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How To Unravel A Western Conflict Narrative

How To Unravel A Western Conflict Narrative

Every mediation starts with each side telling a story about what happened, why and who’s at fault. There are typically patterns and themes to these stories and they often follow a melodramatic western conflict narrative. This interview will help you understand more about these archetypal stories, the characters involved and how you can intervene both as mediator and coach to help broaden the thinking of the party and encourage a shift in perspective.

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Full Transcript

Aled: Hi everyone, my name is Aled Davies, founder of, home of the passionate mediator. This is the place where mediators, aspiring, new and accomplished come and learn from experienced mediators, practitioners and thought leaders from around the world. The people we interview are incredibly generous with their time. They share their knowledge and experience with you so that you can learn, grow and improve your effectiveness and hopefully be inspired to go out and build your own success story, make a difference. Maybe then you’ll come back on to Mediator Academy and tell your story to my audience.

All right. The big question for today’s interview is this: How do we help parties entertain the possibility that there is more than one truth, invariably their own? How do we help them explore these multiple perspectives or in narrative mediation terms, these different conflict stories that often distort the perspectives of the parties?

I think my guest is pretty well placed to do that. She is Associate Professor of Conflict Resolution at James Cook University, Adjunct Professor at Hong Kong Shue Yan University, associate professor at Bond University and Affiliate Scholar at the Center for Study of Narrative and Conflict Resolution within the School for Conflict Resolution and Analysis at George Mason University. Pause. She has taught law, conflict management and conflict resolution to university students, lawyers, and a wide range of people from private and public organisations. She is a nationally accredited mediator under the Australian standards and a certified transformative mediator. She’s published widely and wildly in conflict resolution including her books, ‘Dispute Resolution in Australia’ co-authored with David Spencer and ‘Mediation for Lawyers,’ co-authored with Olivia Rundle. In addition to her academic accomplishments, and I don’t know when she has time to do anything else, she’s also the co-founder of Conflict Coaching International, an organisation that provides conflict support, services and training in Australia, Hong Kong, Southeast Asia and the Pacific. I’m delighted to welcome Samantha Hardy onto mediator academy. Sam welcome.

Sam: Thank you and thank you for getting up so early to talk with me.

Aled: That’s quite all right. You are more than welcome. I was thinking about this interview and a couple of things I’m excited about and one is, and I mentioned this in the pre-interview, that I predominately interview practitioners. And I’ve been thinking lately, I want to have a different side to mediator academy where I get some academics on and really sort of burrow into some of the thinking that goes into mediation, the theory of mediation, the theory of conflict and so on. You are both an academic and a practitioner, right?

Sam: Yes.

Aled: There is a name for that?

Sam: There is. We call ourselves pracademics.

Aled: A pracademic. You’re my first pracademic on Mediator Academy. That’s wonderful. Also, I was thinking about how I start this interview. One of the things I’ve been mindful of is I want to grab the attention of the viewers, right from the ‘get go’ as they say in the States. Right from the start, I want to be able to hook them in with the start of the interview. I guess thinking about narrative and stories, and this is just occurring to me now as I’m talking, I’m thinking about narrative and stories.

I watched a rubbish movie the other day but the start was so compelling, it was gripping that I ended up watching the rest of the movie, but the rest of it was rubbish. Where am I going with this? I’m not entirely sure, but my story for this interview is I really want to understand when I’m sitting down with a party or even when I’m working one to one with someone, I do some coaching when I’m working with a group. I often struggle when there are people with fixed perspectives. They just can’t see different perspectives. There’s one truth. There’s one perspective and they struggle to let go of that. Sometimes I feel like I’m in a duel with them. Trying to shift their perspective. I want to just try to help them see a wider perspective. How do I do that?

But, before we go down that road, what is a conflict story?

Sam: I think you’ve identified something that’s really a characteristic of people in conflict. They tell these stories, they practice them a number of times to their friends, families, to themselves and they’re really stuck in that story and so when we try to shift them out of that story, they get very resistant and defensive, because their story makes sense to them. And usually in that story, they have a rÙle that, it might not be great, but they’re comfortable with it. I think a very typical conflict story and this might be a bit controversial for some people, but I’ve done some work looking at the genre of conflict stories, and what I’ve discovered is that a lot of conflict stories tend to fit the genre of melodrama. That doesn’t just mean they’re melodramatic, although they do tend to be, but they have a very particular story and this is kind of how the conflict story tends to go.

‘I’m a really hard worker, I work really hard at my job and I try to do my best to get on with people and this person has come into my workplace and they’re just so horrible. They’re going out of their way to undermine me, they don’t have any respect for anybody else and you know, I just can’t even speak to them anymore. They’re just so impossible and I need somebody to fix them. If they just left, everything would be fine. Everything would go back to the way it was and we’d be happy but I just can’t get them to change and nobody seems to be doing anything and I’m stuck.’

That’s kind of a standard conflict story, right?

Aled: Right. Yes. When you say a melodrama, that would be an archetypal melodramatic storyline?

Sam: Yeah. They’re archetypal melodramatic story line. There are a number of characters in a melodrama. Obviously, you have the main character. Classically, that would be a woman. She’d be very beautiful and young, so you have the melodramatic heroine. In conflict stories I guess that we deal with on a day to day basis, sometimes it’s a man, but typically the man in that rÙle tends to present himself as kind of emasculated, kind of powerless and people look at men who tell those stories and think, ‘Toughen up, be a man’ because they’re playing the heroine rÙle. You have the heroine and her attributes are that she’s very virtuous, she’s a very good person. She tends to be quite passive and quite helpless so people do things to her. She doesn’t take initiative or make choices or show agency, so she sort of gets pushed around by people who are more powerful than her.

Strangely enough, she also tends, in classical melodrama, to be mute. In those classical dramas, she will often have taken a vow of silence so she can’t make people see what’s really going on here or she’s locked deep in a dungeon and no one can hear her cries for help. She can’t say what she needs to say to have this problem solved for her. That’s your typical heroine.

Of course when there’s a heroine, you have to have an evil villain and the evil villain is very obvious in melodrama. He storms onto the stage with a dark cape and a black hat and he makes pronouncements about all of the terrible things he’s going to do and the villain comes along and he somehow undermines the heroine’s virtue. He somehow implies that she’s not as good as she’s supposed to be or he prevents her from being the good person she wants to be. He interferes with the way things should be and he’s very active. He does things often to the heroine or the people around her and it’s just assumed everything he does is with bad intent because he’s the villain and villains don’t do nice things.

The other main figure is the father figure or the judge. Usually, there’s some very powerful male figure who’s job it is to sort out the mess. The judge has a couple of things they have to do. The first thing they have to do is be convinced that the heroine really is virtuous. That she really deserves his help. Heroines spend a lot of time trying to demonstrate how nice and good and virtuous they are so that this judge figure helps. Then, they recognize that the villain is actually evil and so they’ll mete out some kind of punishment to the villain, which usually takes them off the scene, so they’ll lock him away or banish him. Or if it’s a really nasty melodrama, they might kill him. Their job is to restore the status quo. To put everything back to the way it was back to the beginning before the villain undermined everything.

