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.

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  1. Iana CraneWing says

    Wow tammy,
    Thanks for jolting me back to the intense growth and learning of my year at Woodbury. The experience you describe rings true as a memory for me and the lesson, that reflection is the most generous and instructive of gifts,
    is one I could revisit everyday and be more effective for it. Interestingly personal effectiveness isn't the only benefit from practicing this kind of reflective listening, in my years since graduating I have observed that it also results in stronger connections with others, increased intimacy, respect and loving space. Specifically the space to be one's self for both parties. I don't have to think about fixing anything and the other person feels the quiet non-judging support to learn from where ever they happen to be at the time.
    Alice, Susan and you were all masters at teaching and modeling this thoughtful elegant approach and as I practice it, it enriches everyday of my life.
    Keep writing about the teaching/learning process, theses stories are the sweetest lessons!
    I am glad you have found a new tack that excites you.

  2. Liz Luciano says

    This story made me take a realistic look at myself -that is when people tell me about a conflict/hard time they are going through my initial reaction is to say “don’t worry it’ll be alright”. Am I really trying to comfort them? Maybe I just don’t apply the necessary skills to truly help the person(s) “find their own truth”.

    As a brand new “mediator” I have learned an important lesson from your experience Tammy; thank you.



    • says

      Oh, Liz, what a wonderful comment to find from you…made my day. You know, I think most of us were raised to comfort in the way you describe, to hug and say, “It’ll get better.” And, I dare say, sometimes that IS what someone wants to hear. What I love about what I learned from Alice that day is that this other approach is so much more powerful because we get to be helpful AND the other person gets to be powerful on their own.

      Welcome to the world of mediation, Liz! I can see by the way you’re thinking that you’re going to do good work ahead.

  3. says

    Beautiful and incredibly helpful story. I definitely rush to comfort others when I see them in distress; I can easily see how powerful it is to allow the other person to arrive at an answer that is much more valuable to them than empty words. Thanks, Tammy.

    • says

      Robin, it’s one of the reasons I love mediating and coaching so much: The utter joy of helping people sort out a stuck problem by means that are atypical yet so very powerful. I’m so fortunate to do this work…and to have people like Alice to help me hone my craft.

  4. says

    Thank you for posting this. It’s important to remember that as mediators our job is not to reassure our clients that things will get better or that we can fix their problem. Our mission is to guide them in a process of unpacking the layers of their issue. To do this, we have to be patient listeners, skilled investigators and creative, impartial emathizers. It’s a tough task not to directly help someone feel better!