Hey, you! Fancy an Argument?

Dr Mike Talbot Articles

I had a good argument last week, while waiting with some friends at Schiphol Airport. I don’t mean ‘good’ because I necessarily won it; or ‘good’ because it was particularly loud, or dramatic, or involved lots of people. But it just felt like it was a conversation that had to happen. It involved some very differing views, it led to some new ideas than neither I nor my co-arguers could have come up with alone, and it left us feeling pretty satisfied with the experience.

So what? Well, one of the enduring myths about mediation, or perhaps more accurately mediators, is that we are incense-burning, cheesecloth-wearers who get everyone to chant their way through their conflict. Sorry to say it, but I get bored challenging that one. From now on I’m planning to start telling people that mediation is more about getting people to have what I think I had last week: a good argument.

Good argument? Bad argument? Surely an argument is an argument. Well, let’s try and pin this one down a bit. Oh, and before I begin this part, let me just say where I’m coming from with this. I’m a psychotherapist first (Masters Degree and 12 years clinical practice), and a mediator second (Doctorate and 17 years running UK Mediation Ltd). But don’t let that put you off.

So firstly, it is clear that a lot of prolonged conflict has only rumbled on for so long because the conflicting parties have avoided addressing it. They fear the potentially injurious encounter: either anticipating that the other person will overwhelm or humiliate them, or that they themselves will be so furiously destructive that someone is bound to get hurt. So shall we say that a good argument should be planned and organised in such a way that both sides agree to take part in it, and that there are some agreed boundaries about non-persecution and non-violence? Easy, that bit.

Then secondly, I notice that arguments can sometimes descend into bickering and points-scoring because the arguers haven’t got a shared commitment to try and reach a resolution. They started their exchange by seeing who could shout the loudest about their favourite topic, or by trying to disarm the other by introducing ‘…and another thing…’ But at no point did they say, ‘Hey let’s start by agreeing that we’re doing this to try and get a resolution, a consensual outcome’. They forgot that bit. So perhaps a good argument is one that begins with such a commitment. Agreeing this from the outset is quite likely to help, albeit that this part can be quite difficult for people when they are really embroiled and invested in their conflict.

And thirdly, I have mediated a lot of disputes where it is clear that the main reason they haven’t been able to solve it for themselves is that they share a reluctance to back down or to give any ground. People feel that it is undignified to climb down. It causes a loss of face, or a sense of what we psychotherapists like to label as shame, to abandon opposing positions that they each have steadfastly clung on to for such a long time. I think that, as a species, we have a profound and underlying need to avoid shame in any situation. And I mean shame as the crippling sense of unworthiness or self-doubt that Charles Darwin and others have written about: more than just guilt or embarrassment, but a sense of being exposed, uncovered, or being shown to be fundamentally defective or bad. We avoid it at all costs, often by blaming others or by becoming grandiose and self-righteous. So perhaps a third dimension of a good argument is that it takes place in conditions where backing down does not mean a loss of dignity: where shame is avoided and no-one ends up feeling that they are the loser or underdog.

My way of mediating is perhaps a little different to some. I am interested in what I can borrow from my psychotherapy training and experience, while recognising that there are real and important differences between the two disciplines. And when I’m not doing it for myself around Europe’s airports, I like to think that I can get good arguments started between other people, something along the lines that I have described here.