Recalling Traumatic Events: Cathartic or Destructive?

Should we really have clients recount traumatic events in detail in mediation?  Or is that actually a disservice to clients?   Are we reinforcing fear, and sidetracking settlement?  Or are we helping clients move past the trauma?

According to recent studies, recalling a traumatic event shortly after the event occurs does not unburden us — it causes additional stress and fear.  And, memories are not pristine — they change over time.  In a recent Wired Magazine article entitled, The New Science of Forgetting, Jonah Lehrer explains the neuroscience behind these concepts.  Dating back to the Greeks, we have believed that memory is a stable form of information that does not change – an impressions in wax.  In 1983, a technique called Critical Incident Stress Debriefing  (CISD) became widely used in many contexts, including 9/11.  People who survived a traumatic event would recall the event for 3 hours in a seven-step process.  The theory was that recalling the traumatic event would help the person forget the event.  After noticing trauma victims decline following CISD, scientists reevaluated this technique and found that survivors of disasters who received the treatment were 3 times more likely to suffer from depression or PTSD.  Just recently, some psychologists have changed course and now recommend we discontinue CISD for disaster survivors.

Here is what they have learned.  The seven-step CISD technique assumes that memories are formed and remain the same over time.  However, neuroscientists have recently discovered that the cells in the brain constantly reconfigure and update memories, according to what information is useful and relevant for the future.  If we try to solidify a traumatic event shortly after the event, we are actually reinforcing all of the negatives associated with the event, including sweaty palms, heart palpitations, visual images, causing additional fear, stress and trauma.  Each time we recall an event, the cells in the brain reorganize, actually altering the memory, and perhaps making it worse.

So, what does this mean for lawyers and mediators?

Think and take care when asking a client to recall a traumatic event, even though time has passed.  I remember mediating a case with a man who was in a truck accident that nearly killed him.  He was sleeping in the sleeper of a semi when the other driver fell asleep.  The truck overturned and was engulfed in flames.  He remembered being trapped in the cab of the semi, pinned under a portable refrigerator.  I could quickly see that recounting the accident was extremely upsetting to him, so I changed the focus of the conversation.  His attorney probably didn’t really notice — I never asked.  I knew that the insurance company would never pay him enough to compensate him for his view of the trauma caused, particularly if he continued recalling the event.  Creating fear and anxiety in him was not helpful to him or to settlement.

Likewise, in other highly emotional mediations — which is a significant portion of my mediation practice — I am extremely careful about having clients recall their traumatic experiences.  Intuitively, I can see when it is not helpful.  And, now I partially understand why.  I have long believed that most people do not lie.  They simply have differing perspectives.  However, in fact, memories are contained in changing brain cells that are not static and stable.  In fact, scientists now believe they can target certain specific memories and assist us in forgetting those memories.  It is not Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in that all memories are not erased, but, interestingly, they believe we can now erase specific memories.  More importantly, if we know that asking about traumatic events can actually cause additional fear, and if we realize that memories are not necessary right or wrong, perhaps we can be more helpful as professionals.

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Mediation and Negotiation by Skype?

Should you mediate by Skype?  Perhaps.  There are benefits and warnings.

When a recent case was scheduled and one client would not be present in person, an attorney called me to discuss the client’s participation by telephone.  After a short discussion, we decided to have the client (let’s call her Meg) participate via Skype.

Neither attorney had experience with Skype.  Both clients were experienced Skype users.  After some initial reluctance, all agreed to Meg’s Skype presence for mediation.  Still on the day of mediation, concerns surfaced.

We started early.  As a frequent user of Skype, I was comfortable.  I conducted telephone mediation as an appellate mediator for several years.  Thus, I was conscious of the differences the telephone could add and subtract.  With telephone mediation, you have to shift your focus.  Listening to tone of voice is exceptionally important.  Deep sighs and tempo are important as are pace and pauses.  My first course on mediation in 1997 was from Judy Mares-Dixon and Bernard Mayer at CDR Associates in Boulder, Colorado.  Judy was blind and demonstrated that when you cannot see, your focus alters and you pay attention to other details.  Judy encouraged us to try to heighten the use of all of our senses.

And, as we know, watching body language is also important.  It accounts for 50-65% of our communication.  While negotiating in-person, noticing body language happens out of the corner of your eye if you are trained.  With Skype, you must focus more on the images on the computer, intentionally noticing the clues.  Turning the computer so that the client can see body language of counsel and/or the mediator is also key.  One benefit of a computer is that unhelpful body language, exasperated sighs, and/or difficult conversations can be edited by simply turning the screen.  For example, if an attorney has a difficult message to convey, he can gather is thoughts, take a deep breath and relay the response in a more controlled manner.

