In 1981, the authors of “Getting to Yes” wrote that “Like it or not, you are a negotiator.” They were right. They did not add that if you are a parent, then, like it or not, you are also a mediator, but they should have.
I am lucky to have two great kids, and a fantastic wife who deals with these issues at least as often as I do, but like household with a child to Playstation ratio of 2:1, there are times when mediation is needed. When I studied mediation, after many years of parenting, I noticed that a lot of the principles and techniques that they were teaching sounded really quite familiar.
Does being a parent make you a better mediator, and does being a mediator make you a better parent? You would have to ask my kids about the second part of that question* but here’s three things I learned from parenting that can make any dispute resolution process a lot more effective.
1. First, find out what the yelling is about
Now that my boys are both past the age of 11, I sometimes think it’s safe to leave them in a room together while I go outside to mow the lawn or hang out the washing. This usually ends well, but sometimes it means that by the time I become aware of the disagreement, it’s because I can hear them from outside the house, and possibly over the sound of my lawnmower.
It is tempting, at that point, to demonstrate the error of their ways by ALSO YELLING REALLY LOUDLY but that doesn’t ever help.** I know that if there’s going to be any chance of getting past whatever this disagreement may be about, I need to find out what happened about 5 minutes before I walked in.
Asking them to each tell me what they are fighting about is only partly for my benefit. The main reason for doing this is that it gives each of them the chance to hear how the other person sees the situation. If I can get them each to explain their position calmly, and I can get them to each listen without interrupting, there is a good chance that not only will I know what is going on, but they will each understand where the other person is coming from as well.
It is, of course, much easier to sort these things out if the people having the argument are not already furious with each other. I tell my kids to come and talk to their parents before things get out of hand, just as I often recommend that two people having a dispute that needs resolving should go to a mediator as soon as possible. My clients follow this advice about as often as my kids do, but I’m going to keep saying it anyway.
2. So tell me what you want (what you really, really want)
It’s good to find out where the disagreement started, but every parent I know is far more interested in finding out how to make the disagreement stop.
Like most people, my children enjoy battling their friends on Fortnite but they do not actually enjoy conflict in real life. If they are arguing, it’s because one of them wants something and the other person does not want to give it to them. The problem is that it’s easy for them to get so caught up in winning the argument that they lose sight of what they were trying to achieve.
So, that means my next task is to help them to figure out, and express, what they really want. Once I know that, it opens up a whole range of possibilities, and we can start to look for a solution that works for everyone.
Imagine the scenario where I walk in and find my children arguing over who gets the last salad in the fridge. *** At first glance, the logical solution seems to be that they would each eat half of it. But, I happen to know that while they both like cucumber, only one of them like capsicum and the other one is more keen to get his hands on the lettuce. **** Once we figure that out (and agree that they can feed the carrot to the dog for some reason) they can both get all of what they want instead of just half.
3. I should not try to fix it myself
After hearing from both children, my first instinct is usually to tell them how to fix the problem. This is quick and easy and has one small benefit in that it allows them to find a small amount of common ground by both getting mad at me at the same time. It makes me feel good, but usually only for around 10 to 12 minutes until my brilliant solution starts to fall apart.
The problem is simple. My children are pretty good at sticking to agreements if they actually make those agreements and they feel that the agreed outcome is reasonably fair. However, if I tell them what the solution is going to be, they will generally track me down a few minutes later to tell me that my solution has failed to actually solve the problem and also they are still mad at me.*****
It takes a lot longer to get to a solution if I get them to come up with it themselves. Sometimes it takes several conversations over an hour or so. Sometimes one of them will storm out and disappear. Sometimes I will deeply regret my decision to give up all forms of alcohol. Still, if I can manage to step back and let them work it out between them, they will generally get to an agreement that they can both live with. More importantly, they can own it instead of having me trying to impose it on them.
Running a mediation is not quite the same as parenting. The stakes are usually higher than who gets the last pineapple icy pole, and when I’m mediating I can’t send the parties to their rooms or take away their iPads if they won’t co-operate. Still, the same principles apply.
A good mediator will always start by helping the parties to explain their positions to each other, then getting them to figure out what they each want, and finally helping them to find a solution that they can both live with. It takes a little longer, but it’s always worth it.
* Please do not actually do this
** Trust me on this. I have tried it a few times.
*** The most hypothetical example in history, but please just go with it
**** Which goes really well with tomato sauce
***** This is sometimes fair