Here at the Bellevue Mediation Program our work is first and foremost a matter of listening to stories.   We have an unspoken contract with our clients – you tell us your story, we’ll try to help you.   Our volunteers are paid in stories.  To be a good mediator, you need a hunger for stories, because that’s what sustains you, and also because your clients can tell if you’re not interested.

When you pick up the phone and start listening to stories at our office, you will hear from people who are suffering because of what someone else did.  They are stories like these:

  • An elderly woman is mourning because a neighbor came on to her property and cut down a beautiful tree that she admired from her kitchen window.  It was a tree her late husband planted 30 years ago…  
  • A young college student is desperate, his landlord kept his deposit even after he meticulously cleaned every inch of the apartment, he was extra careful because he needed that money for his second month’s rent on his new place…  
  • A mom calls, nearly in tears, because her teenage daughter has run away.  The girl had been flaunting all the house rules for the last year, she kicked her younger brother, screamed at her Mom, and stormed out of the house a week ago…

Your heart goes out to these suffering souls, in whose stories the other parties have always behaved badly – they have been abusive, hostile, greedy, or at minimum indifferent to the caller’s suffering.  You put down the phone thinking, “wow, that other person is mean…”  Sometimes you just have to sit with that thought for a while.  But eventually you have to let it go because the next thing you have to do is to call that other person, and you’re not going to do a good job in that call if you go in thinking, “it’s time to call the meanie!”

Sometimes the other party won’t talk.  Sometimes they’re defensive when they find out why you’re calling.  But mostly they tell you their stories, because they have an emotional story too.  And emotions have a way of wanting to get out.  So they unburden their story to you, and it’s a whole new angle. 

  • Turns out that the widow, the one with the tree, she has been raking her yard waste onto their property since they moved in 5 years ago, and she screamed at their kids for “playing too loudly” in the back yard; and finally, their survey indicated the tree was on their property anyway. 
  • And that tenant who lost his deposit, what he did not tell you is that he melted a plastic container all over the stove, the landlord couldn’t get the melted plastic off, but the oven stank every time he turned it on so the whole thing had to be replaced. 
  • And that teen-ager… you’re on the phone with her for an hour at the end of which you’re shaking your head, thinking, “they ought to make parents get licenses before they can bring the baby back from the hospital.”

So you put down the phone thinking that these two people inhabit different universes – how can this be?  Again, sometimes you just have sit with these feelings for a while, until you return to the idea that of course they live in the same world, in the same city, in the same neighborhood even. It’s not their worlds that are different, it’s their stories that have collided. 

So your job as a mediator is not just to listen to stories, it’s also to prize apart these narrative train wrecks, to make enough room between so that you can sit between them with sufficient peace of mind to see how both stories happen in the same world.  This process requires a good imagination  – not the ability to create fiction, but the ability to imagine multiple perspectives on the same situation. Only once you imagine those perspectives can you help the parties rewrite their stories into ones that easily live in the same world, ones that acknowledge the other’s story. Perhaps this rewriting will bring a new harmony, perhaps just a more peaceful co-existence.

I have come to believe that one of the best trainings for mediators is to read novels… Not popular fiction, but literature – novels where you have to keep track of several characters perspectives, where you have to imagine that common world that they inhabit, where you have to inhabit that space between. Turns out a recent sociological study supports this idea.

…(the study) found that after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence — skills that come in especially handy when you are trying to read someone’s body language or gauge what they might be thinking.

Experts said the results implied that people could be primed for social skills like empathy, just as watching a clip from a sad movie can make one feel more emotional.

…“Maybe popular fiction is a way of dealing more with one’s own self, maybe, with one’s own wants, desires, needs.” In popular fiction, said Mr. Kidd, one of the researchers, “really the author is in control, and the reader has a more passive role.”

In literary fiction, like Dostoyevsky, “there is no single, overarching authorial voice,” he said. “Each character presents a different version of reality, and they aren’t necessarily reliable. You have to participate as a reader in this dialectic, which is really something you have to do in real life.”  Pam Belluck, New York Times, Oct 3rd, 2013.

… and it’s something mediators have to do, in fact it’s perhaps their central role.   

I’ve heard it said that God is in space between people (perhaps that’s a Quaker saying). Perhaps it’s also where the devil plays. In any case mediators sit there too, witnessing and validating all the stories, and finally working to reconcile them somehow: you do live in the same world; this space between can evolve; it’s not destined forever to be hostile and toxic; you are the writer; you can choose…   

(Andrew Kidde shares the position of Program Manager for the Bellevue Neighborhood Mediation Program with Cheryl Cohen (see below). In addition to managing the Mediation Program, Andrew manages public involvement projects for the City of Bellevue Planning Department. Prior to working full time for Bellevue, Andrew had a family law and mediation practice in Seattle since 1994. He is currently an inactive member of the Washington State Bar Association, a mentor mediator with the King County Dispute Resolution Center, and a certified mediator and former Board member of the Washington Mediation Association. Mr. Kidde has extensive experience as a mediation trainer in the Puget Sound area. He is a graduate cum laude of Seattle University School of Law and has a masters degree in City and Regional Planning from Cornell University.)

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