My role as the mediator was tuned into new ways of helping lawyer and client through their negotiation process.  And, Skype was helpful for their difficult negotiation.  They were not trapped in the same room.  They could take brief breaks, eat a snack or read their mail during the breaks.

There were other benefits as well.  Meg was more relaxed.  Due to the issues in the case, she did not want to be physically present.  Whether or not her fears were justified, Skype alleviated her concerns.  As the mediator, I also thought about my tone of voice, the occasional problem of voices that break due to connectivity problems, and the ways those problems may be more difficult to control.

I also had an interesting experience when Meg muted us as she conferred with a support person.  As we watched her body language, it was clear from her crossed arms and angry expression, she was becoming frustrated or angry.  Perhaps she thought since we couldn’t hear, we would not know.  Out of courtesy and deference to her desire for privacy, and knowing that she may not understand what I could see, I felt it was most appropriate to end the call and send her a chat message.  My message stated, “We decided to hang up for now.  Give us a call when you are ready.”

As the case was nearing settlement, I sent the proposed settlement to Meg in a file on Skype.  She was able to print the document, ask questions, sign the final version, scan it and send the signed agreement back. We did run into technical problems on several occasions.  I would mediate via Skype again, but I recommend it only with a trained professional mediator who can work with the subtle communications differences and with a mediator who has technical Skype experience.

Posted in Confidentiality, Difficult People, Emotions, Ethics, law, mediation, Mediation Advocacy, Settlement | Tagged | 5 Comments

The Pull of Hate in Lawsuits

“Let no man pull you low enough to hate him.” Every year at this time, we are reminded of the great work of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.  So often I encounter people who seem to “hate” each other.

In a recent series of mediations, I encountered a number of people who began to “hate” each other.  Each time, allowing the parties to talk resulted in far less hatred.  Picture a conference table full of men in dark suits in one room angry about a dispute regarding a contract.  Distrust and hatred were palpable.  Down the hall, the other party to the contract was sitting with his spouse and his attorney.  He was sad and frustrated.  Both sides were distressed and disturbed.  They were good friends but significant problems had arisen.  A lawsuit had been filed, and for many months neither side had talked to the other.  The legal issues were complicated.

I mentioned early in the process that a few select men may need to speak to each other.  Attorneys were reluctant.  Clients were intrigued but wary.  After ordinary attempts at settling the dispute seemed to be yielding no results, I brought the key people together.  They shared stories.  They cried and laughed.  They solved their problem.  All indications of hatred disappeared.  Like so many others, these good people appreciated the opportunity to discuss the issues in a controlled setting with a trained mediator.

That day I felt I was working to correct that pull of hate, as I do more often than not.  “Hatred paralyzes life: love releases it.  Hatred confuses life: love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life: love illuminates it.” Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.  Thanks Dr. King for reminding me of why I love my job.

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Negotiating By Email

Should you negotiate by email?  Scientific American says no, citing a recent study involving 48 MBA students from three universities.  In the study, students were given $89 to divide with another person.  64% of the time, the students lied when writing a letter to the other person; however 92% of the time the students lied when they were sending an email to the other person.  Whether or not you think the study is valuable, think about whether you should negotiate by email.  First, try to negotiate in person, by Skype or by telephone.

But, this is not realistic.  So . . . what do you do if you need to negotiate by email?

1.  Be clear and concise but not terse.  Generally, the recipient will only read a line or two – maybe three if you are lucky.  They will skim.  So, get to the point.  Explain your interests, the options, your other alternatives clearly.  Read the email to see if it is too abrupt or interpreted to be rude.

2.  Be professional.  Open and close the email as you would a letter.  When I receive an email, I notice whether it is terse or professional.  Although I try not to be affected by lower case letters and strange spelling, I feel the informal language indicates the person writing the email does not care about me, the topic or my impressions.  Email messages from phones are different.  If a person responds to me from their phone, the informality is more acceptable to me.

3.  Read the email aloud to yourself.   Pause.  Think.  Read.  We send emails too quickly.  According to Psychology Today, studies have shown that nearly half of the time, recipients were NOT able to correctly interpret the tone and tenor of the email. Humor can be misinterpreted, mild displeasure can be read as a tirade, and serious comments can seem sarcastic.  We all have difficulty hearing our voice or email as anything other than what we intend.  Some people can effectively use dashes, dots, spaces — to indicate pauses.

As with all negotiations, pay attention.  Be professional.  Be clear about your priorities, and negotiating by email will serve you well.

