20 ACResolution Magazine
lived in a town nearly an hour away from mine. I wheeled my
cart into an aisle and spied her selecting something from
the shelves, unaware of me. Each time, I spun so quickly in
the opposite direction, heading for the safety of a different
aisle, that my kids, jog-trotting to keep up, asked me what
What was wrong was that Nancy terrified me. Maybe
because it seemed to me that she was laying waste in
her own life to what I had spent years carefully tending in
mine—I had been through a painful divorce and custody
dispute of my own. Maybe because she saw through my
professional veneer to the fears that lay beneath. At that
time in my life, my extended family was embroiled in a painful conflict. The conflict in the women’s clinic triggered my
own pain, and that, compounded with the sense of failure
I felt about this mediation, broke my heart and eroded my
faith in my ability as a mediator and my faith in the process
When I first began mediating, my mantra was, “Love the
people, trust the process.” When faced with Nancy, it was
impossible for me to do either. She was my nemesis, and
she called me on my vulnerabilities.
In the many years since that experience, I have realized
that Nancy actually acted as a midwife of sorts to a painful birthing process of my own, which brought to light parts
of myself I would otherwise have kept hidden inside. In the
months after that mediation, I told myself I’d get back on the
horse soon enough. I turned down several jobs that came
my way, saying I was not available. I threw myself into community organizing projects, instead. Aside from a divorce
mediation and some program development with area school
and community organizations, I have not mediated professionally since the day I handed my invoice to the weeping
I told myself there were a lot of valid reasons for leaving
the field and moving on to other things, but in truth, it was
a decision made by default. I simply wasn’t able to see my
way past the fears and doubts it invoked in me – both of
which imperceptibly morphed into denials, and from there
into justifications and rationalizations: I just didn’t like
mediation as a profession, after all. I wasn’t cut out to be
a mediator. I was no good as a mediator. I probably chose
the profession for the wrong reasons. I hated conflict and
took refuge in the idea of being “neutral.” And maybe
mediation just wasn’t what it was cracked up to be. In any
case, told myself, I had better, more fun things to do.
I would like to be able to say that the story ends with me
returning to practice, my confidence in myself and in mediation restored, but that’s not the case. Yes, I use the skills all
the time in more informal ways. In my community work, it’s
clear how necessary it is (and amazing how resistant groups
are to working through conflicts rather than suppressing
them). I still consider myself a mediator, at least in theory.
But I have many questions, still, about the way mediators are trained and about the process of mediation itself.
In the twenty years since I entered the field, it has changed.
Numerous different approaches, theories and subspecial-ties have been developed since then. And more and more,
mediation seems to have become the province of lawyers,
begging the question of whether mediation is skill set or a
field in its own right.
But one thing hasn’t changed. The focus is still on the
conflict and the parties and how to address them in order
to facilitate the desired outcome. What’s left out is the
inner life of the mediator and how that affects the mediation process—and vice versa. This is, I feel, a serious lack.
As humans, we are physically, emotionally, and spiritually
affected by the thoughts, feelings and behaviors of others,
consciously, or not.
Mediation, in its most basic form, demands courage and
hope of its participants, requiring that they take an active role
in changing a difficult dynamic and move beyond the simple
dualities of right and wrong. It challenges those involved
to think about what they’d rather not, to face what they’d
rather run from, to listen to and understand those whom
they’d prefer to demonize. This goes for the mediator as well
as the parties in the conflict.
The women’s clinic mediation, and Nancy in particular,
forced me to take an honest look at myself and my reasons
for being a mediator. Ultimately, it convinced me to take a
different path, perhaps a detour that will lead me back, perhaps a new direction altogether. I’m not sure yet. You could
say my focus now is on mediation as an inner process rather
than an outer one. My interest is less in how to help others
through their conflicts, and more in how one’s inner conflicts—consciously acknowledged or otherwise—influence,
even precipitate, outer ones. I believe this is essential work
for a mediator or anyone who works with others in conflict.
Because sooner or later, if you practice mediation, you
will encounter your nemesis, someone whom no amount
of professional expertise, tricks of the trade, or theoretical
understandings will prepare you to face. Will she be there to
help something in you die? Or will she be a midwife, there to
help you give birth to something new?
“The focus in mediation is on the conflict and
the parties. What’s left out is the inner life of
the mediator and how that affects the mediation
process–and vice versa.”