You can already see, I hope, some patterns that tend to be a bit dysfunctional when people are telling that story, they tend to not take action themselves. They tend to spend a lot of time trying to prove that they are good and the other person is bad and they tend to idealise the past. So, ‘Everything used to be great and now it’s terrible’. The problem also with wanting to restore the past, there’s no growth. There’s no development. We just go back to the way it should have been and people don’t progress. Even though we might fix the problem, we haven’t improved the situation. There’s no growth. That’s one of the really disappointing things about this story line, but there’s also another character and this is the one that I really like.

In a melodrama, there’s often a hero. He’s not a very useful hero. He’s kind of a bumbling hero and often he’s a comedy figure. He’s usually in love with the heroine, but at the very least, he is completely devoted to her. He believes in her virtue and he’s trying really hard to help her, but he’s actually quite useless and so the villain always tricks him and he always ends up trapped and he makes lots of pronouncements about how wonderful the heroine is. But he can’t do anything to help her. He tries and he tries, but he’s practically useless.

Weirdly, this is going to sound really weird, but when I’m working with clients who are telling that story, they want me to be their father figure. They want me to fix it for them. They’re helpless. They can’t do anything. They don’t want to talk to the bad guy. They want me to sort it out and my job is to try to be that bumbling, useless hero. I’m totally on their side, I’m totally with them. I’m really trying to understand what it’s like for them, but practically, I’m useless here. It sounds weird, but by doing so, I’m constantly reinforcing that they’re going to have to do something. I really want them to take some action. I’m there with them, but I can’t do anything.
That’s a really nice little twist, that I want to be the bumbling hero.

Aled: That’s just fascinating. You’ve got this force of archetypal characters that exist within a melodramatic story line that often, in people’s heads, they’ve had a conflict. They’ve come to someone for help be it a mediator, a conflict coach which is something you do a lot. We’ll talk about that in a bit later. They come to someone for help and they tell the story and it typically follows a pattern like a classic arc, is that, a story arc.

Sam: Yeah. They’ll spend a bit of time wanting me to like them. In that kind of rapport building stage, the client wants me to believe in them and like them. They have to establish their virtue, otherwise I might not help them. They do that first and then they’ll slowly start telling me about the bad guy.

Aled: In order to do that, building rapport, what sort of things do they do to present that side of themselves?

Sam: They usually arrive on their best behaviour. Even if they’ve had bad interactions with somebody in the past, they’re going to present on their best behaviour and trying to sound very open and likable and they’ll often say things like ‘I try really hard and I don’t want to cause trouble for anyone and I’m trying my best here. I’m a really hard worker. I try to be respectful to people.’ They spend a lot of time talking up how nice they are.

Aled: Do you then do things like drop your pen and fumble around and act like a bit of a clown? How do you respond?

Sam: Maybe not that bumbling, but I think probably the mindset is, that I’m kind of curious and a bit confused. I often will present with ‘Oh wow, that’s really great. What else is happening?’ The other thing about melodrama stories is that they’re very simplistic. They pick a few key things that seem to make the conclusion logical and they miss a whole lot of information often like the fact that they maybe haven’t been perfect or occasionally the bad guy isn’t all bad and that there are usually other people involved so there’s no context often in this story they tell. So at first I spend a lot of time being really confused and trying to really understand what’s going on and asking for more detail. ‘And what happened then? And what did you do? Who else was there?’ Just trying to get lots and lots of detail. Because usually when the detail comes out, they’re not quite as virtuous as they present. The bad guy’s not quite as bad as he sounds at the beginning and it’s a lot more complicated. And complicated is good in terms of productive conflict management. But simplicity feels comfortable.

Aled: Okay. Simplicity feels comfortable.

Sam: It’s not helpful.

Aled: And complexity, what was the word you used?

Sam: Complexity is really constructive. We can go back using the language of Fisher and Ury and talk about positions and interests. Having a fixed position and a win or a lose, it’s simple. You win or you lose, but it’s not very productive. The more complex we make it, the more possibilities there are. The more choices they have. That’s really constructive, but it’s scary for people. Choice means effort. Choice means they have to make a decision and they have to evaluate them and that’s hard work. Most people would prefer someone else to do that hard work for them.

Aled: Okay, so exploring this narrative they arrive with and we talked about a thin narrative and a richer narrative. So, making it richer, being curious, exploring it, which when I meet a party for the first time, before mediation, I like to think I do a lot of those things, just be really curious, just develop the story in that respect. It’s quite helpful actually thinking of it in the context of positions and interests because you’re right. Positions are, there’s a right and a wrong, there’s a win and a lose, whereas it’s hard and I think people often don’t, haven’t considered the interest. When we start burrowing into those, all sorts of other things come in. There’s another event that happened and you think you contributed to that. By making it more complex, richer, you’re already opening up possibilities.

Sam: At this point, I wouldn’t actually ask them about interests at the moment. I just want to complicate the story. The typical things that I’ll look out for is missing characters. Usually there are more characters than the heroine and the villain, the person in front of me and the bad guy. But they often don’t get talked about unless they are the henchmen of the villain or the supporter of the heroine. There’s no one in between. So I spend a long time asking about who else is involved and what else they might have been doing and seeing. In melodramatic narratives, there are usually very quick leaps of behaviour that are very simplified. I’ll slow it down a lot and say, ‘so when you first met them, what happened? You said there was an interaction. Tell me what they said and then what did you say?’

Heroines, the clients who are in that rÙle tend to skim over their behaviour a lot. Their behaviour often doesn’t work to their advantage because they have to admit that they’re not perfect, so I spend a lot of time saying ‘And what do you do then? What exactly did you do in response and how did you react to that?’ I spend a lot of time focusing on them, but I do it in a way, so, ‘Okay, and what happened then?’ In a very curious, kind of confused way so that they don’t feel like I’m challenging them. I’m on their side. I’m just trying to really understand as much detail as possible.

Aled: You’re not going as far as the Inspector Clouseau end of the spectrum? Maybe more the Columbo.

Sam: Yeah and I spend a lot of time saying things like, ‘Tell me more about that. Can you explain that a little more?’ I use a lot of generic phrases that encourage them just to elaborate as they see fit. I won’t say, ‘Did you say this or what did you do when that happened?’ I’ll use very vague, confused statements just to encourage them to elaborate.

Aled: Okay. Very vague, confused statements. How do they react when you do that kind of exploration? Do they shift in their seat? You’re saying a little bit of generating a little bit of discomfort. No. You didn’t say that.

