When and how could I intervene constructively? Mediator/facilitator intervention can help or hinder a dialogue and
I wanted to determine if there identifiable intervention entry
points. It seemed these conflict conversations had a life of
their own and that the energy of the discourse ebbed and
flowed. If intervention occurs too soon it stops the flow of
dialogue and parties feel unheard. If intervention is too little
or too late, verbal daggers thrown could put the other person on the defensive, thus escalating the verbal violence,
elevating tension and decreasing the chance for empathy
Conflict conversations can be broken into three parts: the
story of what happened or what is happening as a result of
past experience; the present impact and meaning; and the
future desired outcome. I discovered that by tracking energy
and mindfully listening to the language of the conflict, I could
move parties from focusing on judgment and blame (the
past) to exploring the impact and meaning of the behavior
(the present), and finally (if they desire) to guide them into a
future of resolution often supported by apology and remorse.
I found three key intervention points. The initial intervention focused on the intention of the person causing harm,
in an attempt to minimize the fundamental attribution error
(over-attributing negative behavior to intention and under-attributing it to circumstances). When I reframed a judgment
or blame comment (e.g., turning “you should have…” into
“what could you have . . .”) or asked a question to clarify intention, the energy level often decreased. I noticed that “why”
questions tended to cause parties to blanch especially if the
“why” was followed by “didn’t you,” putting the receiver on
the defensive. But “Why didn’t you just walk away when you
knew your friends were going to steal …?” could be reframed
to “Why did you choose not to walk away from your friends
when they decided to steal…?” Breaking the contraction
“didn’t” and inserting “you choose not to” appeared to reduce
judgment and blame, describing behavior as about a choice
made (which contributed to accountability later in the media-tion/facilitation). Continually reframing or asking clarifying
questions appeared to reduce the peaks of energy over the
life of the conversation.
The second point of intervention focused on meaning and
impact. Questions such as “how has this situation impacted
you?” or “what does this conversation mean to you?”
allowed for a deeper conversation and greater introspection.
The intervals between energy outbursts tended to lengthen
as parties were able to ask questions of each other and gain
deeper understanding and empathy. The intervals between
verbal discharges sometimes resulted in periods of silence. I
also noticed that the discomfort with long periods of silence
often had more to do with the mediator/facilitator than
that of the parties. Mediators/facilitators would often be
the first to break the silence. If the parties broke the silence
they often had something important to share. A new round
of energy exchange would often occur.
The third intervention point involved the offender’s expression of accountability and apology. The mediator/facilitator
should never request an apology, because the significance
and value is decreased if requested and not given freely. If an
apology is expected by a victim and not freely offered, I have
found it effective to ask an offender “What do you regret?”
This regret question frequently moves the party from justification and the story in their head, to their heart and allows
an expression of deep remorse. It also allows them to save
face. If a sincere apology is offered and accepted that may
be all that is required to exhaust the negative energy and
kill the conflict. An apology may also be the beginning of a
positive movement in energy as the parties work toward
resolution or reparation.
Through the conversation with David, Josh’s family finally
got answers to long-held questions only David could answer.
They finally found out how Josh died and why. They no longer had to imagine what his last moments of life were like.
That brought peace for the family, along with understanding and forgiveness, and let David move past his shame. The
experience took courage, compassion from all parties, and
created an unusual connection and bond. David now feels
he’s accountable to Josh’s family to make the most of his life
and contribute to society in a positive way when he gets out
of prison. He has shared his experience with other inmates.
David and Josh’s mother are working together on a book
about the experience.
David’s final words to me were “I wish every offender had
the opportunity to look in the eyes of their victim or their
family and see the impact of what they have done. This conversation can change a man’s heart. Heck, I don’t even want
to hurt anyone’s feelings ever again after this experience.”
Josh’s mother said “When the trial occurred my voice was
taken from me. Today I got my voice back.”
Brown, Brené, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You
Think You’re Supposed To Be and Embrace Who You Are
Brown, Brené, Daring Greatly: How the Courage To Be
Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and
Lead (Gotham Books, 2012).
Ellison, Sharon, Don’t Be So Defensive: Taking the War out
of Our Words with Powerful, Non-Defensive Communication
(Andrews McMeel Pub, 1997).
Macfarlane, Julie, Dispute Resolution: Readings and Case
Studies (2nd ed.) (Emond Montgomery Publications, 2003).
Mayer, Bernard, Beyond Neutrality: Confronting the Crisis in
Conflict Resolution (Jossey-Bass, 2004).
Arbinger Institute, The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the
Heart of Conflict (Berrett-Koehler, 2006).