Mediation isn’t about making it all better: What Alice taught me

I sat in Alice’s office, weeping. Hard. And feeling embarrassed about weeping, even as I cried harder. I felt pathetic.

Alice, my teacher at the time and my colleague now, sat there quietly, in that graceful way she has. Her compassion was palpable, her attention fully on me. But there was something she was specifically not doing and I recall being a bit puzzled by it even while I was steeped in my own misery.

“I thought I was a bright person,” I said. “But I can’t mediate my way out of a cardboard box at the moment.” Sob, hiccup, sob.

The moment in Alice’s office had followed one of my more traumatic moments as a student. This was in the mid 1990s and I was in my last term of Woodbury’s year-long program in mediation and conflict management. I’d been mediating informally as part of my job as a college VP, was now in the culminating term at Woodbury, and I clearly should have been able to mediate in class.

Anyone who’s ever taken Mediation Lab with Alice knows this experience or something akin to it: I was mediating in a roleplay. I can’t recall at all what the scenario was, probably because I was so focused on what I wasn’t doing. Bad sign, to be focused on self instead of on the parties. Every time I opened my mouth to speak, nothing came out. Alice was coaching in that roleplay, sitting off to my right, and I could see out of the corner of my eye that she was moving more and more forward in her seat, staring at me. That was a bad sign, too. The more I couldn’t come up with the right thing to say or ask or do, the more upset I became, leaving me more wordless than a moment before.

Finally, Alice stood up and came over to me. “What’s going on for you right now?” I replied by bursting into tears.

Sitting in her office a few minutes later, Alice was quite noticeably not fixing my problem or my misery. She wasn’t doing what most would have done in that moment: “Oh, it’ll be ok. You’re fine. You’re just in a momentary rough spot. Just a bad day.” That sort of thing. Zippo from Alice.

I wanted to hear that, though. I wanted reassurance rather desperately, particularly from someone I wanted to impress.

Didn’t I?

But Alice did something else. She sat, figuratively holding my hand, and asked gentle questions. What was going on for you in there? Why do you think that was happening? Why do you conclude you can’t mediate worth a damn? Gee, it sounds like you came smack up against your own drive to be perfect…what do you take from that? What are you going to do with the learning from this awful experience?

Slowly, the weeping subsided as I worked through the questions Alice posed. Somewhere in the distance, a small ray of sun began to shine.

That, my friends, is excellent teaching, excellent mediation teaching. Because those few moments in Alice’s office taught me something about mediating that I hadn’t understood other than intellectually: That the way to help others who are struggling with a strong emotion or profound funk isn’t to “make it all better.” It isn’t to blindly tell them that all will be well. Who are we to know whether or not all will be well? False, though well-meant, reassurance offers little real help, beyond the moment or so where it feels nice to the receiver.

The real help, as Alice knew and so exquisitely taught me, is using the mediator’s skill to allow the person to find their own reassurance…or face their own truth and decide what to do about it.