to being wrong." (Example: "This is not about my perceptions of what happened. I saw you take my floppy disk and you damn well better admit it!")
10. Using sarcasm in addressing the other party. (Example: "Well, how nice of you to grace us with your presence. I'm shocked!")
11. Making moral judgments about the other party. (Example: "The Lord will punish you for these sins!")
12. Making threats to the other party. (Example: "You'd better stick to your word or I'm going to talk with the boss about your behavior!")
13. Making demands of the other party. (Example: "I demand that you write me a letter of apology.")
14. Refusing to shake hands with the other party when he/she offers. (Example: At the beginning of the mediation session.)
15. Interrupting the other party when he/she is speaking.
16. Shouting at the other party.

Misunderstandings can prevent disputants from identifying ways to resolve their disputes. Effective listening minimizes this problem. The behaviors which follow are examples of the type that seem to encourage listening and facilitate understanding between disputants in mediation. Often, these behaviors seem to enhance the desire of the "other" to cooperate:

1. Using "I" statements, rather than "you" statements. (Example: "I am frustrated about how frequently the office door has been unlocked when I have arrived at work in the mornings.")
2. Conveying that the disputant has been listening attentively. (Example: "It sounds as if your biggest concerns are for your long-term job security and recognition for your accomplishments. Is that right?")
3. Making "appropriate" eye-contact. (Note: This one is extremely culturally dependent. The key issue is for Disputant A to make eye contact with Disputant B in a way that is comfortable for Disputant B.)
4. Expressing a desire to see both parties get as much of what they want as possible from mediation. (Example: "I'd like to see both of us walk out of here happy.")
5. Acknowledging responsibility for part of the problem whenever possible. (Example: "You know, I hadn't seen it before, but I think I did make some mistakes in the way I approached you.")
6. Acknowledging the other party's perceptions whenever possible. (Example: "I haven't considered this matter from that perspective before, but I think I can see how it looked that way to you.")
7. Identifying areas of agreement with the other party whenever possible--especially if he/she does not recognize that such areas of agreement exist. (Example: "You know, Conrad, I agree with you that we ought to make time management more of a priority for our office in the future.")
8. Allowing the other party to "let off steam." (Note: This requires extreme self-control, but if the other party has not expressed him/herself previously, this can be extremely valuable.)
9. Avoiding assumptions. (Example: "Could you help me understand why having these specific days off is so important to you?")
10. Indicating that the other party "has a good point" when he/she makes a point you believe has merit. (Example: "You're absolutely right about x.")

While many of these disputant behaviors appear to promote either cooperation or resistance between parties in mediation, these same effects can be observed in negotiations which do not involve a mediator. What, if anything do these observations suggest about how larger-scale, seemingly intractable conflicts might be constructively confronted? To answer this question, it is necessary to examine common behaviors exhibited by participants in social conflicts and to describe what it means to constructively confront a seemingly intractable conflict.

Social conflicts involve challenges to values, mores, customs, norms, laws, etc. Often in these conflicts participants seek to dramatize their beliefs and/or positions to make others aware of their concerns and motivate them to action. When opposing groups confront or refer to one another, they may engage in negative labeling (name-calling and insults), sarcasm, moral judging, threatening, and/or, in the most extreme cases, physical violence and/or property damage against those on the "other side." These behaviors do not illustrate constructive confrontation of conflict. It is possible that some of these behaviors are so unpleasant that the desire to avoid them could motivate one side to negotiate with the other. However, it is also likely that, at least for some period of time, when participants engage in these kinds of behaviors, the effect is that the conflict is merely perpetuated in its current form, or escalated and made more intractable. This suggests some possible reasons why participants might wish to confront their differences in more constructive ways:

1) To avoid the negative consequences and/or minimize the costs of continued involvement;
2) To promote understanding between and/or among stakeholders; and,
3) to have an opportunity to positively influence the beliefs and/or actions of the "other side."

Observations of disputant behavior in mediation, would suggest that when participants in seemingly intractable conflicts wish to constructively confront their differences, this is more likely to occur when they avoid the kinds of behaviors described above, and engage instead, in behaviors which promote listening, understanding, and cooperation. Constructive confrontation requires communication which honestly acknowledges differences and demonstrates respect for the dignity and rights of all participants.

Constructive confrontation can occur when participants interact with one another directly or indirectly. Direct interaction often occurs in a "public forum," such as a debate, demonstration, or "town meeting" where individuals are given the opportunity to express opinions, raise questions or concerns, etc. in the presence of those on the "other side." A more indirect opportunity to engage in constructive confrontation can be seen in advertising campaigns (which, by definition, are designed to influence the beliefs and/or actions of others).