Sam: Not yet, but I’m working up to that. What I want them to do is feel like I’m completely on their side. At the moment, they’re probably still hopeful I might be able to save them, but what I’m doing at this point is showing that I’m completely on their side and I’m really trying to understand what exactly has happened. Also after that, I’ll actually be asking them some questions about what the impact of that has been. ‘What’s happened? And why does this all matter to you? What does this mean for you?’ I’m really there with them saying ‘I really want to know what it’s like to be you, what’s happened and how you feel about it now and then we’ll see what we can do.’ And they’re probably still hoping I’ll come up with some amazing solution and I’m certainly not encouraging that, but at the moment I’m just making sure that they know I’m on side, trying to get them to elaborate their story and giving them opportunities to recognise that there’s maybe a bit more to it than what they’ve been telling themselves for awhile.

Aled: Okay, so you’re still establishing your rÙle as the bumbling heroine, not the heroine. The hero. Sorry. Just building rapport, making this story a little more complicated, getting more information, getting more data, but the purpose of that is to really establish your rÙle in that drama. Is that right?

Sam: Yeah. I’m making sure that they know I’m totally on side. I’m not challenging them. I’m not interrogating them. I’m really there with them, but while I’m doing that, I’m also kind of subtly encouraging them to elaborate the story. It’s sort of like they’ve been walking through their story with a very blinkered view on the world and as they walk along I say, ‘Hey wait what’s this over here? You just mentioned this. Tell me more about this thing over here. And oh, you said this. Tell me about that thing over there.’ I’m kind of encouraging them to look a little more widely as their really walking that well worn path and helping them get to notice things that they kind of knew were there but just haven’t been paying attention to. Just feeling out the missing bits of that story.

Aled: Okay. What’s the next phase then?

Sam: Actually, I probably need to go back one step. The very first thing that I do is ask them what they would like to happen. People who are in this complex story, they find that actually a very hard question, other than, ‘I want the other person to go, the bad person not to be there anymore’. I say, ‘Let’s imagine that we can’t get rid of the bad person. What would be the next best thing?’ People are very good at telling you what they don’t want. They’re not so good at telling me what they want.

Right at the beginning, I try to get them to think about what they want to work towards, rather than run away from. I would set that up at the beginning, then we do a lot of the story telling and they may not be very good at the beginning, but at least I’m going to go and try and get them to think about the fact that I want to know where they want to go.

Aled: Okay and why is it that people are very good at telling you what they don’t want? What’s that about?

Sam: I think it’s because it’s really easy to whinge about things we don’t like. It’s easier to complain. Once we start thinking about what we want in our positive sense, then they still have an obligation or a responsibility to try and work towards it and that involves them engaging and having some agency. And people in this mindset, it makes it feel like it maybe could be a bit their fault if they’re not working towards something better and they’re just wallowing in this situation.

Aled: Okay.

Sam: I want to prompt them at the beginning to think about where we’re going and elaborate their story, so try and get as many facts and details as possible, using the genre to give me clues about areas where they might be missing things like characters, giant leaps in time. The fact that they’re probably going to talk a lot about the bad guy’s actions, but probably not so much about their own. They’re probably also going to do some mind reading. They often know what the bad guy’s thinking. It’s always fact, but they’ll say things like, ‘I think they’re doing it deliberately. I think they’re enjoying this. I think they’re really trying to make me feel uncomfortable.’ They spend a lot of time mind reading and talking about the villain’s actions. They don’t talk so much about what they’ve been doing, their contributions which inevitably are there. I ask questions very gently around those sorts of areas.

The next thing I do is I ask them why it matters. ‘This sounds really terrible. It sounds like it’s been a really bad situation for you and why does it matter? What’s the impact?’ That’s probably where we get to some underlying needs. ‘What is it about this situation that’s not working for you?’ That could be things like the standard substantive needs, procedural needs, psychological needs. It might be that they’re having an emotional response that they’re not comfortable with. They wish they could respond differently. It might be that they’re feeling powerless. Their identity might be being challenged. For example, this person’s making out that they’re not a very good worker and they know that they are. It’s who they are. They work really hard. So, looking at the emotional drivers, that impact on them.

Sometimes what happens to people when you do that is they realise that it actually doesn’t matter nearly as much as they’ve been telling themselves. When you really get them to focus about it and think about it, sometimes people go, ‘You know, maybe I’ve been making a mountain out of a mole hill, when I actually say that out loud, I realise that I could probably just let this go.’ Sometimes that happens.

Aled: The process of really exploring this in the way that you’re describing can sometimes lead people to arrive at a different perspective themselves where they say, ‘You know what actually? If I’m really honest with myself, I think I’ve been a bit mean here. I think I’ve been a bit disingenuous. It’s not such a big deal actually. When I say it out loud, when I think of it that way, they probably weren’t being deliberately mean.’

Sam: I think some people make giant leaps really quickly and other people take a fair bit longer.

Aled: Yeah. Okay and it’s funny as you’re talking about this, it’s like it is a classic. It’s a pattern that I can relate to myself. I’ve heard it so many times. I do community mediation and it just follows that pattern.

Sam: When I’ve been analysing this and researching it, my idea was that it was a kind of individual scenario where you have one heroine and one villain, but I did a lot of working in the States with a whole lot of people working in international conflict scenarios and they started saying to me, ‘This works with groups. The same dynamic works with groups, but you have a collective heroine and a collective villain. It’s the same story, it’s just that they’re groups instead of individuals.’ That really blew me away, because I really had thought about this in a very narrow one on one conflict situation but it does apparently translate into groups and even international situations.

Aled: I was going to ask you in terms of the cultural predisposition. These are western melodramatic narratives

Sam: They are and they originated in France, so the original melodramas were French, but I was speaking to some people in Hong Kong recently, so Chinese, Hong Kong and I was saying to them, ‘I thought of this as a very western story line, but what do you think when you hear people talking about conflict or you’re experiencing it, does it fit this?’ and they said, ‘You know it does. Our actions, what we might choose to do as a consequence might be a bit different, but it’s the same story.’ They might have limitations about… In fact, in a way, they have more restrictions as their heroine on engaging with the villain, because the villain inherently has more power and if they are dealing with conflict with someone who’s more important than them or higher than them, they said, ‘…we’re even more mute, because we can’t directly engage with them. It’s just not okay and what we have to do is we go find a powerful figure who’s on the same level as the person we’re in conflict with and they kind of act as our conflict proxy. Because they can interact with them.’ I’m like, ‘That’s the father figure isn’t it?’ It actually does work, at least from the people I was speaking to, they were saying ‘It works in our culture as well.’ I don’t know. It’s fascinating.

Aled: Where do these stories come from?

Sam: This is something I’m really intrigued about. I think some of it is the children’s fairytales and when it’s simple and the good guy always wins and the bad guy is always punished, justice always prevails, it’s really comforting. And for young children, it needs to be clear about who’s good and who’s bad and they have to feel comfortable and confident that if they’re good, they’ll be okay. I think that perpetuates into adulthood and then we end up with this dysfunctional story, where we think the good guy’s always good and the bad guy’s always bad and justice will prevail.

