Exchange Forum: The most difficult person in the room

People who never mediate don’t realise that while the process is highly effective, it isn’t always an easy option. Perhaps in mediation, even more than other situations, the difficult person can stand out as any combination of uncooperative, unwilling to participate, detrimental to the process of mediation, or even dangerous. In short, not conducive to the process of mediation – which, of course, requires willingness and an active participation by the parties.

During CEDR’s recent Mediator Exchange Forum at CEDR Member firm, Ashurst, in Central London, Susanne Schuler and Andy Rogers delivered an interactive session on dealing with the people who seem to cause the most trouble – not just during mediations, but also in a number of situations encountered in daily life. This mid-afternoon session started with breakout groups, brainstorming situations in which participants had encountered these mythical difficult people. These situations, including mediations that had turned violent, parties that had walked out of the room, and an expert witness questioning the value of a mediation.

The brainstorm solutions were certainly varied, due to the different natures of the examples, ranging from empowering the individual in question, to listening and providing feedback, to keeping a handle on situations which might turn inadvertently physical. The final session of the day allowed groups to again come up with ways in which to approach a difficult person, but this time dealing with a specific case study.

Throughout the course of the event, I was reminded of a training session that I attended back in October of last year, which dealt with how to negotiate with terrorists. It occurred to me, in what is a huge oversimplification, that terrorists are, to some degree, just extremely difficult (and dangerous) people. The need to be heard and understood, to be communicated with, and to be validated is common in all disputes. The methods discussed to dealing with “the difficult person in the room” were reminiscent to the terrorism course, focusing strongly on different elements of active listening to lead to developing empathy and rapport, and thus influence and behavioral change.

The voluntary and proactive nature of mediation means that parties, in an ideal world, are prepared for the simultaneous engagement and calmness that mediation requires. But that is sometimes not the case, as many mediators have come to learn throughout the years of trying to dissolve conflicts. Although the problems caused by parties during mediation are virtually nothing compared to the calamities raised by terrorism, it is interesting to see that, on a broader scale, high-quality active listening skills can really be a one-fits-all approach toward dealing with individuals who raise issues – no matter the setting.

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