Trick or Treat: What might we be missing when we put on our mediator "mask"?

I grew up in the suburbs of Massachusetts where virtually all our neighbors participated in Halloween. We didn't live in one of the favored subdivisions where houses were close together and kids ruled, a perfect Halloween combination. Instead, we had to walk a significant distance between homes. In other words, we had to earn our candy.

We knew most of our neighbors but there were a couple of houses that turned over frequently or were rentals. We approached one such house on a Halloween night and rang the doorbell. My older sister or a friend accompanied me (I can't remember who). No one came to the door. We rang the bell again. "I hear them," I said. "Me too." There were lights on in the home. We knew they were there. Eventually a guy answered the door, saw us and said, "Oh." A woman stood behind him. They were probably in their twenties but to me they were adults and that's all that really mattered. We were kids. They were adults. We dressed up and yelled "trick or treat" and they gave us candy. It was a contract of sorts and we had already fulfilled our part. The man said he'd be right back and closed the door.

We stood there, waiting. Eventually, my sister or friend, whoever was with me, got bored and said we should go. "No," I replied, "he said he'd be right back." We stood and waited. It was a long walk to the next house. After a few more appeals for us to leave by my companion, I finally relented. I don't remember which direction we went next, what costumes we were wearing, my favorite candy that year, all the various homes we went to or the kind offerings from the people inside them, or even who was with me that night. I just remember those unfulfilled promises from that one stop among many that evening.

I like to think that as an adult I have learned to look at things more broadly, to see the gray as much as the black and white. I still have expectations of others as well as personal hopes and desires, but I can also now recognize those same things in other people.

Yet I also feel that it is my job as a mediator to be constantly challenging myself, to question what I know or think that I know. I wonder: what might I be missing when I put on my mediator "mask?" Sure, I'm always a mediator. It's inherent to who I am at this point in my life. Yet there's also a formal aspect to the profession that I can't deny. There are clients, written contracts, payments made. So, what expectations do parties have of me prior to even contacting me? Once they do contact me, have I fulfilled those expectations and/or provided them with sufficient information to accurately know what to expect? What are my expectations of them and have I made those expectations clear? Do we agree on everything, and if not, did we successfully negotiate changes regarding our expectations of one another?

I was disappointed that Halloween evening many years ago when the occupants of that house failed to fullfill my expectations of them. Perhaps I was even angry. The memory of that night has remained with me into adulthood. In fact, I still recall it every Halloween. It is a healthy reminder to be cautious about, and to refrain as much as possible from, placing unspoken expectations onto others. A child's belief that the world revolves around her is expected, understood, and forgiven due to age, but the same behavior in adults is ugly.

Parties in conflict have a tendency to regress; to see their perspective, assumptions, and expectations as the truth or as the only reality. It is our job as mediators to allow and create space for all perspectives and to keep our own assumptions in check.

By Laura L. Noah
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