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It's A Gray Area: On becoming a peacemaker

October 09, 2010|James P. Gray

One of the most gratifying things I did as a judge on the trial court in Orange County was helping people voluntarily resolve their disputes. Over the years I developed some insights into what helps increase the chances of a resolution, and what pushes people further apart. So since there are opportunities in everyone's life to help to resolve disputes, whether they are their own or those of others, I wanted to pass along to you some suggestions — and maybe in turn you can pass them along to your children.

The first thing to be aware of in trying to resolve disputes is not to promise more than you can deliver. If anything you do gets people's expectations to be unrealistically high, you will probably torpedo your chances of achieving a resolution even before you even get started. So always stay cautiously optimistic, but also stay realistic.

In addition, when you are involved in discussions in the presence of the opposing parties, never allow anyone to use what I call "poisonous words." These are words like "liar," "cheat," or "scumbag," and their use will almost always move people further from a resolution.

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Similarly, as a mediator you should stress that only one person can get mad at a time during the talks. (And, of course, you can never be the one!) And if one side does get upset, allow that person to "vent" for a short while, but then make a comment like, "I understand how you feel (which will ratify but not necessarily agree with their emotions), but may we now get back to trying to alleviate the source of your frustration and resolve this dispute in a fair manner?"

And don't underestimate the power of an honest apology. Several years ago an insurance company that provided medical malpractice insurance to doctors actually encouraged their insured doctors to apologize to their patients when the outcome of a medical procedure was disappointing. That does not always mean that the doctors were admitting that they made a mistake, but if the apology for the bad result is genuine, many people will understand that their doctors did not go to medical school to hurt people, and also that they are human. Thus many people will be forgiving, accept the apology, and simply go on with their lives. Of course, this approach can apply to all kinds of disputes.

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