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Welcome to the April issue of
This month we explore the importance of empathy
Please send along your thoughts and
experiences. It is always a delight to hear from you.
Wishing you the best, wherever you are,
Founder and Director
School Mediation Associates
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|This Must Be Difficult|
Much of mediation's power stems from this fact:
parties feel like we understand
they are going through.
Think about it: By the time people sit down with
mediators, they are typically "full" of strong and often
difficult feelings. They are hurt,
furious, jealous, humiliated, hopeless, afraid.
One of the most important messages a mediator gives
to parties, therefore, is simply: I feel for you.
The best mediators empathize: They engage in a true
parties, striving to
understand and enter into their feelings.
But some mediators are better at this than others.
To illustrate, let's compare the way two sets of mediators
handle the same mediation session.
Here's the background: A high school junior, Crystal, learned that
good friend Jennifer allegedly "hooked up" with Crystal's boyfriend, Ramón.
confronted Jennifer in the school cafeteria, yelling and
eventually pushing her. This
landed both girls first in the dean's office, and then two days
later, in a peer mediation session.
Following a joint session during which both Crystal
and Jennifer were tense and uncommunicative, the
mediators decided to call for private sessions. The
excerpt that follows begins 12 minutes into Crystal's
private session, after she has described additional
details of the conflict, and as the pace of the
conversation is slowing.
First, mediators who do not empathize well:
Crystal: ...pause...I just can't believe
me like that.
Mediator: So you are surprised by how she
C: Yes...pause...I wouldn't have
M: What role do you think Ramón has in all
C: ...pause...I don't know. He's a guy,
have led her on too...
M: Have you talked to him about the incident
C: Yes. He denies the whole thing.
M: Would you say you had a good
C: It was pretty good, I guess...
M: So would you like to come up with an
Many deficiencies stand out in this short excerpt. One
example: The mediators ask primarily closed-ended
questions, questions which spring from their own
theories--and a seemingly premature desire to "solve
the problem"--rather than follow Crystal's lead.
Most relevant to our discussion: the mediators exhibit
little empathy for Crystal. Though they briefly
recognize a more superficial feeling (surprise), they do
not appear to make her feel like they understand how
difficult the situation is for her.
When mediators miss the deeper feelings, they
Let's take another look, but this time with
mediators who are better at demonstrating empathy.
We pick it up at the same point as the
Crystal: ....pause...I just can't believe
me like that.
Mediator: ...pause...Why do Jennifer's
as such a surprise to you?
C: ...Because she was my
M: ...What do you mean by that? What was
friendship like with Jennifer?
C: I thought it was good. We did all
together: hang out, go to the mall. We even dress
alike....people wondered whether we were
sisters....pause...she was one of my best
M: ...So where does that leave you now?
C: I don't know. I guess it's over...long
M: ...That must feel terrible. Not only does it
she betrayed you, but you might have lost one of your
best friends in the process...
C: ...Yea. It sucks...very long
M: So...uh...how are you handling this?
C: I don't know...pause....I guess I just
it. There is nothing I can do now...long
understand why she did it, though. Did I do something
M: ...We don't know. But that is certainly
you could ask Jennifer when we come back together.
Many strengths here: The mediators give Crystal
lots of space, in
form of pauses and silences, which
appears to have enabled her to open up. Their
primarily open-ended questions also follow Crystal's
Most relevant: The mediators make it clear to
that they understand what it must be like to be in her
shoes, at this difficult moment in her life.
Parties benefit in many ways from mediators' empathy,
including that they:
- are more likely to trust the mediator and
- are likely to share more information
during mediation, thereby increasing the chances
that they will benefit from their participation in it.
- learn about their own feelings
unclear how they feel when a session begins)
- are more likely to feel safe enough to risk
attempting to understand the other party's perspective
- are more skillful problems solvers: their
become additional data to consider when making
decisions, and their judgment is not clouded by
suppressed or unresolved emotion.
Mediation trainees often fear that attending to
parties' feelings might lead down a "non-productive"
and uncomfortable road.
Quite the contrary! Empathizing is often
the quickest and most efficient way to help parties
move through their feelings. As in the above
just a few minutes can make a tremendous difference.
Mediators' resistance to being empathetic--and their
rush to problem solve--usually has more to do with
their own discomfort with strong feelings, and a
Demonstrating empathy certainly seems
When a party expresses intense emotion, mediators
can just listen, ask questions, and summarize.
But there are important nuances here, including:
Mediators show empathy differently at
of the process.
During early joint sessions,
required: parties can misinterpret the deeper
understanding exhibited through empathy as
"agreeing with" their adversary. During private
sessions--perhaps the most hospitable stage for
empathy--the earlier "you are saying you felt
angry when..." can safely morph into "I can see how
angry this has made you. This must be difficult. How
are you holding up?"
In order to put yourself in someone else's shoes,
must understand what it feels like to be there.
Mediators won't recognize the humiliation or loss or pride that a
party exhibits unless they are sensitive to those feelings in
greater a mediator's emotional maturity, which includes
range of their own emotions, the more likely
they will be able to "feel for" parties.
Mediators can get by without being very
have observed many who do.
But the best mediators put their hearts into their
work: they empathize.
thoughts... We can all learn
from your experiences.
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