ings, sometimes giving vent to such frightening vitriol that
it took all my will power not to jump up and leave the room,
I edited out the frantic scribblings of my fears so that I could
do my best to keep things moving forward.
Yet I found my role as facilitator being increasingly eclipsed
by Nancy, who ruled the process, rallying her supporters
with her outrage, silencing the others with a glare or threat,
refusing to listen to those whose opinions she disagreed
with. Open communication became nearly impossible, and
because Nancy refused to meet with the others as a group,
I worked all that summer in every other configuration I could
think of—one-on-one interviews, pairs, caucuses, various
subsets of the group, in person and by phone, trying to stitch
together bits and scraps of communication into a cloth that
might unite the group.
Half the staff worshipped Nancy and stood firmly behind
her. The other half feared her and blamed her for everything.
More than one person was certain Nancy was using black
magic to get what she wanted. I left each session with my
solar plexus fibrillating, my lips and hands numb. I wondered
why I ever wanted to be a mediator, why I wasn’t an artist in
a remote mountaintop cabin.
I have sometimes had the sneaking suspicion that one
of the reasons I enjoy mediating is that it allows me to take
refuge from my own concerns about power and expertise.
I’m a good mediator precisely because I am good at seeing
all sides and refraining from forming a fixed opinion. I can be
expansive in my thinking. That’s the positive spin. The negative spin is this: I shirk confrontation. I defer easily. I fear rising
into my full power at the risk of treading on someone else’s.
Mediation suits me because a mediator—a good one, anyway—facilitates and empowers rather than dictates. But after
this mediation, I realized that there is a subtle line between
engaging in work that draws upon one’s strengths, and taking
refuge in work that enables one’s weaknesses. It is sometimes hard to find this line, , this slim strand delineating the
boundary between self-awareness and denial, or, even more
importantly, between being in control and being controlling.
Helping groups get beyond reaction and misunderstanding into dialogue and cooperation is the work of mediators.
Helping prevent crises in the first place is the purpose of
etiquette, codes of conduct, and laws. But many of the
rules that govern professional life are there to keep the
personal at bay rather than to give it graceful outlets. This
can be good or bad, depending on perspective, but when
issues from the personal realm breach professional walls,
no amount of denial can reverse the flow. They will find an
outlet, gracefully or not. Sometimes that outlet is one particularly powerful person who may actually be taking on a
role for everyone—providing a service, in that sense, a necessary channel for otherwise unexpressed conflict. But
sometimes the individual is too destructive.
My intervention ended, after one of the few whole-group
meetings, when most of the staff stormed out in rage and
the rest collapsed against each other in tears and eventually
staggered out of the room, leaving only the office manager,
who sat crumpled in her chair, her head buried in her hands.
I was able to help Karen draft a generous termination offer
to Nancy, but Nancy refused to accept it, choosing to rally
her supporters and continue the conflict. I heard later that
the clinic closed not long afterward.
It’s possible a more experienced and skilled mediator could
have helped this group get through the conflict and save the
clinic. Or perhaps it was inevitable it would collapse, what with
the hospital closing and all the other contributing factors.
In the end, it wasn’t whether or not I could have helped
avoid the closing of the clinic that most distressed me
about this mediation. It was the fact that nothing in my
education or training had prepared me to deal with what
it provoked within me. I had community mediation training, divorce mediation training, special ed, parent-teen, and
multi-party training, in addition to a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution, but everything we learned was based on the
outer experience of mediating – theories, process, timing,
structure, models, tools and techniques for dealing with or
managing challenges arising from the issues or the disputants’ behaviors.
Not once did a reading or class discussion turn to fear, not
only the fears of the people whose disputes we’d be mediating, but our own fears, and the blind spots, denials and
assumptions fear triggers in us. Never did an in-service or
practice session focus on what happened in our guts when
a disputant reminded us, even subconsciously, of an abusive
teacher, an ex-spouse, an estranged parent, or a jealous
sibling. No mediator is immune to the contagion of fear, grief,
hatred, or rage, and yet none of these uncomfortable emotions—the very stuff of conflict—was part of the curriculum,
except in the most theoretical and abstract way. In all the
required courses and practicums, there was no requirement
that before I set off to guide people through the rugged
challenge of facing their fears and demons, I get a handle on
In the year that followed that mediation, I encountered
Nancy three times while grocery shopping, even though she
Nothing in my education or training had
prepared me to deal with what this mediation
provoked within me.