George Orwell once pointed out that the abstraction of the enemy without ever having met that person would keep him at odds with that person. However, once he met a man who thought differently than he did, the abstraction became human dissipating the dislike or negative feeling toward that person.
I believe that a root cause of the tumultuous times we find ourselves in currently is the refusal to listen to whatever is being said by the opposing group. Moreover, social media has exacerbated this polarity by spreading opinions, often with little factual basis, to those people that are predisposed to accept them as a priori truths. I have been doing pro bono mediations for Small Claims Court in Orange County, California for the past 5 years. What is most helpful in such cases is that the parties involved can seek legal advice but are not permitted to be represented by attorneys during the mediation. The elimination of legal baggage makes it much easier to work with the two sides: 1) Plaintiff and 2) Defendant. I would like to provide an example where high conflict situations can be resolved when the two opposing parties are willing and able to come together to mediate their differences.
The case I was assigned to mediate was between a young male and young female that had been former lovers. The plaintiff was the male suing his ex-girlfriend not only in Orange County, but also in another jurisdiction. In each case, he was suing the defendant for the maximum $10,000 allowed in small claims court.
Because most small claim cases do not involve any prior engagement or knowledge of the other party, this kind of case was not typical. When plaintiffs and defendants have never met, they share no history, thus, eliminating the entanglement and complications rendered by painful emotions. Consequently, this was not simply a matter of money, like most small claims’ cases tend to be, but rather it included the past relationship and the intense feelings that these two formerly had shared with each other. Unresolved anger between defendant and plaintiff in a voluntary mediation often does not bode well for a positive ending. Although their relationship had ended about two years ago, what was being manifested from the start was the anger and hostility they currently felt toward one another. As I began the process of mediation, I was not optimistic about how the outcome would look.
Because of their former relationship, I thought it best to let them bring up the emotions and hurt involved, but, with the implicit caution, not to let these same feelings between the two of them get out of hand. In brief, the plaintiff was suing the defendant for not having shared in paying the rent for a long period of time. When they had lived together, their names were on the lease and this arrangement continued when they moved out to another city. Thus, there were two leases in two separate jurisdictions. During the mediation, the defendant cried explaining that she had meant to pay the rent once she was able to become certified as a teacher. At that time, the plaintiff was completing medical school and, he had incurred some debt that may have factored in his deciding to sue the defendant. Currently, the plaintiff was completing his medical residency while the defendant was seeking employment as a teacher.
After both had expressed their feelings, I asked the defendant how much she was willing to pay her ex-boyfriend in the hopes it might put the issue to rest. In comparison to the amount he was asking, her offer was on the low side as she mentioned she was just beginning to work. At this point, I reinforced their good will in making a sincere effort to get beyond a situation that had brought pain to them both, by now sitting down to meet one another in mediation. I then pointed out to them that they were both quite young and were just really beginning their lives as professionals.
What then followed was quite surprising: There was a sudden shift in the plaintiff’s facial expression from anger to something much less severe. Now I sensed that in fact I might be able to arrive at an agreement between the two of them. Rather than intervene, by asking the plaintiff what kind of offer he was willing to accept from the defendant to bring the case to closure, I chose to let him speak. He said: “I don’t want to hurt you anymore so I don’t want anything from you.” Moreover, he wanted to drop the other case he had pending against the defendant in another county. In writing up the agreement, both parties agreed that the plaintiff would dismiss the case without receiving any money. I further had them sign a separate agreement that the pending case, out of the jurisdiction of Orange County, would be also dismissed. To conclude, i think the mediation worked because of the powerful impact that each had on the other when they were actually able to face one another and proceed in a civil and respectful way.
I realize that politics is very different from mediation. But wouldn’t if it be a much better world if our representatives in Washington D.C. listened to one another rather than hurl verbal stones at one another? Unfortunately, our president does not foster a climate where the democrats and republicans can sit down with one another, and in agreeing to disagree on several issues, go beyond their differences in creating a sense of unity and harmony among themselves and our people.