I recently listened to an interview with one of my favourite authors, William Boyd, who was discussing the appeal of novels. He believed their popularity was down to the writer’s ability to portray in words exactly what a character was feeling – which, as he pointed out, was the opposite of real life where we can never truly know someone’s thoughts. And that got me thinking. How might this apply to the mediation world?

The dictionary definition of ‘think’ is ‘having a particular belief or opinion’. Fundamentally, our thoughts are in our head and although we can express those ideas or beliefs to others, we can’t guarantee they will understand their meaning in the way we do, or in the way we expect them to. We can ask them and they may try to explain, or we can make assumptions based on how we would be feeling ourselves in a given scenario. But we can only imagine other’s people thoughts through the lenses of our own experiences and our own thoughts.

We’re very attached to our thoughts and beliefs. All of our experiences are encoded in the neurones within our brain, making them integral to our sense of self. We are what we know, what we believe, what we think. So it’s hardly surprising that disputes often arise out of a mismatch in the way two people think, or how they imagine someone else must think.

Settlement through understanding

At a mediation, we often spend a considerable amount of time dealing with people’s thoughts and feelings – either in processing their own, or helping them understand someone else’s. When your sense of self is bound up in your thoughts, it can be very difficult to acknowledge that there may be a different way of looking at a situation, a different way of thinking. Although that view or opinion doesn’t have to be accepted as correct, simply an appreciation that someone else views the situation differently, and that view is valid to them, can help move the parties towards a solution.

Do mediations work because we explore how people think? I’d love to compare my work as a mediator to that of William Boyd, but whereas a truly good novelist allows a reader to see the world through the eyes of a character, a good mediator encourages a mediating party to try on a different pair of glasses to enable them to view things differently. We can’t truly know what another person thinks but it’s good to take time to explore, to listen, to try their thoughts on for size. And, vitally, to understand that those thoughts are important to that person and are bound up in their sense of self and self-esteem.

Like novels, not all mediations will have a happy ending – but coming from a place of openness certainly makes for a great opening chapter.