You know, this is a little bit off track, but I was talking to somebody who is married to a Japanese man and she said she was watching a children’s movie and she said to her husband, ‘This character, I don’t get it. Is he good or is he bad?’ Her husband said, ‘That’s such a western thing to say. He’s both.’ I thought that’s really interesting, because that’s kind of where we want the clients to get to, where they realise that everybody’s both and it’s not black and white. There’s so many different things going on.

Aled: Yes.

Sam: Maybe the Japanese stories have a little more nuance than some of the western and Chinese. I don’t know. It’s curious. That’s something I’m definitely looking into at the moment. I don’t think I’m going to be able to find an answer, but I’ve got some ideas.

Aled: Yeah and I was going to say, have you encountered… are there different types of stories?

Sam: Yes, so the obvious thing that comes up, when you say ‘This story’s dysfunctional. This genre isn’t helpful.’ What everybody wants to know is, ‘Well what’s the better one? How should we be telling our story?’ That really intrigued me and actually what I decided is going to sound really strange, but I actually think that a much better genre for a conflict story is the genre of tragedy.

It makes it sound like we’re going to lose or the end is going to be really horrible, but again if you actually go and have look at the characteristics of tragedy, it’s not necessarily all bad. The characteristics of tragedy, there’s a couple of really interesting things.

Strangely, or maybe not, in tragedy, the main character, the hero is the main character and he’s usually male and bad things happen to him. But the story’s always quite complicated and there’s always uncertainty about good and bad. The hero is always flawed. He’s never perfect and the bad guy’s not exactly bad either and somehow the hero, fate has created a problem. The hero often makes it worse and the other people make it worse as well. Everybody’s involved. I think involving fate is quite useful too, because it’s representative of the fact that a lot of the conflicts we see aren’t just created by the individuals. It’s created by the system or the organisation or the society around them. I think tragedy acknowledges that it’s complicated. Lots of different things contribute and there’s always paradoxes. People are good, but they do bad things. People are bad, but they have good intentions and sometimes they mess up. What I love about the characters in tragedy is they’re not perfect.

The tragic hero, when he’s telling his story, he isn’t telling it to someone who’s going to save him, because he knows nobody’s going to save him. When the tragic hero is telling his story, he’s telling it to himself and he’s telling it to himself because he’s trying to figure out ‘What on earth happened to me and how am I going to get out of this mess?’ In a way, if I’m coaching a client, that’s how I want them to feel. They’re telling this story to themselves to try and figure out what’s happened and how they’re going to get out of this mess.

I want them to turn from a melodramatic heroine into a tragic hero and the thing about a tragic hero is that they have choices. Because it’s complicated, there are a lot of different choices available to them. Sometimes, the choices are all bad. Sometimes your choice is between a rock and a hard place and the tragic hero recognizes that and says, ‘You know what? That kind of sucks, but I’m going to have to choose one’ and chooses one. There has to be some kind of agency. The tragic hero has to take some step to try and make things better. They don’t always succeed, but if they fail, they understand what went wrong.

Aled: All right. You’re mixing your narratives now, right? I was going to say mixing metaphors, but yeah in a sense, right? You’ve got someone that comes to you and let’s say in a coaching capacity. They’re coming to you because they’ve got a conflict in their lives. They want some help. They’re coming because they want to be rescued, saved. Is saved the same as rescued in melodramatic narrative?

Sam: Yeah. I think so.

Aled: They want to be rescued and you play this bumbling, you don’t really but you know, you want to be on their side. You want to let them know, that ‘I’m on your side. I can’t help. I can’t rescue you, but tell me more.’ sort of thing and in doing so you’re exploring. Do you then make a conscious decision to change your approach to try and call out the hero, to change the narrative, to change this into a tragedy?

Sam: I think the whole process is designed to do that. I want my client to come in as a melodramatic hero with a melodramatic story. I want them to walk out as a tragic hero in their tragic story. I don’t explicitly do it, but I think the whole process is designed to do that. Firstly, I want the story to become messy because tragic stories are messy. There’s a lot of detail. There’s contradictions and paradoxes. I want it to become messy. I spend a lot of time asking what the client did. What did they do? I want to reinforce that they had agency, they have taken action. It might not have gone as well as they’d like, but they have made choices. I use the word ‘choice’ a lot. When someone says to me, ‘Oh and in that moment, I just couldn’t speak to them because I thought what would I say?’ and I say, ‘Oh, so when they said that, you chose not to talk to them because it seemed a bit safer for you in that moment.’

Whenever they say they’ve done something because they had to, I’ll reinforce that was a choice. It might have been a really sensible choice, but I’m constantly reinforcing their action and their choices. I think because I don’t buy into the save them, rescue them rÙle, I just bumble along, but I’m there with them. They sort of naturally start to talk to themselves. I’m there as the person they bounce off, but they’re telling themselves and they’re elaborating and they’re seeing it a bit differently. As I reinforce choices and actions that they’ve made, you can kind of almost see them realizing that they’ve done some stuff. It maybe wasn’t perfect. They’ve done some stuff that wasn’t good, but they’ve also tried to do some things and now they’re feeling helpless. But when you remind them of what things they have done or just point them out a little bit for them, you can see them develop a bit of capacity, a bit of confidence that, ‘Maybe there is something I can do and here’s all this information that I haven’t really paid attention to…’ and naturally people start to see other possibilities and start to feel a little bit like maybe they could do something differently, choose something different.

Aled: When you’re talking about choice, reinforcing choice, it made me think of transformative mediation around empowering.

Sam: Yeah and I’m a transformative mediator. When I practice mediation, I practice transformative, and I think that’s very much part of what I do in general. It fits the tragic genre very well. It’s about reinforcing choice, reinforcing self determination, every little step of the way, reminding them of choices they made and actions they’ve taken.

Aled: Yeah. Sometimes, when it’s pointed out to me that I’ve made choices, if I’m having a conversation with my partner or something, and I’m working through a problem and when she reflects back, ‘So you chose this’. Sometimes, it’s like ‘Ohh’.

Sam: You have to be very careful about how you do it. I will always try and point out the choice, but try and summarise back what I understand their reasoning for that choice is. I don’t know if you notice, but I said, ‘So you chose not to say anything back to him because that felt safe for you at that time.’ I’m not saying ‘You had a choice and you didn’t take it.’ I’m saying ‘You had a choice and this is why you made it.’

Aled: The rationale behind the choice.
Sam: Yeah and I’m there with you. In my head, maybe I’m thinking it wasn’t the wisest choice, but that’s okay. I’m just going to let them percolate that for a little while.