These suggestions clearly have relevance only for participants who wish to constructively confront the issues which divide them. The suggestions outlined above will not, by themselves, settle or resolve these conflicts. However, based on observations of individuals who experience success in mediation, it is fairly evident which kinds of behaviors seem to prevent escalation of a conflict and promote a civil climate in which thoughtful, meaningful discussion can take place. These are potentially useful first steps toward constructively confronting seemingly intractable conflicts.

Communicating With Strangers: An Approach to Intercultural Communication

Gudykunst and Kim believe that intercultural communication can be understood via the same basic variables and processes used to describe other forms of communication. All communication occurs between people who have varying degree of familiarity with each other. The key factor in understanding intercultural communication is the concept of the stranger.
Understanding Communication
Strangeness and familiarity make up a continuum. The authors use the term "stranger" to refer to those people at the most unfamiliar end of the continuum. Thus anyone could be considered a stranger, given a sufficiently foreign context. A stranger has limited knowledge of their new environment - of its norms and values. And in turn, the locals have little knowledge of the stranger - of her beliefs, interests and habits. Generally speaking, communication with another involves predicting or anticipating their responses. When communicating with someone familiar we are usually confident in our anticipation, and may not even notice that we are making such predictions. In contrast, when we communicate with strangers we are more aware of the range of their possible responses, and of the uncertainty of our predictions.
Communicative predictions are based on data from three levels. First is the cultural level. This level involves information about the other's culture, its dominant values and norms. This is often the only level of information available when communicating with a stranger. Even so, a better understanding of the stranger's culture yields better predictions. The second level of information is sociocultural. This includes data about the other's group membership, or the groups to which they seek to belong. This type of information is the predominate data used in intracultural communication. Finally there is psychocultural data. This is information about the individual's characteristics, and is the sort of data most relevant to communication with friends.
We understand such data by the process of social cognition. Social cognition is a dialectical process which involves both grouping particulars into categories based on their similarities, and of distinguishing individuals from their categories based on their differences. Communication with strangers often relies too heavily on categorization (stereotyping). Such stereotypes may be inaccurate, or may not apply to the present individual. To improve communication with strangers we must pay attention to their unique, individual features. The authors argue that effective communication with strangers requires an increased awareness of our communication behaviors. First, we tend to categorize things automatically, and so we are less aware of doing it. It takes more of our conscious awareness to differentiate particular individuals from their stereotypical categories. Second, much of our daily communication follows familiar scripts, and so we are not consciously aware of that communication behavior. We cannot rely on such familiar scripts and norms when communicating with a stranger. Our communication will be improved if we recognize that familiar scripts do not apply, and seek to modify our communication behaviors accordingly.
Uncertainty and Anxiety
Generally, in communication, we seek to reduce uncertainty. Communication with strangers involves relatively greater degrees of uncertainty, due to the difficulty in predicting a stranger's responses. We experience uncertainty with regard to the stranger's attitudes, feelings and beliefs. We are also uncertain of how to explain the stranger's behavior. Motivation to reduce this uncertainty is more acute when we expect to have further interactions with the stranger, or when they are a potential source of benefit.
We may reduce our uncertainty and increase the accuracy of our predictions by gaining more information about the stranger. The authors describe three basic strategies for gathering such information. One may passively observe the stranger. One may actively seek out information from other friends of the stranger, or from books. Finally, one may seek information directly from the stranger by interacting with them and asking questions. Also, offering information about one's self often prompts reciprocal offerings of information from another.
The increased uncertainty in interactions with strangers is accompanied by higher levels of anxiety, as we anticipate a wider array of possible negative outcomes. We may worry about damage to our self-esteem from feeling confused and out of control. We may fear the possibility of being incompetent, or being exploited. We may worry about being perceived negatively by the stranger. And we may worry that interacting with a stranger will bring disapproval from members of our own group. Generally these anxieties can be reduced by paying more conscious attention to the communication process, and by gathering more information on the stranger. The authors add a further caution. Generally, individuals tend to explain their own behavior by reference to the situation. Observers tend to attribute an individual's behavior to elements of that individual's character. When interacting with strangers we are especially likely to attribute their behavior to their character, and then to view their character as typical of their culture (or race, etc.). That is, we are especially likely to interpret a stranger's behavior in light of our stereotypes about what "those kind of people" are like.

