I am in my third month now serving as Director of Foreclosure Mediation for RSI. When I visit our foreclosure mediation programs in Rockford, Geneva and Waukegan now, I get to greet people with “great to see you again” instead of “nice to meet you.” There is a natural sense of relief in knowing which exit to take off of the I-90 to get to Rockford or which side of the train tracks to board to get to Chicago from Waukegan. I remain surprised, however, at how quickly our brains adjust to and anticipate routines and processes after we’ve done something even once before.
This feeling of settling in has clear value for those of us involved in mediation, but it poses risks as well. As experts in our respective roles, we need to remember that not all parties to the process have experienced before what they are now going through. Whether we are mediators delivering our opening statements or program staff people explaining the mediation process, it is important to remember that at least some members of our audience are likely hearing the words we’re saying for the first time.
That’s where it is critical to view our work with fresh eyes. Looking at the processes that are so familiar to us with fresh eyes requires stepping into the shoes of parties and tailoring our every step to their emotional and physical realities. For example, when a party comes to speak to you, does she need to climb several flights of stairs to get to you? Does a homeowner in a foreclosure mediation case start his day nervous about appearing in a court proceeding and then suddenly get sent into the hallway to speak with a stranger about a completely new process? During conversations with parties, when do you first introduce yourself and your role?
My dad has been a doctor for critically ill patients for many years, and he often needs to deliver news to family members that a patient has passed away. He describes his strategy for these conversations as “the Bruce Springsteen technique.” Bruce Springsteen may have performed the song Thunder Road thousands of times, but each time he sings it, he treats it like the first time the audience is hearing it. When giving some of the most difficult news families will ever receive, my dad channels his inner Bruce Springsteen (a comparison he is thrilled to make) and reminds himself that although he has delivered such news hundreds of times in his career, this time is still the only time that matters for the family in front of him. Using fresh eyes goes beyond word choice; he needs to truly put himself in the other person’s shoes. This means examining whether he is making the right amount of eye contact, whether he is sitting or standing, and where he chooses to share the news.
Those of us involved in mediation are well-equipped to engage in this type of reflection, but we can still get caught up in the natural tendency to go through our routines without question once they are in place. How do you engage with your work through fresh eyes? Which strategies do you use to experience your processes through a new perspective? Personally, I like to take a few deep breaths before meeting with people and imagine what they might have experienced – or not experienced – before our conversation. And of course, I do this while humming a little Bruce Springsteen.