Aled: Okay. There’s so many questions, I’m having to write them down. My narrative by the way is getting a lot richer for this interview. I’m thinking there are a number of interventions that you’ve already described about how you would reflect back but also reframe it in the process of doing that and I’m checking this out with you now. ‘I did this.’ You’re reflecting it back, so you’re saying ‘Okay, it sounds like you chose this and you did this because…’ Sort of reflecting back the hypothesis that you have about their reasoning, to help them then think ‘Yeah, actually. Yeah I did choose that because it felt safer at the time.’ Am I right? Are those sort of specific interventions that you make?

Sam: Yeah and I’m doing it very tentatively because I might get it wrong and I’m really careful at this point not to challenge them. If I challenge them and make them think that I could have done something differently, they’ll go back into their safe, melodramatic shell and get defensive. At this point, I want them to fell really safe and exploring all this stuff that maybe doesn’t make them feel so good, but I’m not going to point things out. I’m not going to push them anywhere they don’t want to go. I just keep giving them opportunities to look at a little bit more detail, a little bit differently in a really supportive way.

I think that yeah, with the motivation and choice sort of stuff, you have to be really careful of how you frame it. I’m very tentative and say, ‘Maybe you made that choice because it seems like it felt safer for you in that moment.’ What that does though, is next time we have a conversation about a choice they might have to make, we might say something like, ‘In this sort of situation what would be the safe choice? What would make this choice feel safer for you?’ I’ve got some idea already about how they’re making their choices or what drives their choices. It might be something we can use again later on when they’re faced with a choice that’s hard. To think about how you can make them feel safe when they’re making that choice. If they’re now going to choose to go and have a conversation with that person, what’s going to make you feel safe in doing that? You said before, you didn’t do that because it felt safer not to. ‘What could happen to help you feel safer about doing it this time.’

Aled: That’s great.

Sam: I’m sorry I haven’t left you any time to ask questions. You can tell I love this stuff so much. I could just talk about it for hours.

Aled: It’s fascinating. One of the problems I have, these interviews. All these interviews, I just want to learn more about and I think I’ve mentally signed up to forty odd workshops all over the world over the next few years. I know I can never fulfill those commitments, but I’d love to spend more time really understanding. This is fascinating.

Sam: I’m writing a book about this, so one day when I finish it, which I’m hoping will be in a year or so, I will send you a copy. You asked right at the beginning what it’s like being an academic and a practitioner. This whole idea came from my PhD thesis. If I hadn’t had the luxury of being able to do that PhD, I don’t think I would have got here and being able to do it in a theoretical sense and then look at how it worked in practice and continuing as an academic. I think I said to you before the interview, I feel like people are paying me to do professional development. People are paying me to do reading and research and teaching. And you learn so much from teaching and trying out these things. I seriously have the best job in the world. It’s great.

Aled: I want to come back to the story, but this is a good point. I’m doing an interview with someone in a couple of weeks and we were talking the other day about the theory that informs our practice as mediators and how we felt that the training for mediation isn’t in any way rigorous enough. I’m happy to really care what people think about our training companies or not.

Sam: I think most people agree.

Aled: Sorry I’m jumping around a bit now. I was at a conference as well and there was a lady presenting some research that she did where she sat in on about 30 or 40 commercial mediations and observed the interventions that the mediator was making and they ranged from facilitative to on the hard end of evaluative. There was no transparency about the approach. It was assumed that it was a facilitative approach and a mediation approach. She was shocked at the range of interventions, but what was more shocking for her was the lack of awareness that the mediator had of the interventions that they were making.

It’s worrying. It’s concerning for me and many others in this field of mediation that there are mediators out there who, I don’t think, have thought much about the theory that informs the way they work. If we think about the core values of mediation, self determination, impartiality, however you want to position it, but the idea that we don’t get into their stuff. We just facilitate their thinking and empower parties to make choices and so on. If we think about those values, in our minds, how those translate to the words that we say… where am I going with this?

Sam: It’s a human thing. We’re creatures of habit and what that means as practitioners is if something seems to be working for us, we keep doing it. Unless there is real incentive for us to go back and reflect on it and evaluate it and change it, we will do it because it works for us. And that’s actually the same thing that drives people who are stuck in a melodramatic story. To some extent it works for us. It might not be the best thing that we can do, but it’s comfortable, well it’s maybe not comfortable, but it’s familiar. We know our rÙle in it, we know everyone else’s rÙle in it. It’s a logical solution that we can’t quite get to yet, but it feels like it should happen. I think it’s a habit. We get in this habit.

I think one of the things you might have seen, our coaching model that we’ve seen that’s premised on this whole philosophy is called REAL, and the R stands for reflection. Our philosophy is that our coaches, as coaches we want our coaches who are trained in this model to be reflective practitioners. We don’t want them to just keep doing stuff out of habit. We want them to think about it, reflect on it, grow from it. But we also want that for our clients. We want our clients to reflect on what happens to them and really think about how they could do better or what’s working and not working.

The second letter, the E is for engagement. For us as practitioners, that’s about us engaging with our clients, but engaging with our community of practice, with our peers, our students, teachers, engaging for the purpose of growth, but also we want our clients to engage in their conflict. It doesn’t necessarily mean confronting the person directly. There might be a better way to do that, but we don’t want them to avoid it and try and pretend it’s not there. The third one, which I think is directly relevant to what you’re saying, the A stands for artistry. We want people to not just be average practitioners, swing out basic conflict coaching session and maybe a mediation. We want them to aspire to artistry. We want them to feel like, ‘Maybe I can do better’ and to aim higher. We want our clients to do that. When they’ve got an idea and they think it’s okay, we want to say, ‘How can you do better than that? What could you do that’s better than that?’ We want people to feel like the sky is the limit. They may not get there, but let’s aim there.

The last one, which also ties in really nicely is learning, life long learning. The L is for learning. We want our practitioners, our coaches and our mediators to continue to learn from what they’re doing, from their professional development, from engaging with a theory and we want our clients to learn from the experiences that they go through, because otherwise if you have a bad conflict, someone fixes it and you don’t learn anything from it, you’re going to be in the same situation. It’s going to be the same story with a couple of different characters and luck, down the track. We want people to learn from it. It’s really fundamental to what we do and how we practice as practitioners and teachers in this area.

Aled: That’s a philosophy right?

Sam: Yeah. That’s the philosophy that underpins our practice.

Aled: Okay. Thinking about the theory that informs your practice, you’ve got almost an underlying philosophy of things that are important. I guess values, they sound to me a lot like values, right? Reflective, engaging. I was going to say an aspiration.

Sam: Yeah. Aspiring to artistry.

Aled: Aspiring to artistry to be the best you can be every day. I do it and I think that’s why I enjoy doing these interviews, Sam, because each interview, this one included, I will take one or two things and the next mediation I have, I will try things out. How do I develop this story? How do I help this person see different perspectives or hold the possibility that there are multiple perspectives particularly if they’re very fixed in their mindset. I might use that particular intervention. You’ve got this philosophy but your interest in stories and narrative, you use that in the practice that you do as a mediator. You draw upon that and that informs the way you work.

