Tag: Language Perception

Tricks Of The Trade – Part 1 – Problems v. Issues

By Dov Silberman

Every trade and profession has their own tricks of their trade, and mediation is no exception.

I hope to present occasional pieces to give you some insight into what practices a mediator can bring into play to facilitate two or more arguing disputants to look at their problem differently so as to come up with a solution themselves.

I also want to show you that mediation is different from just sitting two people (and their advisors) down and chairing what would be otherwise called, a round-table conference.

To get the ball rolling, I made a deliberate error in describing above what I hope to achieve. I used the word “problem”.  That word is a no-no.   In mediation-speak, we never use the word “problem”.  People do not have problems, they have “issues”.

The reason for that is clear. We are here to solve something that has brought two people into conflict. Very rarely is one person absolutely wrong, and the other absolutely right. Indeed, very often, without any moral blame by any or all of the participants, an unforeseen and unavoidable event created the current set of circumstances.

A problem is negative. It implies that there is something wrong that needs to be fixed, something we don’t want, something we want to go away.  We get hung up on moral judgements, our own self – righteousness, and the evilness of the other side.

But it doesn’t help to find a solution if the other side feels exactly the same about us as we feel about them.

An issue is an independent topic, something that has different valid aspects and not an integral part of the participants’ lives.  It has much less emotional connotations, and allows the participants in a dialogue to seek a constructive answer to resolve it.  An issue sounds so much smaller and much less threatening than a problem.

How people deal with a situation depends whether they view it as  a problem or as an issue.

Mediators try to take the “heat” out of disputes by framing the disputes to facilitate solutions.

Also on what I said at the beginning, we should point out that round table conferences are usually not held at round tables.  Most offices have rectangular shaped conference tables.  It is natural that each side will gravitate to opposite sides of the table, leaving the neutral mediator at the head.  This has the effect of not only demarcating the parties and emphasising their differences, but can easily lead to each party metaphorically shouting directly across at each other. Think of how long people have been at the bargaining tables at the Demilitarized Zone in Korea.

Korea DMZ Sentry

A South Korean sentry near the demilitarized zone (Imjingang). Photo by Johannes Barre

It is also difficult for one party when speaking to address both the other side and the mediator simultaneously by facing both at the same time. You have to face one, and move your face about 45° to face the other.

Try it at home around the (rectangular) dinner table.

Yet by considering the persons (such as parties and advisors) turning up and by skilfully using the type of table available  –  better still if it can be custom provided for the occasion required – Square, Rectangular, Round, Oval, and even Triangular –  at the beginning or during the mediation, the mediator can set the tone for the discussions, or modify it later.

In my next post on this topic, I hope to expand on tables and seating arrangements, and how they can facilitate discussions between the parties.