Everyone is Right!

I learned this morning that Perri Mayes died suddenly last week. For the past few years, I have studied facilitative mediation with Perri — learning how to help disputing parties come to resolution by guiding them through a process that allows them to apply creative solutions to entrenched problems. Perri Mayes was an amazing teacher. No matter how gnarly the knot between people, her gentle humor, deep respect, and unfailing compassion were able to help them get to a place where they could set aside their emotions and hear each other. She taught us that helping people step away from their positions creates space to address the basic interests that the positions represent. 

What are these interests? When you distill any conflict down to its elements, it’s not the money or the house or ownership in the business that really matters. No, we’re talking basic interests. Our universal need for recognition, validation, and love love love.

It sounds simple, right? Not so much. 

It turns out that two people can be in the same place at the same time, hear the same words, and come away with different and contradictory versions of “reality.” Nobody is lying or suffering from amnesia, it’s just that we each can operate only from within our own frame of reference, history, and unconscious assumptions. The sooner we cozy up to the idea that everybody is right, the sooner we can stop wasting time trying to convince each other that I am right and you are wrong, and turn our attention to the actual work; how to compassionately attend to the interests of both.

Apply this to the conflicts in your life. You’re so mad at your partner for not doing the dishes again. Is it really the dishes?? Or is it that you feel taken for granted, unappreciated, and not attended to. What is your interest here? Is it really fairness? Or is it that you need recognition, validation, and love love love? This is a very different conversation from who does the dishes. And it can be a scary one. We may cling to the argument, because it’s safe and familiar.

What if I can't express recognition, validation, and love love love in a way you can hear it? What if you don’t actually feel that way about me? No schedule of equal labor division will address that problem. But even if there isn’t an easy answer, understanding each other’s interests already changes the conversation. Then together we can explore the core issue, operating from the assumption that we both are right, that everyone’s feelings are legitimate, and that we can hear each other without losing face or conceding.

It’s hard to acknowledge and sit in our vulnerability. Anger makes us feel strong. All of us who work in or have gone through divorce are familiar with the fact that it is easier to separate from another person when we are mad at them. Anyone who has witnessed an adolescent child fight his or her way out of the nest is familiar with this phenomenon. And yet it is owning and expressing vulnerability that makes us strong and frees us to address the real concerns.

In training, Perri would catch us novice mediators with a sharp “Careful, you’re getting positional!” reminding us that our role was not to have an opinion, but to help the parties create the space to hear and understand each other.  With understanding, resolution is often not so far away. I strive for this same clarity when I am one of the conflicted parties, and I will always be grateful to Perri for helping me learn the difference between position and interest, and to always remember that all of us need, above all, recognition, validation, and love love love.

Dr. Sandra Eugster, Ph.D.