Take it outside: Talk it out and walk it out

two paths mergingI stepped onto the sidewalk with my two mediation clients. It was a beautiful, sunny day in Boston, about 70 degrees, with a very light breeze. It felt great to be outdoors. They thought so, too.

I pointed down the block. “Let’s head in the general direction of Chinatown,” I said as we began to walk. Then I added, with a devilish tone, “And there’s no turning around until something in the conflict really shifts for the two of you.”

They eyed me. “Do you mean that?” one asked. I shrugged. “Maybe so. Better get to work!” Off we went.

We tend to think of negotiation and conflict resolution as sedentary activities that take place around around a table or in clusters of comfortable chairs. We even use the phrases, “coming to the table” and “the negotiation table.”

But some of my best moments as a mediator have been when I’ve been able to get my clients outside and moving. When my husband and I have a difficulty to sort out, we often do it on a hike with the dogs or heading off to the rail trail for a stroll. When my head is muddled, there’s nothing like a run to clear my brain. As I’ve written before, I see nature as a place to find our creativity again.

I’m not alone. Organizations regularly take management teams on retreat to think through thorny problems — and those retreats are often in inspiring, natural locales. Research suggests that rooms with high ceilings help creative thinking. I like to think of the sky as the ultimate high ceiling.

And there’s something about walking along, side by side, facing the future together instead of facing each other in combat, that seems to change a conversation.

Which is exactly what those Boston mediation clients did. They didn’t magically resolve everything on our one-hour walk, but the progress they made set up a highly productive return to the conference room. Said one of them with a smile as we wrapped things up that day, “Thank goodness we made progress on that walk. Otherwise we’d be in Brookline by now!”

Next time you’ve got a dicey negotiation or difficult conversation, take it outside. Don’t just talk it out, walk it out.

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