“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” - Albert Einstein
If you have realized that your conflict with your partner isn’t going away, that self-awareness bodes well. But you may be wondering, “we spent hours talking about our problem with little to no change, how is talking some more to a stranger going to help us?”
The answer is that a third party can be a powerful force to change existing dynamics. Change, as we all know, is hard. It takes recognition of what the problem is, identifying a new way of doing things, and then activating learning pathways in our brain. One way a mediator can help is associating a reward with the outcome that comes from taking an action.
What value can a third party bring to affect change in partnerships under stress?
A mediator will hear things the parties to the conflict can’t or don’t hear. Neuroscientists have found that the brain conserves energy by following patterns, and listening to your partner detail your role in the problem certainly qualifies as a pattern your brain will recognize and fill in the rest, not really listening. However, the mediator will use nonjudgmental inquiry to stimulate your brain’s cognitive mode. The partners may come to some realizations that are inconsistent with the mindset they have developed toward the conflict – and that cognitive dissonance can be a catalyst for change.
Research suggests people change for one of two reasons: they are avoiding something they fear or seeking out a reward/better situation. Change that comes from seeking out a reward is more likely to stick — and the third party can help the sides see the rewards and possibilities of different outcomes.
Having a neutral third party hold up different alternatives minimizes “reactive devaluation” which is when you reject an alternative or solution merely because it has been suggested by the other side.
How is this done?
A mediator or facilitator will use three key skills to help get to sustainable change among those in conflict:
- Questioning and reformulating
- Active listening
- Reading non-verbal cues
A successful mediator offers a process that makes the partners feel heard and ready to take the conversation from “what happened” to “how do we move forward and work together in the future.”
The last value the third party brings to the partners who are in transition is accountability. Checking in on the progress towards the goals, offering tweaks and refinements, and encouragement to go on in the face of short-term stumbles are all ways that the “change agent” makes the change the partners needed.