This is the gist of a conversation I heard. It is not the actual verbatim conversation as I am going for a larger kind of truth on the radio a couple weeks ago. The conversation was on This American Life with Ira Glass - the full audio of the show is available here, and the conversation I’m paraphrasing starts at 27:37 in the audio.

Why did you lie to us?

I didn’t lie, exactly.

But you told us that certain things happened - and those things didn’t happen.

Some of them did happen, and others of them could have happened.

But those ones that you say could have happened… you told us they DID happen.

I guess I was going for a larger kind of truth.

A larger kind of truth?

Yes, I wanted to create an impression of the big picture… and I think I did that.

Ok, but you knew that we wanted just plain, actual truth, the kind where the things you say you saw… you ACTUALLY saw. You knew that’s what we wanted. And you confirmed that you had seen those things. And then we vouched for you on the radio.

Well I’m sorry.

Ira Glass confronts a writer who misrepresented the factualness of his story. The writer remains defensive throughout, but Glass manages to ask the interesting questions about which things he lied about, what he was thinking when he lied about them, and that sort of thing. It was fascinating to listen to because of Glass’ focus on trying to understand just what the writer had been thinking; and it was fascinating because of the vulnerability of the writer as he is confronted about his lies.

These are the types of conversations that I see in my mediation office, the ones where at least one party gets to ask the other party all the questions they have. And shifts happen in these conversations. Sometimes the asker just resigns himself that the other party isn’t going to come clean. Other times, the responder succeeds at helping the asker understand differently what happened. The shifts are usually incremental; but the parties achieve an understanding far more nuanced than where they started, “You lied” – “No I didn’t.”

So what does it say about my mediations, if the same types of conversations, with similar increases in clarity and mutual understanding, can happen without me or any mediator there? I’d like to guess that even more significant shifts would have been made if I were there, but I don’t know. Sometimes, the conversation in question wouldn’t happen unless a mediator lets the parties know that it’s a possibility. And sometimes the mediator’s mere presence inspires the parties to greater leaps of strength and responsiveness.

And mediator-less transformative conversations also happen all the time in movies and TV. In the movies, when the protagonist says she’s not going to take it anymore and stands up, confronts whomever needs to be confronted, and speaks her truth - that’s an empowerment shift. In romantic comedies, toward the end, when both main characters realize the other person has always been the one – those are recognition shifts. In sitcoms, when all the misunderstandings get cleared up at the end, those are recognition shifts.

I’d like to believe the shifts would be more profound if we were there. Or maybe the shows would just be much shorter. Imagine how quick sitcoms would be if we were there to clear up the misunderstandings as soon as they emerged. But the fact that clarity and understanding emerge without a mediator reminds me that my job is merely to support, but never to supplant, the parties’ process. These successful mediator-less conversations prove that the parties have what it takes.

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by Dan Simons

Dan Simon teaches and practices transformative mediation in St. Paul, MN. He also writes the blog at The Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation.