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Language and Mediation

Language and Mediation

Why should mediators study language?

 

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I think I’d begin with two basic ideas. The first is, the experience of conflict takes place on a level far below the level of language. So, every word is a kind of failure, an imprecise struggle to find some way of communicating what is actually taking place beneath the surface.

 

Secondly, every word is a kind of expression of hope, because it is an effort, against all odds, to bridge the gap that separates us as human beings. So, every word that I write I struggle for and I think about and I try to fashion in a way that allows it to get as close as I can get. Which is not always exactly right on, but as close as I can get to whatever it is that my experience has led me to believe is true for people.

 

So, here is the difficulty with language. On the one hand, it is a little arrow pointing directly at what you want the other person to understand, and, on the other hand, it’s an obfuscation, it’s a camouflage, it’s a diversion, and the reason has to do with the psychology that you are describing, and that is, when we’re talking about conflict, we’re talking about two things simultaneously. One is the desire to be understood and the other is the fear of loss.

 

So, in any conflict conversation, there is some level of fear associated with the danger that this conversation could slip out of control, the danger that it could actually move you into an arena in which the things that you have taken for granted, all of a sudden, begin to disappear. The relationship that you love, all of a sudden now, no longer has to exist, because you’ve asked questions about it that give it permission to go somewhere else.

 

So, here’s kind of where we begin, but there’s a deeper level, and this is the part that it took me years to try to figure out at a simple enough level to be able to feel that I was onto something because it was so simple, and here’s basically what it is. Every conflict conversation has three basic components. Component one, there is a pronoun. What is the pronoun? The pronoun is generally ‘you’ or ‘they’ or ‘he’ or ‘she.’ If you use the word ‘you’ in connection with a problem, the form that it takes is an accusation.

 

What you’re going to get when you make an accusation, automatically, inevitably, predictably, is a denial and a counter accusation. So, ‘You are whatever’ – your response will be, ‘No I’m not,’ and ‘You’re something else’.

 

So, there are three other possibilities, at least. One is to use the pronoun ‘it.’ In which case, we have describe an object. The second is the pronoun ‘I.’ In which case, it’s either a confession or a request. Third is the pronoun ‘we.’

 

Second, there’s a verb. The verb is ‘You are,’ or ‘You did.’ If you say ‘You are,’ that’s a judgment that is permanent, and we’ll always be resistant.

 

The third is the most complicated, and that is the accusation itself. So, what is an accusation? If you break it down into its component parts, it consists of three things. First, there is an indirect negative statement of interests. So, for example, if I say ‘You are lazy.’ what are the interests that I’m describing? Well, ‘I’m working very hard. You’re not working very hard, and I would like some assistance,’ but I haven’t put it that way, because that’s a positive and direct statement, and I’m disguising it for reason which I’ll come to an a moment.

 

Second, there is an indirect negative presentation of emotion, and that is, ‘I am presenting this in a negative way, primarily because I would like you to understand what it feels like to be on the other side of this communication. I could describe it to you, but that would take a while and it would require me to be introspective, and it’s not necessarily going to be effective. So, instead, what I like to do is give you an authentic experience of what it feels like to be insulted, to be disrespected, by being disrespectful to you.’

 

Finally, the deepest part of this is that there is some deep relational fear, and, generally, what that boils down to is ‘You don’t like me. You don’t respect me. You don’t love me.’ and the corollary, which is, ‘I’m not worthy of your respect and I’m unlovable.’

 

So, now, we can see that, contained within any conflict statement are three things, each one of which can be reversed in several ways. So, the pronoun can be shifted from ‘You’ or ‘He or she or ‘They’ to ‘It’ or ‘I’ or ‘We,’ and the verb can be shifted to something that was done. Then you can reverse these three statements by making positive statements of interests, positive statements of emotion, that is what it is that you want, what you like, what you prefer, as opposed to what you don’t like or hate.

 

Finally, you can recognise that beneath all of this is some desire for a better relationship with the other person. So, to me, this is sort of quite beautiful and filled with potential for technique.

 

I wanted it to be formulaic or mathematical, essentially. So, I’ve actually, in ‘The Dance of Opposites,’ figured out a couple of little symbolic ways of showing it, so that you could distill it down to a kind of mathematical formula.

About the mediator

Ken Cloke Mediator

Kenneth Cloke is Director of the Center for Dispute Resolution and a mediator, arbitrator, attorney, coach, consultant, and trainer, specializing in communication, negotiation, and resolving complex multi-party disputes, including marital, divorce, family, community, grievance and workplace disputes, collective bargaining negotiations, organizational and school conflicts, sexual harassment, discrimination, and public policy disputes; and designin... View Mediator