One way that we mediators sometimes describe ourselves is as professional communicators. We are skilled at listening deeply, speaking clearly and helping people in conflict form a communication bridge. How is it, then, that we can sometimes be so inept in our own conversations, even when we are not in conflict?
Take, as an example, my recent conversation with a helpful Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) employee. The CTA is in the process of changing from its old system for paying fares. I had lost my card for the new system, so I was buying individual-ride tickets. The helpful CTA guy told me I shouldn’t buy those tickets; I should buy transit cards because they were less expensive.
What followed was a not-so-funny version of “Who’s on first.” I would say, “Great, I want to pay less. How do I do that?” And he would say, “Buy a transit card instead of what you just bought.” Then I would say something like, “I bought this card,” which I thought was a transit card. Then he’d tell me I could save money and we’d go around again. I’ll spare you all the details, and sum up our exchange like this: I kept saying I had lost my card so I needed to buy individual tickets and he kept saying that I should buy the less expensive transit cards.
Here’s what I didn’t understand. To the CTA guy, “Transit Card” was a term of art and it meant the old system. I wasn’t hearing the capital letters when he said “Transit Card.” To me, “transit card” was the generic term for all cards needed for public transit.
How did we finally figure this out? I asked him to show me – at the new machine – how to buy the transit card he was suggesting. Turns out, the transit card he was suggesting was only available at the old machines, which I didn’t think worked anymore.
What does this remind me of as a mediator, a self-professed “professional communicator?”
First, define your terms. How many mediations have been resolved simply by being clearer about the meaning of the terms being used?
Second, question assumptions. I was assuming the old fare machines didn’t work anymore and I was wrong. In mediation, sometimes we must help the parties question their assumptions.
Third, stay friendly when possible. I was fortunate to have encountered a CTA employee who really wanted to help and who stayed friendly throughout what must have been a very frustrating conversation for him. Being the friendly presence in a mediation who doesn’t think every word uttered is earth-shattering or life-threatening can help the parties relax enough to find settlement.
Fourth, stick with it. I have long said that one of the universal truths of good mediation is persistence. This situation definitely showed that we only resolved my dilemma by being persistent in the conversation.
And finally, change things up. We only clarified our communication once I tried a new approach. In this situation, the needed change was literally to move to the fare machine. As it turned out, it was the wrong machine, and that is when we finally broke through the conversational blockade. So maybe that is really the final learning from the situation: don’t be afraid to explore the wrong path. It may be just what you need to figure out what the right path is.