Today is my last day at Quabbin Mediation. After a year of hard work, a lot of learning, and a race to the finish line to get this website up and running, I don’t know when I’ll next find myself in the lucky position of working in an office full of people who are actual communication experts, professionally and personally invested in talking about difficult things.
All year I’ve been surprised by how positively people I met at parties, at the library, and on the bus responded when I told them what I did for a living. How did you get into that? they asked. That must be so great. People are so hungry to connect to each other, to do it better than they were taught. One kindergarten teacher I worked with this year commented that we were teaching the same skills she taught a lot of her students, that it baffled her that lessons on sharing, feeling, and caring for each other didn’t advance at each grade level like math lessons or English assignments.
Of course we all need this! Mediation, I’ve learned, is really about how to understand each other and ourselves better, which is something we all need, and how to have hard conversations without judgment (or, at least, with less). These are tools I don’t just hope to carry into the rest of my life; I must, if I want to get better and kinder and more real. So with that in mind, I put together a list of the five most important things I learned from mediation. I hope they’ll help you too.
1. Listen, for real.
Being heard makes a person feel safe, respected, and more willing to engage, even when it’s difficult. And you, the listener, will learn more about the person you’re in conflict with, which will make them seem more human, their problems more real.
2. Ask open-ended questions.
This is a serious listening enhancer. When someone is telling you about a problem, or anything in their life, don’t just ask questions that can be answered with “yes” or “no.” Questions that begin with why and how, especially, can open up whole new dimensions in a conversation, and can make the speaker feel like you’re really interested in what they have to say. Other good questions include “What do you want?” and “What do you need?” Which leads me to #3:
3. Know your own wants and needs.
Of course, we can’t always know all of what we want and need in a given moment, and those things change over time. But the better idea you have, going into a conversation or any interaction, of what you want out of it—and how that differs from what you need out of it—the better chance you have of getting your needs met, or even just acknowledged. Of course, you have to be able to state your wants and needs out loud, too. There’s so much power in that.
4. Use “I” statements.
Seriously. This is one that’s easy to poke fun at, and if you’re not used to it it can feel really silly—or scary—to begin a sentence with “I feel…” or “I think…” or “I need…”, but this kind of phrasing really helps people hear you, without feeling accused, or cornered, or obligated. “I” statements often leave more room for a relational conversation to follow.
5. Take care of yourself and each other.
Really engaging with each other is hard work! Conflict is exhausting (life, in general, is often exhausting), and it can be easy to burn out, or get overwhelmed, especially in the middle of an argument or other stressful scenario. It’s okay to take a break and come back later, to make sure you have something low-key planned for afterwards, to spend time with a friend or to spend time alone. You’ll be better able to do whatever needs doing once you’ve taken care of your own needs.
Diana Clarke was Quabbin Mediation’s Development Coordinator, and a TAB instructor, until today.