When not in my role as mediator, I have plenty of opinions and biases.  When it comes to the controversy surrounding NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, I resonate much more with one side than the other.  But how might I look at the conflict if I were asked to mediate it?  Below is at least how I would strive to look at it, if I were able to focus on the parties and not my biases.

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First of all, I wouldn’t need to have an attitude about the subject of the dispute.  Regardless of what information I’d gathered, before the mediation, about what the parties’ issues were, I would let go of any presumption that their perspectives are the same at the start of the mediation as I’d heard they were earlier.  In the transformative model, we assume the parties attitudes may shift at any time.  Likewise, throughout the mediation, I would not remain attached to anything that a party said earlier in the mediation.  The mediation, itself, I assume, is an opportunity for attitudes to change.  In fact the mediation is intended to maximize the chances that the parties will make progress in their thinking, both about their own beliefs and desires, and about the other parties’.  It would be counterproductive for me to form conclusions about how the parties saw things, other than to pay attention to how their perspectives were continuing to evolve.

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But let’s get more specific.  Let’s assume the following conversation happens:

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Pro-kneeler:  Throughout the USA, people of color are being disproportionately killed unnecessarily by police officers.  The police officers who do so tend to be protected by their fellow police officers and are nearly never convicted of a crime. In fact there is a long history in the USA of a large amount of police brutality and other horrendous violations of the rights of people of color, inflicted by law enforcement and the justice system. Many people in the USA remain complacent about that fact and/or aren’t sufficiently aware of it.  Players who kneel during the National Anthem are helping correct that problem by increasing awareness of it.  Further, their right to do so is part of what makes the USA what it is:  “the land of the FREE and the home of the BRAVE”. The kneelers are BRAVELY asserting their FREEDOM.  And their cause is in support of “liberty and justice for all.”

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Anti-kneeler:  Even assuming what you say about police officers and the justice system is true, during the national anthem before an NFL game is not the time or place to protest it.  The national anthem does represent “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”  And it honors the heroes who have given or risked their lives in the name of that freedom.  To kneel during that song is to disrespect the flag, our country, and people who have given their lives for it.  Despite its imperfections, the USA remains the greatest country in the history of the world – to disrespect it is to be incredibly ungrateful.  NFL players, in particular, live better than 99% of the population of the world – they have little to complain about.  And finally, the NFL is not the place to make political statements.  It’s an opportunity for people to enjoy a much-loved leisure activity and to get a break from the unpleasantness of politics.
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Assuming the parties then look to me for some support at this point, how do I respond?  First of all, let’s assume I notice that one of the parties made a lot more sense to me than the other.  My obligation at that point is to let go of that thought, and return to being as supportive as possible of both parties.  My support of both parties is based on my belief that that’s an effective way to contribute to both parties’ progress in their thinking and understanding of each other.  Let’s assume I also notice that I’m afraid this conversation won’t be very productive.  Again, I return my focus to the parties and go with my awareness that, despite my moment of pessimism, my obligation is to continue to support the parties in talking to each other for as long as they want to.
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So I’d probably summarize what I’d heard the parties say.  I’d gently add some structure to what they’d said:  “One topic you discussed was to what extent law enforcement and the justice system treat people of color unfairly. . . (then I’d recap precisely what each party said on that topic)”.  “You also both described what it means to kneel during the national anthem (again I’d recap precisely what each party had said)”.  I’d continue the summary until a party interrupted me or until I’d covered all of the themes the parties had touched on. That summary is likely to give the parties insight into which aspect of the conversation they’d like to return to, or to help them notice that there was another aspect they wanted to address.  My intention is to give them maximum choice about how they proceed, given what they’d said so far.
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The conversation continues for as long as the parties want.  Maybe deep heartfelt mutual compassion emerges and the parties decide on joint next steps to best benefit the USA.  Maybe the parties become clearer just how deep-rooted their differences are and maybe they both resolve to fight harder than ever for their opposing causes.  My intention was to support the parties in a process where they got clearer about how they wanted to handle the situation and where they came to a deeper understanding of each other.  In the context of real mediations, that sort of progress often leads to some sort of resolution of the dispute, even though that result has not been my focus. In this conversation, as in all the conversations I mediate, it’s up to the parties where it goes.
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The challenge in this conversation was that I had my own opinions.  The transformative model gives me something to focus on that makes those opinions irrelevant.  I never even have to make a potentially biased suggestion about what direction the conversation should go.  It’s my job to honor whatever parties say and to support their ongoing choices.  While the transformative model makes my biases far less likely to have an impact, it’s not foolproof. If my feelings are so strong that I’m unable to focus on and support the parties, it’s my obligation to withdraw.
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Mediators from all schools of thought and approaches try to stay neutral on the parties’  issues.  But the transformative approach makes it much easier to do so because the mediator’s focus remains on the unfolding interaction, not on the mediator’s ideas about where the conversation needs to go. That focus keeps the transformative mediator on the neutrality track.
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posted by Dan Simon

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