Sam: I use it probably more in coaching, just because part of the thing that I find really helps people shift from the melodrama to the tragedy is that feeling that you’re completely on their side. As you mentioned, it’s more difficult to do that as a mediator because you have to be impartial. You can’t be on their side, in a sense. You have to be on both people’s side at the same time. A lot of these things, I would still use pre-mediation or intake meeting to help people prepare a little bit. But it’s not quite as effective as having your very own coach, it’s his very own coach he knew and not the other person. It’s a bit more powerful then. I think you can still use it in mediation, but you lose one of those foundations of the relationship.

Aled: Okay. I want to test that out because I did a workshop with Ken Cloke a few years back now. It was just amazing.

Sam: He’s fantastic.

Aled: He talked about omni-partiality. Rooting for both parties in equal measure. I prefer that notion. It sounds like what you’re saying is in a sense that you’re rooting for them. You’re not colluding with them right?

Sam: Yeah.

Aled: It doesn’t sound to me like what you’re describing is that you would collude.

Sam: I’m not agreeing that their story is right. I’m just there with them while we’re going through it.

Aled: Right. I don’t know. Here’s the thing. Are you transparent with your coaching clients as to the methodology as to the approach? Do they know that they’re coming to you because you specialize in narrative coaching?

Sam: Maybe not quite like that. We have a system so there are particular steps in a particular order that we would show them that. I tend not to talk to them about how I’m going to help them turn their story from melodrama into a tragedy because I think that would freak people out a little bit. I wouldn’t probably say I’m a narrative coach, but what I would say is what I want to do is get you to tell me a story and really work so that you really understand what’s been going on. I think people are a little resistant to the language because they think it makes it sound like it’s just a story, and for them it’s not. It’s their lived experience. It informs my practice. I probably don’t explicitly talk about the narrative shifts with them.

Aled: Well I imagine there’s only so much….It sounds to me what you’re doing is helping them improve their understanding of the situation. Seeing it from different perspectives, really so they can ultimately make really good decisions, better choices.

Sam: Right and actually the goal of our system, of our REAL conflict coaching system, we say we help clients develop the five C’s and the C’s are Clarity, so we want them to see more clearly what’s happening to them. The second C is Comprehension. We want them to understand what it means to them, that more detailed story. The third one, really important one, we want them to identify and be able to evaluate Choices. That’s the third C. And the last two are Confidence and Competence. We want to make them feel more confident about going and managing this themselves and we want to help them improve their competence. Towards the end of this process, if they wanted to have a conversation with someone, we’d give them opportunities to practice and try out different ways of saying it and make them feel like, oh yeah I do have a few things that I can use if this conversation happens. That’s kind of our big picture goal.

Aled: Okay. I can see multiple uses for this approach, not just in conflict coaching. I can see it intake session with parties, even in private caucus sessions.

Sam: Even in the exploration stage, I think you can use it. You can use exactly this in the way that you focus the exploration stage. The problem that you have in the exploration stage when both parties are present is that you can’t really follow one person on their story. You’ve got to sort of interrupt them and talk to the other person at some point. Neither of them are really getting in the flow of their own story. With coaching, if I coach one party to the conflict, I will never coach the other person. I’ve tried it a couple of times and what I’ve found is the client doesn’t quite buy that you’re on their side because they know you’re talking to the other person and they’re hesitant about what they might say because you might have heard a different story from the other person and the rapport’s just not quite the same. It can work, but it’s not quite as good. When the client really thinks you are there for them, it’s a different magic.

Aled: That’s interesting. That’s very interesting.

Sam: People have to have a lot of money really if they can afford to have-, If you imagine two independent conflict coaches and a mediator, if you have that I think it’s beautiful. It can work so well, but it costs more money. That’s the downside.

Aled: Yeah. Coming back to the arc now. You’re establishing you’re on their side, you’re developing the narrative, you’re asking them why it matters, what’s the impact, the emotional driver and so on. What’s the next phase?

Sam: At that point, what I have hoped to achieve is to get a really good story from them, a really detailed story. It still is probably a bit melodramatic. It’s got a few more details in there. We understand why it matters to them, but at this point, I’ve got all of that information entirely from the clients perspective. I haven’t asked them to think about anyone else’s perspectives yet. When I feel like they’re comfortable that I’m on their side, that I’m in the story with them and we’ve got a lot of detail there. Then I’ll ask them about some different perspectives. The first thing I’ll do is ask them about the other person.

That’s another thing I forgot to mention. People will often not use the other person’s name because if you give a villain in a name they become a bit human so they’ll say, she, that person. One of the first things I’ll ask is what their name is and then I’ll repeatedly use their name.

If they say ‘She yelled at me’. I’ll say, ‘Oh, Jennifer yelled at you’ and I’ll constantly use their name and it’s subtle but it makes a difference. I’ll say, ‘So if Jennifer was here, what would Jennifer tell me about what’s been going on?’ I’ll get them to tell me a bit from Jennifer’s point of view and hopefully I’ve got other characters in there as well. Hopefully they’ve told me about another work colleague or someone else and I’ll say, ‘What about Joe? You said Joe works with you in the same team. What would Joe tell me about what’s been going on? What would he have noticed or how would he describe it?’

I’ll also ask them, let’s say I came into your workplace to fix the photo copier and I don’t know any of you, what would I notice? I want three different perspectives. I want Jennifer’s perspective, I want somebody else who’s involved or observing the conflict. I also [inaudible 00:57:13] manager or supervisor’s perspective, but then I want the fly on the wall, the guy fixing the photocopier, what he might see. People won’t do that too early. They’ve got to be comfortable that you’re really with them on their side of the story and then they might come up with some other opportunities and hopefully if they’ve been open and complexified [sic] their stories, some of it is starting to come out anyway. It’s already started to come out a little bit.

We do that and that’s the peak of the arc. That’s the bit where we say ‘Okay, we’re going up to where we are now. We’ve got a really good handle on where we’ve been so far and we are right now. Now what I want to ask you is what’s the ideal story? What’s your preferred future’. And I often use the magic wand question here. ‘If I gave you a magic wand, we could wave it around and when you left this room, everything would be perfect, what would it be like?’ 99% of the time, they tell me the bad guy wouldn’t be there anymore. We have a bit of a laugh and say ‘Yeah, that would be great wouldn’t it? That would be very convenient if they didn’t exist, but chances are they’re going to be there when you go back to work tomorrow. So let’s imagine they’re there. Yet everything is the way you’d like it to be. What would they be doing that’s different? What would you be doing that’s different? How would it feel?’