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Mediation and Horse Whispering

Early in my mediation training, a mediation trainer played a video of a horse whisperer.  Mediation is much like horse whispering, she explained.  I have been pondering her message for years.

Fast forward to 2011.  If you haven’t, I highly recommend you watch “Buck”, a movie released last year during the Sundance Film Festival.  Buck Brannaman, the real life horse whisperer, uses skill, gentle but firm guidance, humanity, listening, learning, patience — to train horses.  He quietly mentions the problem often lies with the people, the owners, rather than the horse.  He is not just whispering to the horses, he is talking to the owners.  He is teaching horses to work with people and people to work with horses. He is a mediator between horses and their owners.

But, how does Buck do it?  He first bonds with the horse.  He builds trust.  He then begins to work with the horse in predictable ways.  He is patient.  He watches the horse’s reactions.  He listens.  He simultaneously works with the owner.  He asks the owner about the problems with the horse. He listens. He explains his approach to the owner.  He is bonding with the owner.  He is gently guiding the owner to train the horse differently, with guidance rather than force.  To many it appears that he is training the horse.  But, he is clearly working with both the horse and the owner.  In one instance, Buck tells an owner she has too many horses and cannot be providing a quality of life for any of her horses.  Like many horse owners, she sees her horse and the horse training process differently and feels Buck has worked a miracle.

Mediators use a similar approach to guide clients and their attorneys to work together to resolve conflict. Mediators build trust with both sides based on years of experience as professional neutrals.  Mediators listen, learn and help people process the legal arguments and the various ways the court could rule. Mediators reframe the problem so both sides see it differently.  Force is not helpful; straightforward analysis is helpful.  The clients begin to form solutions.  With proper timing and careful presentation, mediators deliver hard messages about the problems with their case.  Cases often settle, and people feel the mediator has done his or her “magic.”

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iPad Mediators

Have you ever been in a mediation and the damn mediator is working harder on his iPad than on your case?  Erg.  This is not the first time I have heard this complaint.  I have a friend who recently had this experience in a southern state.  He is an attorney well-versed in mediation who has mediated across the United States.  He was trying to get his case resolved. He had funds.  And yet the mediator was too busy smiling at his iPad to work the case.  So maybe the mediator was looking at his drop box.  Maybe he was reviewing a crucial contract or deposition.  In any event, it does not look or feel that way to the attorney or client, particularly if the mediator is smiling.

Don’t make the mistake of hiring the iPad Mediator — or, let’s say, the mediator who does not work hard to help the parties settle the case.  Find a mediator who will work your case, stay with it until it is settled — unless, of course, you don’t want to settle.

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Working With the “Crazy Ones” in Mediation

Steve Jobs encouraged us to celebrate “the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the trouble-makers, the round pegs in the square holes, the ones who see things differently.”

As mediators, we often meet these so-called “crazy ones.”  They are involved in litigation. They start businesses.  They take risks.  They see things differently.  Others may be frustrated with them, but experienced mediators can utilize their (seemingly rebellious) energy, their differentness, to help solve the conflict.  They can make life interesting and enriching. They often find themselves in conflict because they are not fond of rules.  Or, they view rules differently.  They may think about things on a vastly different level. Perhaps they are detail-oriented, even obsessive.  Rushing them is a mistake.  Perhaps they are big picture oriented.  Getting them to sit still while the other side processes can be crucial.  Often it is not what we say to such people, it is how we say it and when we say it.  Often both sides see the other as outrageous.  Our charge is to help both sides see the other’s perspective and find solutions – without labeling either side “crazy.”

This is a sneak preview of my presentation in Reno, Nevada on October 19, 2011 — “My Neighbor is a Sociopath: Working with Difficult Personalities,” for the Northern Nevada Chapter, Community Association Institute.  See, CAI Nevada.

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HOA Boards: Mediation vs. Arbitration?

You find yourself on a community association board.  Homeowners are complaining about leaking roofs, damaged walls and soggy carpet.  The board’s attorney has filed a lawsuit against the roofer.  The roofer sued the general contractor and the developer who both blame the architect.  Over a year later, with sufficient information about the case, the lawyer suggests the board mediate the dispute.  What does that mean?  How should you vote?  Alternately, the other parties are requesting arbitration. What is the difference?

Mediation and arbitration are two methods of resolving disputes without going to court.   Arbitration is similar to court in that an arbitrator (rather than a judge) listens to evidence and makes a decision.  Unlike court, the parties (rather than the state) select and pay the arbitrator. However, if you are unhappy with the arbitrator’s decision, you have little recourse.  Generally, you cannot appeal am arbiter’s award except under limited circumstances.  Over the past few years, arbitration has become somewhat disfavored in some areas of law because many believe it does not save time or money, and arbitrators are reputed to “split the baby” rather than strictly apply the law.

