Excerpt from Susan North’s Acknowledge The Corkscrew
Sometimes in a mediation, there arise several issues which the parties will address in a sort of rotation. It’s a curious thing to observe. When one topic becomes too hot or uncomfortable, they move on to one of the others, often until they have made the circuit a number of times. Eventually one party, thoroughly exasperated, exclaims, “We’re just going around and around!” Or are they?
There’s a famous mediation called “The Purple House Mediation.” It’s well known in conflict resolution circles for a number of reasons. It forms the centerpiece of a landmark publication called The Promise of Mediation by Robert A. Baruch Bush and Joseph P. Folger. It has been transcribed and re-enacted as a training film. Its iconic status probably has a lot to do with the fact that the matters it addresses – ethnicity and race relations, private property, self-determination – are each issues commonly found at the heart of conflict. And here they are, all together in one epic struggle! When reading it, my initial reaction was “Oh dear, they’re just going around and around.” Then I noticed a strange thing. Each time the parties addressed one of the several sub-topics in their dispute, they went a little deeper. Then, having probed dangerously close to the bone, they would move on. It was as if by changing the subject they could get a little relief from the poking and prodding. When they returned to the topic, their beginning point was more intimate and honest than when they had discussed it before. In other words, they would leave a topic that had become sore, but when they returned to it they were (strangely, I thought) able to pick up slightly beyond where they had left off.
They weren’t just going around and around. They were going deeper too. I had to think that somehow the circling was providing relief, a few minutes to heal and prepare for further probing.
I was reminded of a corkscrew. Yes, it goes around and around but it also drills down further with each pass, thereby ultimately releasing the cork, the thing that blocks the neck of the bottle. This metaphor has sustained me whenever I hear that familiar “we’re just going around and around” complaint. It allows me to agree while putting in my two cents’ worth about what I think is really happening. Let’s look at two neighbors arguing about their property line. One of them, Bruce, says in exasperation, “We’re just going around in circles!” I might say, “Yes, Bruce, I agree, we have been circling around from topic to topic. And here’s something curious – I’ve noticed that each time, we get a little closer to things that really matter.” Then I give an example specific to the mediation at hand: “The first time you expressed your annoyance about the rose bushes, Elaine told you that they were planted by her mother just after her father died. Elaine got kind of emotional, and you responded with kindness and understanding. It was a sort of touchy moment, and soon after, the subject changed to the rear wall. But when we returned to the issue of the rose bushes, you both looked a lot calmer and were able to begin doing some problem-solving. Is that how you experienced it too?”
So when things are going round and round, see if you notice the “corkscrew effect.” That may be what’s happening. If not, and the conversation is merely repetitious, other techniques such as caucusing might help. As a final resort, when someone is truly stuck in a repetitive pattern, try asking in a firm tone, “Is there anything new that we haven’t already talked about?” Once nothing new is offered, insist on moving on to the next stage of mediation.