My ideal approach to mediation combines curiosity and compassion by understanding a person’s thoughts about the situation, where the person ultimately wants to be, and what might allow that to happen. This includes a genuine interest in identifying someone’s needs. A person’s feelings, whether spoken or unspoken, give me a sense about how well a person’s needs are being met (or unmet). Holding space for folks with curiosity and compassion seems relatively simple because I feel safe and secure. Certainly, participants may not want to look at or talk with each other, bring their anger into the office, and choose to be in separate rooms, yet I have zero concern about my own well-being. This means I can be fully focused on their well-being and understanding what is happening. In doing so, important needs for communication, clarity, respect, and understanding, and a person’s need to be fully seen can be met. Have you ever seen someone transform upon feeling heard and acknowledged? It is real and powerful.
I never considered that international hostage negotiators, who do not operate in the safe space of a mediation office, would also approach conflict primarily curiosity. While studying in Israel, I attended a course taught in part by a hostage negotiator. His approach to these intense life and death situations, during which he sometimes wore body armor, proved the same: curiosity. He too simply seeks to understand what is going on for the people involved.
If it works in intense conflict situations, perhaps it may work for you as well. The next time you find yourself in challenging conversations where the stakes may feel extremely high- a relationship, job, or ego may be on the line- consider approaching it with curiosity. It could make all the difference.