We have a kind of a fantasy of ‘They’d respect me and we might even be friends, or at the very least they wouldn’t be rude to me.’ We get this idealized version of events and again, I’ll ask for lots of details. I’ll want them to make this fantasy story really detailed and complex and rich and so I’ll get them to really wallow in it for awhile and imagine this preferred future and hopefully by this stage, it’s sounding really attractive and they’ve got a clear idea of what might be possible. I might have to reality test a bit if they’re really… you know, if they’re saying things like, ‘I’m going to go back to work and become CEO in two weeks because everyone will suddenly get that I’m brilliant.’, We might have to pull it back a bit. We want them to ambitious, but not unrealistic. Then I say, ‘Well what’s the first thing you can do to work towards that? What are some of things that you can do?’ Then we start doing a little bit of action planning.

It might be a very small step, but I want them to choose something that they could do differently that might move them towards that. Very often, people once have a really good look at the situation come up with really sensible things. ‘I realise it was kind of my fault. Maybe I should apologize. Maybe they don’t get that I think that they’re actually not that bad and I couldn’t really show them that.’ They have these insights and we turn that into an action plan. ‘How are you going to feel safe when you have that conversation? What are some different ways you would have it? If you could say anything you wanted and there were no consequences, what would you say?’ They get that out and you say ‘Okay, how do you think that would go?’

‘No. That would be really rude.’

‘Okay, so let’s take it back a notch. What’s another way you can do it?’ We’re having choices. They’re creating choices in their action plans and then hopefully they can choose one or a variety or a sequence of things to do and toodle off and do it.

The last thing we do, and this I think is really important for us philosophically, but also to, I guess in that part of the story, I always ask them to do a little bit of reflection. I always say to them, ‘When you came in here, this is what you said you wanted and we’ve talked a lot and I’m wondering what’s something like? What’s different for you after this talk? What do you notice that maybe you hadn’t noticed before? Is there anything you’re thinking about differently or do you feel differently about it?’ Prompt them to reflect on the shift that might have happened. I would say 99% of clients have something. Something new. Often it’s really huge. Everyone has some little thing they realise that they hadn’t realised before.

I also ask them to give me some feedback because as a reflective practitioner, I want to know how they think I’ve been going, so I’ll say ‘How did it go with the session. Can you give me some feedback? Is there anything I can do to support you better if we meet again?’ Do a bit of a summary and off they go. Hopefully as a tragic hero ready to face the world, imperfectly, and maybe it’s not going to be brilliant but if it doesn’t go well, they’re going to come back and we’re going to learn something from it and we’re going to aim to do better next time.

Aled: Okay, within one coaching session you would complete this arc?

Sam: It would depend a little bit on how complicated the scenario is. If it’s a really big messy situation that’s been going on for years and there’s been lots of events that they need to talk to, we might not get all the way in a session. My work tends to be pretty day to day work place conflicts. It’s not usually that big. Usually, I would meet with people for about an hour and a half and usually we can get a long way.

It’s also really important though, that at the beginning I ask them clearly about what their goal is. Not just their big picture fantasy ‘everything’s good’ goal, but what they want to do in the session. I need to know if they’ve got something, they’ve got a meeting with this person next week and they need to have a plan for next week, then we need to get cracking through this session and try and get to them to that plan. If we had the luxury of time, we could maybe do better, but if they really need to plan for next week, we need to get to that action planning as quickly as we can without scrimping too much on the quality, whereas if it’s a long term goal and they’ve got time, we might slow it down a lot further.

Aled: Okay. Wow, this is very interesting Sam. I’ve got my coaching hat on, I’ve got my mediation hat on and I’ve got another hat on here. I’m playing all different characters at the same time. It’s possible that you might complete this arc within one session or depending on how many events or how complex and how long these issues have been going on would depend on the number of coaching sessions you’d have. Typically, how do people find you as a coach? Why do they come to a coach to help them with their conflicts at work?

Sam: There is a number of different pathways. I think in Australia, the conflict coaching concept is still fairly new, fairly novel. People know about executive coaches and a lot of what I do is kind of executive coaching. I guess what’s different about me is I’m a specialist in conflict and conflict dynamics, so a lot of executive coaches can manage clients and coach clients with conflict.

I guess what I have is more experience and expertise in the field. I might be able to do more, manage more complicated conflicts with clients than someone who hasn’t got that background. A lot of employee assistance programmes, so organisations have employee systems programmes that provide things like mediation counseling. A lot of them now have conflict coaching as a service and you know, it’s really interesting. People want conflict coaching much more frequently than they want mediation, because from an employee perspective, conflict coaching sounds or conflict management, some people call it. It sounds easier because they don’t have to talk to the other person. What they don’t realise is it might mean they don’t have to talk to the other person yet, but when they do, they’re going to be a whole lot better prepared for that.

People are now saying, ‘I don’t want mediation. I want coaching. I want the coach.’ That seems a lot easier. I think may be for the wrong reasons, but at the very least we prepare them very well for either managing it themselves or if they are still not confident to do that, preparing them for a mediation when they’re usually a lot more effective.

Through the employee assistance programmes, most of my work comes through word of mouth and I think that’s the same with most mediators. You get most of your work from referrals and word of mouth. Some from people who have seen the website, but I say largely word of mouth and organisations, when you do work with organisations, you often get repeat work with different clients.

One thing that I actually think is really important to point out, you asked about what you do in one session or further sessions. We’re pretty clear that conflict coaching is a short term intervention. We say on average people should expect around four to six sessions over a two to three month period. It might change if it’s something really urgent or it’s very, very complicated. Most of my clients I think are pretty okay after about four sessions and don’t really need more. If they need me on a continuing basis, I’m not doing my job properly.

What they should be getting out of these sessions is a better understanding out of this particular situation, a bit more confidence and competence to go out and make choices in a more informed way. But also what they should be getting incidentally is an understanding how to do this themselves. How they can go through this thought process and analysis process themselves in the future.

I’m not explicitly teaching them, but by them going through it a couple of different times, after about the third session, they’ll turn up and they’ve got their clear goal, and they’ll tell you the important things. It’s much more nuanced. They know their choices and they just want to talk through it. They’ve already figured it out. At that point, you can have a conversation with them about, ‘You know, I don’t think you need me anymore. I think you know how to do this now.’

Aled: They’ve made the leap from melodramatic to tragedy.

Sam: Yep. We’ve got them out of that habit and it doesn’t mean to say there might be something really traumatic that happens to them. Something blows up and they go back into that mode again and maybe sometimes they’ll need a little support to get back on track. But we break the habit a little bit. The idea is that people develop agency in the long term. They can leave us and it’s going to be a bit bumpy, but they’re a lot more confident they can keep on track.

Aled: Yeah. It’s interesting that you say people prefer to choose conflict coaching over a mediation, say in a workplace context, because it means that where they are right now, they can’t sit down with the other person maybe because the other person is so unreasonable and is this villain character.

