IMI and ISM University Certified Training 


Posted 23 Dec 2022

Eastern wisdom for a successful mediation

I am fascinated by a new book by Dr. Thomas Gartenmann, The Emperor’s Cupboard: More clarity and impact for business leaders through Western psychology and Eastern wisdom (translated from the German edition, The author dedicates the book to “the inner child in all of us” and this made me pay attention to a central theme running through his work. That is, the idea that the clarity we all seek in order to gain concrete achievements in our life comes when we adopt a beginner’s mind. Zen philosophy calls this ‘shoshin’ which is a frame of mind full of curiosity, an open-minded approach to the world, combined with an absence of presumptions and prior judgments.

How many people, especially those already agitated and upset by an unpleasant disagreement with someone, can claim to have this mindset? We are, most of us, stuffed to the gills with judgement, beliefs and presumptions. And the older we get, the more entrenched our views become, making the kind of open-mindedness necessary for resolution very tricky to attain. Is there a way to reset our mindset? And what can we achieve if we manage it for ourselves and others?

Emptying the cup

One of the delightful Zen stories retold in Dr Gartenmann’s book is that of Nan-in, a Zen master who demonstrates through a tea ceremony (gone slightly wild) why “first you must empty your cup” through the reflection that comes with traditional meditation. In mediation, of course, there is no time to meditate under normal circumstances, and so the emptying of the cup happens slightly differently. The mediator gives a good part of the process to ‘emptying’ as much as possible all the ideas, emotions, resentments, worries and demands that are racing around in parties’ minds.

Many of these feelings and desires might have been hidden for a long time, and it is essential to get them out in a safe way, whether in private or in front of the other party. The emptying phase opens the door to encouraging the ‘beginner’s mind’ where there is a good chance for each party to see the issues on hand from a different or refreshed perspective, and to entertain the notion that a solution may be very different from what they had imagined.

Perception change through reflection

In another story in Dr Gartenmann’s book, a hermit nun standing at her well shows her curious visitors how giving themselves enough time through silent reflection will reveal a vast change in what they can see. The perception of what is there, or what one thinks is truth, changes and morphs as time is allowed to pass. The nun explains: “That is what you experience silence and meditation. If you give yourself a lot of time and space, you see through to the bottom of all things.”

This gentle Eastern Zen concept is at the heart of alternative dispute resolution. Parties caught up in a dispute need time, and they need space. Time and space in mediation are used together as highly calibrated tools, with the aim of achieving a positive mental ‘reset’ for the parties.

Time and space are essential tools

Space is well thought out in any good mediation. Private sessions are available whenever needed during the process. In addition: the ability to benefit from a safe, respectful and comfortable environment under watchful yet neutral guidance. Space must be prepared in advance to achieve certain psychological requirements, such the parties feeling that they can be on the same team while seated at a round table, rather than facing off across a long table in an imposing conference room.

An effective mediation provides that rare luxury in a busy life: the time required to work through each and every element that the parties may reference as contributing to their dispute. Time is provided equally to either side; they must feel unhurried and uninterrupted. The process benefits from being more slow and deliberate, rather than efficient and decisive. The mediator will encourage reflection, exploration of an idea, and a deeper dive into points that may have been overlooked in the past. Silences, pauses, breaks all contribute to the careful pacing of discussions that is built into every professional mediation session.

Faster is not better

A mediation is not a time to run down an agenda of grievances and then reach a quick agreement. In the tradition of wise Eastern philosophers of centuries past: with something close to a beginner’s clear mind, time can be used to uncover a far better way forward.

By Dania Shawwa

International Mediator

IM-Campus, IMI, CEDR

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