Five men in a sauna can be awkward, with a silence that hangs like anticipatory drips of sweat, all water, and no flow. Metaphorically silly as this may be, it leads to an important lesson about human interaction. Sometimes, when I attend the local pool and have a sauna, there is great interaction and evident display of personality, viewpoints and beliefs. Today, it was silent; five men fighting personal battles against the heat with not a word spoken.
When I realized that all of us at that particular time lacked the personality attribute of being a conversation hub, it revealed to me a social dynamic that plays out, time and time again. Recall how many social situations you have been in where a group of people can’t seem to shake the shyness and create a buzzing social dialogue. Then, put a certain personality in the room and most if not all parties are suddenly talking. Often, when the social hub leaves the room, the conversation shrinks backwards towards its earlier low level.
I also saw the applicability of this scenario to a dispute resolution discussion. The shy and introverted, will not have any less opinions than more extroverted individuals. However, these ideas may not come to the surface to be debated or agreed with to the same degree as those which are worn on the sleeve or voiced in terms of certainty. As opinions lead to the discovery of interests, a dispute resolution professional (DRP) needs to be able to determine who has strong opinions on a disputed matter, and then explore, these opinions, to determine what, and how firmly held, the pivotal interests are, of all parties to the dispute.
Therefore, the metaphorical question becomes, if you are sitting with four others in the sauna, how do you know what they are thinking if they say nothing. Short of body language or facial signal recognition techniques, the answer may be, you don’t. However, that cannot be the end of your efforts as a DRP. In a mediation, you must learn to engage those who are silent, either directly, or through another who may have the gift of conversation generation.
This is a concept that I am developing as an alternative to direct intervention. The DRP does not always need to be the one to confront the silent ones with respect to gaining knowledge. If there is a person, engaged in the process who has the personality to generate conversation, it might be advisable to use this indirect approach to stir the conversational matrix. If this occurs, then even those less prone to direct expression may speak to the issue at hand, and as a consequence, illuminate their thoughts, which may differ from hard-sided stated positions as discussed earlier in the more positional opening part of a mediation.
The lessons from the sauna are:
There are those who keep their thoughts to themselves. If their assistance or acquiesce is required, then it is necessary to have discovery and exploration of their very thoughts and the effect of how the illuminating of their inner needs and concerns will have on determining how to best serve their interests.
This can be accomplished in at least two ways. The first is with direct contact such as open ended questions, and direct but polite investigation as to their concerns and ultimately their interests. The other lesson, is to let this information come from the discussion, and as conversation becomes more at ease to the parties, there is greater likelihood of insight into the underlying interests of the parties.
A few weeks ago, I saw the same principle at work at the gym at The Semiahmoo Resort, where we keep our boat. Every morning, my friend Dan, a retired employee from Boeing who lives on his boat in the marina, is in the gym at 6am. Now you can imagine, that at that hour, there are a lot of quiet people working out. But not when Dan is there. He has the gift that makes him a conversation hub. He engages people until we are all contributing to the conversation and learning a lot about each other’s disparate lives. When I put this to him, he explained that at Boeing, that was what he did. He engaged and liaised between different parties and organizations including government agencies to resolve matters and some to agreements on outstanding issues. Sounds like a mediator’s job to me. For now, I will appoint him Dan of the Gym.