Sam: Yeah. Nice girls won’t talk to bad guys.

Aled: I often wonder, I’m often surprised that a number of my clients, and I’ve got a handful of very large FTSE 500, Fortune 500 what have you companies where still mediation is something unheard of. ‘Mediation, what is that again?’ Coaching is very familiar and actually as a conflict coach, it’s incredibly niche isn’t it? I can see the attraction from an employee’s perspective to much easier to go from the one to one intervention. It’s an easier sell, I’m thinking commercially as a service that you offer.

One of my goals at Mediator Academy, one of the things that got me to start this labor of love was meeting so many redundant mediators, frustrated mediators who’ve spent a lot of money, trained as mediators and weren’t practicing. Of course, if you don’t practice, you get rusty and you become ineffective.

I thought it was a real travesty there was so much resource out there, so much conflict out there, but the supply and demand sides weren’t. I can see conflict coaching as being a way for mediators to utilise their interest, their passions, their skills for good, and build a sustainable business. On your website, you have some statistics or data from the international coaching federation that say coaching is something like a $2 billion business. That is phenomenal and it’s still growing. It’s a real opportunity I think for many mediators out there that think ‘Okay, I’m not getting much experience mediating, but I still have this interest and passion. How do I develop another string to my bow?’

Sam: I think having a coach, having someone who’s really interested in you and even if he’s just prepared to listen and not even do anything much in terms of intervention, just genuinely listen, is such a valuable resource. Some people don’t need you to do anything. They just need to be able to talk out loud without sounding like they’re talking to themselves, talk it through, think it through and they do it all themselves. They just need someone to sit there to make it okay for them to talk it through, who’s not trying to tell them what they should do, or could do, or judge them, or evaluate them. It’s a really, really valuable intervention even if you’re not doing very much. Obviously, you can do much better and be an artist and support them in much better ways than that, but that in itself is a really valuable action.

Aled: Okay. Sorry Sam. I thought I had a little head popping in the door there. One final question, Sam and this is about training as a coach, a conflict coach. You train coaches in your philosophy? Your real philosophy? Is it a narrative approach that you train? Is that also part of the way that you teach coaches?

Sam: Yes. I guess so in the sense that we talk a lot about the stories and we talk to them a lot about the characteristic of melodrama. We look at clients telling their stories and we identify some of the characteristics and we look at some stories that are more tragic and we look at the differences between those and talk about how we help people to make that shift. I think it does have a very narrative underpinning.

Our process is very straightforward and practical so our steps are, do goal setting, ask what happened and there’s little things you do within those steps. Why does it matter? Other perspectives, preferred future, action steps, reflection and closure. It’s a very practical structure.

In each of those, we talk a lot about in that stage what sort of interventions you might do and that directly relates back to the narrative, I guess, as a way of explaining. What we’re really, really motivated by is that we want our coaches to really understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. We want them to understand their real purpose in shifting somebody’s dysfunctional, habitual narrative into this tragic narrative. What we find is when they really understand that shift, when they understand the purpose of the coaching and the interventions, they don’t get so hung up about, ‘What questions should I ask about next?’ because they understand where they’re going with it, and the questions just work because their purpose is clear and I think that’s a really fundamental part of our training.

We don’t just teach the steps and here’s some good examples of questions you ask. We want them to really understand how what they’re doing is having an impact on the client, positive or negative in some cases. When they really get that, you see an amazing shift in their skills, because they understand why they are doing, what they are doing and it just takes it to a whole other level. It’s so lovely when you see that. You can see people who are just going through the motions, looking for a question that they’ve written down. And then you see people who really understand why they’re there and what they’re doing in their purpose, and their questions just kind of work. They may not be very articulate. They may not be the most professionally worded questions, but because their intention is right, it just kind of works. It’s a very intangible thing to describe, but you know it when you see it.

Aled: I think it kind of comes back to the thread that we were talking about earlier regarding the theory that informs your practice. Once you understand why you’re asking a particular question, the kind of reasoning behind it, the theory that underpins it, then it’s not something that’s mechanical. It’s purposeful. It’s thought through and there’s a kind of spirit behind it. As you say, you’re not just reading things off a piece of paper. There’s an energy behind it, there’s an intention behind it and that kind of spirit, I imagine, is received by the person who is being coached.

Sam: Yeah and if you look at our system, if you look at the steps, they look very straightforward and common sensical and pretty much anyone could talk people through that kind of process. But when they really understand that it’s really different, and I had the nicest thing happen to me. I just finished teaching a four day workshop with a whole load of-, some very experienced mediators and some very inexperienced people. One of the guys, he was a lawyer, and he said ‘I came in here really skeptical about this. I thought it was going to be a really wishy washy counselling sort of thing and I don’t think it’s going to work and he said, you know what? I’m a believer. I think because everyone in that class had coached each other through something real for them, often it was trivial, but something that was real, all of them felt what it did.

They’d say, actually, it’s almost like a visceral experience. They felt those moments where the coach asked just the right question at just the right time, and you can see it. You can see them go, and that look and you think, ‘That’s what I’m looking for. The client’s thinking hard here. It’s not the habitual practiced response. They’ve got to think about this.’ Then that’s where the magic starts to happen.

[inaudible 1:16:59]

Aled: Yeah. My story is complete. My narrative is a lot richer. There were a few extra characters that came into the plot and I understand.

Sam: They’re small characters who came in your back door though.

Aled: I hear footsteps. They’re off to school now. I really again, I start these interviews with an intention. I don’t have a list of questions. I just follow my curiosity, but I just want to know more now and send me the book when it’s published.

Sam: I will. I’m under this considerable pressure to finish it so I better get onto that.

Aled: You’re under more pressure. Sam, how do people find out about the work that you do, the training that you do, coaching and so on? Where they can go to find out more about that?

Sam: The easiest place is probably just go to the website and I think you’re going to put links at the bottom of the interview anyway, so contact details are there and information about training.

Aled: Do you tweet? Are you on Twitter?

Sam: I’m not on Twitter, but I should be. I’m on LinkedIn. I’m warming my way up to this stuff. I might get a Twitter feed one day soon.

Aled: If people want to reach out, find out more, just say thank you, they can contact you through the website, I’ll put the link below or LinkedIn. As always, I want to be the first one to say thank you. Sam Hardy, thank you very much for the interview.

Sam: Thank you. It’s always such a luxury to talk about this. I love talking about it. Thanks for the opportunity.

Aled: Thank you, Sam.

About the mediator

Sam Hardy Profile Pic

Dr Sam Hardy is a leader in the field of conflict resolution and has been described as both a practical thinker and a thinking practitioner.
 She has advanced postgraduate qualifications including a PhD in
 conflict resolution as well as many years of international experience as 
a conflict resolution practitioner. Sam has been mediating since she completed her original mediation training in 1997, and she is a Nationally Accredited Mediato... View Mediator