In contrast, in mediation the parties hire a mediator to help the parties reach a mutually acceptable solution.  The mediator does not make a decision.  The mediator helps the parties find a solution both can agree upon.  After the case is settled, the parties enter into and sign an agreement, and neither side can or needs to appeal because they have agreed. Mediation is favored in most lawsuits, but community association cases are particularly good cases to mediate because often fostering good relations or expediting settlement is more important than winning in court.

How does this play out?  For the community association with significant leaks in the roof, the parties will likely agree to mediate. As a Board member you should have been informed that a multi-party construction defect lawsuit is expected to last 2 to 3 years – and is estimated to cost at least $250,000 in attorneys fees, depending on your jurisdiction.  Let’s say the repair will cost $2 million.  There is no guarantee the association will win the lawsuit, receive a $2 million award and be able to collect it.  The roofer and the general contractor may be bankrupt and unable to pay the amount awarded by a court.  Insurance may or may not cover it or be in effect.  In many instances, the insurance companies will seek to shift the responsibility.  Your lawyer may advise you there may not be coverage, even if you win.  Faced with all of this, attorneys often suggest hiring a mediator to assist in resolving the dispute and getting a settlement rather than taking these risks.  In mediation, the roofer, the developer, the architect, and the general contractor will likely agree to pitch in to fund some of the cost of the repairs.  You will likely compromise for a smaller amount, but the lawsuit is over.  More importantly, your board has incurred much less in attorney’s fees, and the amount available to fund the damage is no longer uncertain.  Possibly most importantly, the board can begin to hire contractors to fix the damage before the weather hits.

Posted in Arbitration, Community Association, Construction Defect, HOA, law, mediation, Mediation Advocacy, Settlement | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Mediator Selection: What Mixture of Skills?

Mediator selection is one of the more important decisions you will make as you prepare for mediation. Check with others about their experiences with mediators.  Think carefully about what all attorneys and clients need.  But, most importantly, interview the prospective mediator.

Some consumers of mediation services believe they need someone “with authority” who will tell the clients or attorneys what to do or make them see the light.  Likely you do need a person who understands the law and will provide an effective reality check of how a court may rule — but be careful.  An authority figure without proper training or skill as a mediator may blow the deal.  What you really may need is a mixture of skills — such as Eric Galton of Austin, Texas or Jeff Kichaven of Los Angeles, California ( Master of Mediation Moves Up), both involved in the International Academy of Mediators.   At times, attorneys may need a mediator with expertise, for example, in appellate law or Chinese culture.  At other times, subject matter expertise is less essential — the clients need a mediator who listens and provides a reality check they can actually hear. Whatever the case, select your mediator carefully and focus on what will best serve the interests of the clients.

1.  Research the mediator on the internet.  Is the mediator experienced?  Check out their webpage and/or blog.  Have they attended extensive training?  Have they mediated frequently – at least 100 or more cases a year for a few years? Are they involved in professional organizations?  Do they have “reviews”  such as references on their webpage and/or comments of attorneys and clients?  What can you glean about their expertise and style on their webpage?  Do they seem appropriate for your case, your clients, the other clients?

2.  Call people.  (You can email, but the answers will not be as frank.)  What do consumers of that mediator’s services have to say?  Attorneys?  Clients?  Can the mediator handle difficult and yet typical conflicts such as the client who wants to litigate as a matter of principle?  Can the mediator move parties past impasse to a signed agreement?

3.  Interview the mediator.  How will the mediator handle the mediation process?  Does the mediator call parties in advance?  Will the mediator actually read briefs?  Does the mediator adjust the mediation process for each case?  Or is each case conducted the same?  How will the mediator handle and organize this kind of a case?  You can and should ask all of these questions.

4.  Does the mediator have a joint opening session?  Why or why not? Most professional mediators will be flexible on this point.  Like most mediators (particularly those involved in the International Academy of Mediators, see www.iamed.org), I talk to attorneys in advance. I generally ask whether a joint session would be useful.  I mediate many cases with complex legal issues, multiple parties, and/or high emotional content, so advanced discussions are important.  In most instances, the clients and attorneys have an opinion about the usefulness of the joint session that must be carefully and thoughtfully discussed.

