Monday, July 28, 2008

Beyond the Knights of Ni!

I watched the classic Monty Python film, Search for the Holy Grail, this week-end, and the Knights of Ni reminded me of what we often hear in mediation. Not the word “Ni,” but the word “no.” This small in size and sometimes large in stature word appears in many different forms including – “I can’t do that.” Or “What are they thinking – are they crazy?” Or “never in a million years” and sometimes as just plain “no.”

As mediator, what to do when faced with No? Do you conclude the mediation at its utterance or do you welcome it as an invitation? Or perhaps that we are finally getting to the heart of the matter. For me, when folks say “no” it means that, I as mediator, must really get to work to help keep the process and discussion moving so that participants will stay engaged and be able to move from No to Yes if they so choose. It certainly does not occur as a clear, crisp switch; rather, the mediation process can allow participants to shift their thinking, to reconsider their positions and interests and to make decisions that they did not anticipate prior to the mediation process or even during earlier parts of the session.

I also have a personal mediator “rule” that the word “No” does not mean “No” until someone has said it three times. This doesn’t mean that I pester people or brush off their “No” - rather, it means I continue to explore with participants how they can meet their needs and interests and in so doing, move beyond no. Part of the genesis of this rule is that people who negotiate in mediation sometimes use “no” as a negotiating tool. They don’t really mean it. Also, as noted above, I believe that when people say “no,” it can mean that you are getting close to what they really want. So, in either case, I keep on working as mediator until it is crystal clear to everyone that we need to stop our work for the day.

Note that I am not imposing my decision about what “No” does or does not mean; rather, I just keep working the mediation process. These are times to listen hard, pay close attention to the feelings in the room and watch everyone like a hawk. All this information can help you as mediator help the folks trying to make choices about their dispute.

So, the next time someone says “no” in mediation, think of the Knights of Ni. And for those who do not recall – remember that the Python Knights went past by first bringing a shrubbery and then with the word “it!”

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