Once a good friend and colleague was exchanging “war” stories with me about confrontation during the peaceful business of collaborative meetings. He assured me that he had a story that would top anything I could offer, and he was right. Here’s the brief version.
I was facilitating a group that was supposed to reach agreement on the best site for a new mall. There were a lot of neighborhood organizations. But the reps of two of them – a man and a woman – obviously hated each other. They always tensed up when one of them spoke, and the other would lash out. So I had to intervene in the meetings, talk with them separately, try to see what was going on – the whole bit.
I thought things were improving, but one day the man got so enraged that he stood up, walked right over to the woman and punched her in the face. Didn’t say a word – wham! We actually had to pull them apart.
So what did you do then?
I said – “I think you’ll all agree that under the circumstances this meeting can’t go on.” No dissent.
They came back? No more fights?
No more fist fights.
I had to agree. I had nothing to top that. Here’s the one I told him.
It happened during the lunch break in a meeting of about 20 people. I grabbed a few minutes alone to write down some notes. Then I heard this angry, teeth-gritting exchange of insults across the room and looked up. There were these two guys – they’d had a lot of run-ins before this. And here they were, locked in a deadly stare. I saw flashing red lights everywhere.
Mediation 101: break into that stare. Then I was on autopilot and moving fast in their direction. Just as I got next to them, one lifted his arm to point a finger in the other’s face. That gesture is usually one shy of a swing, but there wasn’t enough room for me to step between them. So I reached into that stare with a piece of paper and said:
– I think the answer to the question is right on this page. – Same locked stare, no response. I say a lot louder: – Right on this page!
– Page? What page? Where? – splutters one. I raise the paper for him to see it better but off to one side so he had to turn his head away from the other guy.
– Here it is, right here – I direct his eyes to one paragraph, one line. He struggles to concentrate, reads it, reads it again, then finally gets the meaning. – Let’s change this part – he says.
The other one takes the paper, reads: – OK, here’s what’s bugging me.
– Good, we can work on it before the others get back – Standing right there, they turned toward me enough so I could finally get between them. Then they were talking about words, looking at the paper – I was scribbling notes.
I could breathe again.
Do you have a story you can tell about a rough time and what you did? Either as a mediator or as a member of a group? There’s a lot to learn from each one.