The Need to Face Your Adversary
“I don’t want to be in the same room with him!”
“I can’t stand his guts!”
“The sight of her just infuriates me!”
These are common feelings of people in difficult conflicts. The trauma of the dispute has activated the fear response system of the brain. Consequently, the mere presence of the adverse party triggers an immediate hostile response. For this reason, many mediators will keep the parties separate in a process known as caucusing. By keeping the parties apart, emotional volatility can be controlled. Recently, however, I learned again the importance of the need of adversaries to face each other.
This conflict was particularly intractable. The parties had attempted and broken off settlement discussions four times, and they had attempted two mediations with a retired judge, both of which had failed. To make matters worse, they were represented by lawyers who did not get along which each other professionally.
The process started with separate caucuses. First, I would work with one party, then the next in sequential meetings. This went on for two days, with the length of the days usually stretching into the late evening. On the morning of the third day, I decided that the parties had to meet face to face without their lawyers being present. These people were highly sophisticated business professionals with substantial financial resources behind them. I therefore was not worried that one might overpower the other. Surprisingly, the lawyers did not object to my suggestion, and the parties seemed to welcome it.
When we met, I established my usual ground rules and proposed an interest-based process. I explained that I wanted to take some time to explore and uncover each side’s interests, then develop options to satisfy those interests, then discuss possible strategies that could lead to an acceptable agreement. Each side was represented by two people. After some questions to clarify what I intended, they agreed.
That morning was spent identifying specific interests that had to be satisfied in order for the conflict to be resolved. As the parties began to understand how the process worked, the intense hostility and anger of the previous two days began to dissipate. I was amazed to witness how in a few hours these business interests that had been so polarized were actually beginning to collaborate on trying understand each other. By the end of the day, the parties saw that the conflict could be settled in a way that they could not have conceived of 24 hours earlier. Five more days of intense discussions were necessary before all the details of this complex problem were worked out, but a remarkable settlement to a bitter 20 year dispute was reached.
The key to facing one’s adversary seems to be safety and security. In an unstructured meeting, parties tend not to listen, react quickly to perceived assaults on positions, and filter out valuable information. The peacemaker’s presence changes this interaction. First, the peacemaker, by establishing ground rules and a defined process, provides a space where people can talk without fear of attack. The peacemaker diligently protects the space so that no one feels threatened. Second, the peacemaker slows down the communication process by requiring one person to speak at a time and by asking mindful questions to draw out nuances the parties might otherwise miss. You have probably noticed how fast arguments seem to go. If people are forced to be deliberate and are forced to listen without immediately responding, they can more easily override their anger. Third, the peacemaker focuses the discussion on interests, not positions or people. By containing the discussion to specific boundaries, the peacemaker does not allow people to leave the task at hand and drift into positional bargaining or personal attack. In addition, frustration at not being able to make progress is reduced or eliminated. Finally, the peacemaker constantly monitors the emotional temperature of the meeting. Short breaks can be taken or some humor can be interjected into the process to lighten things up a little. All of these techniques create a safe and secure place for adversaries to face each other, listen to each other, and learn.
When bitter adversaries are actually able to face each other and begin to listen, they start to learn about their commonality. Somehow, they transform their thinking from a competitive adversarial process to a cooperative collaborative process. This transformation may occur in an hour or it may take days. However long it takes, having the adversaries talking directly to each other is often the only way a difficult conflict can be ended. I too would have failed these parties had I not brought them together. I am often tempted to ta
ke the easy path and keep angry parties apart, but I know that bringing them together is my job. And when I do my job, adversaries make peace with each other.
Author: Douglas E. Noll, Esq. is a lawyer specializing in peacemaking and mediation of difficult and intractable conflicts throughout California. His firm, Douglas E. Noll and Associates is based in Central California. He may be reached through his website www.nollassociates.com and email at firstname.lastname@example.org