Becoming a Sponge

Stephen Thom

CRS Mediator, Los Angeles Office

[Full Interview]

Do you find the issues that brought you in are the most important ones you have to deal with?

I think the issues that they convey to me usually are key issues, but oftentimes nuances come in that nobody shared, and you don't learn about those until you come on site. It only comes through in your private meetings with the parties, and your discussions with individuals. Then in a couple of cases I've had sheriffs escort me for my personal safety and to give me some background. Then, they tell me, "Do you realize what had taken place here? What's the history of this tribe? What the families are like? These guys are felons." And all these things come out when you're just dropped in there and you're on the site. So it's really just becoming a sponge. To me it's like, you're going through the setting, and you sit down with people, and you try to observe and absorb as much as you can. You're just probing, you're reading peoples' behaviors, you're reading their styles, their trust levels, and you're hearing the messages. Then you go to the other side, and they're talking about the same issues, but it looks like a whole different world. As the mediator, you're kind of stifled because you have these broad differences of views on the same relative issue in history of these parties. So it becomes valuable to get other peoples views. For example when the sheriff as an outsider says, "Well this is the way I see it." I'm hearing from different people in the area to kind of get a flavor for what the parties may be withholding, and the way they slanted things, versus the other party. The perspectives of somebody neutral who may have seen the same history and experiences and seen the tensions arise between the parties are invaluable. I just feel like I'm a sponge, and I'm trying to find some sense of the truth there somewhere, because I'm not going to get it from the parties. I know it because they're coming in from such biased perspectives.

I often use what I call the Force Field Analysis, where you look at the issues and you look at them by rank order, and you kind of line the issues up juxtaposed to each other by rank. Then you really take to heart the opinions of those people that you felt were neutral and very objective about the disputed issues to try to see if you can bleed some truth and logic into the sequence and the viewpoints of the parties' positions. So that's the way I approach it. It's very intuitive, but at the same time I'm relying on as many of the neutral perspectives that I can get because I think that objectivity lends some credence to some of the very biased views of people involved in the conflict. That's the best I can do in those kinds of cold situations. Sometimes you need time to bleed out the truth by getting to more levels, in-depth levels. Too often, we just don't have the time to do that, so I have to take that intuitive position and then attempt to work through it. When you get to the table, the biases work themselves out. When somebody makes a demand or an allegation about an injustice, the other side could counter it. The truth kind of works its way out, just by saying, "I don't understand how you can make that allegation, because I see it this way. Can you see the other person's point of view? Does it sound the same? There is some miscommunication here, and I want to see how we can sort this out. Can anybody state that again or reframe this so I can get it?" I'll play dumb and bleed it out until they shake loose and we get some concurrence or interpretation of what in fact took place, and can begin to find a solution. I think it's a very intuitive process.I think it's important to find other neutrals.