Self-Revealing Communication: A Vital Bridge Between Two Worlds

Use of I-Statements
I-statements can be contrasted to you-statements. Consider the difference between saying, "I feel as if I'm not being understood," and "You aren't really listening to me." The authors describe I-statements as statements that "disclose our experience without attacking others, invalidating their feelings, or criticizing them for not meeting our needs or conforming to our point of view."[p. 206]
You-statements tend to be perceived as intrusive, blaming, or attacking. They are manipulative or coercive, in that they seek to change the other person's behavior. Such statements often provoke a defensive reaction, which typically takes the form of either a hostile counter-attack, or withdrawal from the conversation. Hostile retorts tend to escalate the destructive communication cycle, and promote mistrust. Withdrawing tends to suppress needs and feelings, which can then erupt with greater force in later communication.
I-statements on the other hand can halt this defensive and hostile escalation process. Expressing one's own feelings and needs tends to evoke trust and sensitivity on the part of the other. Such self-expression is non- manipulative. This then creates the space for the parties to explore the "unacknowledged feelings, meanings and unmet needs that are at the source of the difficulties."[p. 207] Thus, self-expression, by providing an opportunity for better understanding, is also empowering. The authors acknowledge that "a basic assumption behind self-revealing expressiveness is that if people see who we really are, how we really feel, and what we really need, they will tend to respond to us in an accommodating manner."[p. 208]
The Power of Vulnerability
Such self-revelation does entail vulnerability. However the authors argue that vulnerability can be powerful, in at least two ways. First, they observe that "responding from a confident center within our vulnerable inner world reflects a special kind of inner strength."[p. 209] Conversely, being forceful and aggressive often masks deeper insecurities. Second, self-expression leads to more effective communication and understanding, which in turn fosters greater trust and intimacy. It can cause the other party to change their behavior by their own choice, whereas a more coercive approach would simply provoke defensiveness and distancing.
Finally, self-revealing communication has transformative potential. In the larger picture, the authors point out that "personal growth is largely a function of our capacity to be with these feelings [of fear, sadness, anger, hurt, shame, isolation and desire] in an accepting, sensitive manner."[p. 210] When we practice self-revealing expressiveness we are developing just such a capacity in ourselves, and are encouraging it in our partner also.

Thoughts on Communication Part 1

Although all people communicate all the time, most have difficulty communicating effectively in conflict situations. Practicing communication skills can have a very beneficial effect on conflict management and resolution processes.
Roger Fisher and William Ury list four skills that can be learned which will improve communication in conflict situations. The first is active listening. The goal of active listening, they say, is to understand you opponent as well as you understand yourself. Pay close attention to what the other side is saying. Ask the opponent to clarify or repeat anything that is unclear or seems unreasonable (maybe it isn’t, but you are interpreting it wrong). Attempt to repeat their case, as they have presented it, back to them. This shows that you are listening (which suggests that you care what they have to say) and that you understand what they have said. It does not indicate that you agree with what they said–nor do you have to. You just need to indicate that you do understand them.
Fisher and Ury’s second rule is to speak directly to your opponent. This is not considered appropriate in some cultures, but when permitted, it helps to increase understanding. Avoid being distracted by outside parties or other things going on in the same room. Focus on what you have to say, and on saying it in a way that your opponent can understand.
Their third rule is to speak about yourself, not about your opponent. Describe your own feelings and perceptions, rather than focusing on your opponent’s motives, misdeeds, or failing. By saying, "I felt let down," rather than "You broke your promise," you will convey the same information. But you will do so in a way that does not provoke a defensive or hostile reaction from your opponent. (This is often referred to as using "I-statements" or "I-messages," rather than "you messages." You messages suggest blame, and encourage the recipient to deny wrong-doing or blame back. I messages simply state a problem, without blaming someone for it. This makes it easier for the other side to help solve the problem, without having to admit they were wrong.
Fisher and Ury’s fourth rule is "speak for a purpose." Too much communication can be counter-productive, they warn. Before you make a significant statement, pause and consider what you want to communicate, why you want to communicate that, and how you can do it in the clearest possible way.
A number of other rules might be added to these. One is to avoid inflammatory language as much as possible when dealing with people on the other side. Inflammatory language just increases hostility and defensiveness–it seldom convinces people the speaker is right. (Actually, it usually does just the opposite.) Although inflammatory remarks can arouse people’s interest in a conflict and generate support for one’s own side, that often comes with the cost of general conflict escalation. To the extent that one can make one’s point effectively without inflammatory statements, the better.
Likewise, all opponents should be treated with respect. It doesn’t help a conflict situation to treat people disrespectfully–it just makes them angry and less likely to do what you want. No matter what one thinks of another person, if they are treated with respect and dignity–even if you think they do not deserve it–communication will be much more successful, and the conflict will be more easily managed or resolved. This means that personal attacks and insults should be avoided, as should verbal or nonverbal clues that one is disdainful of the other side.