At the current time, most attorneys want to avoid the joint session, particularly if they have not been in a mediation with a skilled mediator.  They have seen the joint session “blow up”, and have spent hours trying to calm a client.  Experienced mediators understand how to make a joint session productive, and how to allow parties to have an effective conversation.  A brief pre-mediation discussion between the mediator, the client and the attorney can assist enormously in determining if a joint session is a good idea, and, if so, how and when to have a joint session.  The mediator can also assist the attorney and client in making the joint session productive.

For example, in a recent case two people who were in litigation regarding their business venture were privately discussing with me whether a joint opening session would be helpful.  Both parties were naturally hesitant — they were in a lawsuit.  They had been close friends some years back.  One party was pretty angry due to the protracted litigation and concerned he would rage out of control.  The other party was willing to talk.  One attorney had prepared an opening statement and documents to share and wanted a joint session.  The other attorney was opposed to a joint session because his client was angry.   I talked to both clients and explained the concerns on both sides.  I suspected that because the clients had been friends, a joint session would be important at some point in the mediation.  After obtaining both sides agreement to have a joint session, I asked both attorneys to keep their comments factual, not emotionally charged or argumentative.  The joint session was helpful, an efficient use of time, and allowed the parties to begin negotiating more quickly than usual.  Hours were saved because they heard the concerns from the other side, and did not spend time questioning me about the other sides motives, concerns and priorities.  After the negotiation was over and the documents were signed, the parties met again and thanked me for the manner in which the mediation was conducted.

In another case, the clients insisted they must remain separate.  However, as the negotiation progressed, they wanted to speak to each other in a controlled setting.  They were in a lawsuit that had lasted more than 4 years regarding property.  They attended church together, and they were neighbors.  They wanted to clear the air.  The joint session was warm and friendly.  Attorneys were not present.  The clients were able to resolve the dispute in a manner neither side had discussed privately, but resulted from joint brainstorming.

I think about these stories when I listen to attorneys casually discussing the mediator selection process.  They are clearly interested in mediators that their clients like and trust.  They do not like mediators who tell both sides simultaneously that their case is weak and don’t identify real weaknesses.  And, they do not like mediators who lie.  They like mediators who listen to their clients and yet move the process along, despite long-winded, unfocused, emotional or entrenched clients.  They also much prefer mediators who “get it done”.  And, they  appreciate prepared, organized mediators with the ability to use different skills depending on the case.

If you take time on mediator selection, you will likely experience an efficient effective mediation process that results, more often than not, in a solution that both sides actually feel ok about.

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Shift to Professional Mediators vs. Diplomats in Warring Countries? Cool.

Great news.  Foreign governments are promoting professional private mediators as an effective method of resolving world conflicts.  They actually recognize the value of professional mediators working to resolve conflicts  rather than diplomats.  Private mediators lack the political baggage that diplomats carry.  They are not bogged down by bureaucracy so they can move quickly and creatively, and private mediators can take bigger risks regarding with whom they will talk to and under what circumstances, according to The Economist in an article entitled “Privitising Peace.

On June 23, 2011, the Oslo Forum Network hosted a discussion entitled “Talking to the Taliban.”  This year the forum invited “real-life Taliban” to the table to talk, according to The Economist.  In 2003, the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue launched the Oslo Forum Network to enhance the status and reputation of mediation as a profession and to improve “conflict mediation.”  The forum provides unique opportunity for professional mediators to share their experiences in a “discreet and informal setting.” And, the forum is promoting gender diversity of the professional peace mediators of these armed conflicts.  Bonus.

Imagine sitting in a room with leaders of foreign countries working on a mediated solution.  I have heard both Roger Fisher and Bob Mnookin discuss these conversations.  I have never known the extent of Fisher and Mnookin’s experience as professional mediators versus their experienced as Harvard professors, but it seems their involvement was at least an improvement over using diplomats.  Not that there is anything wrong with diplomats. Its just that for years these efforts have been led by diplomats, largely because they are respected and trusted, not because they are trained to resolve conflict.  Maybe the warring countries could find deeper and more satisfactory resolutions to their conflicts with a professional mediator?

Seems similar to the waning propensity in the United States to use untrained retired judges to mediate legal disputes. Trained judges can be very effective as mediators, it is the untrained retirees who cause concern.  Like diplomats, retired judges are trusted and respected, and often parties want them to use their muscle to force a solution.  But, like diplomats, they often lack the training to read cues, understand underlying concerns of both parties, read between the lines and help warring parties reach a sustainable and deeply needed resolution to their conflict.  Besides, often using muscle is the opposite of what parties in conflict need.  Perhaps we can find some peace for armed conflicts if we indeed shift to using professionally trained mediators.  We can only hope.

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