Understand the Problem Before You Begin Problem Solving

It certainly ticks me off when I hear people – especially lawyers – say to Cary and me after a mediation that they are delighted with the result of the mediation but “it took too long” or “we should have gotten there sooner.” Arrgghhhhh.

Getting to real solutions takes time because understanding the problem from perspectives other than your own takes time. I very often see and hear about successful mediators who get an agreement or settlement by banging so hard on the parties and attorneys that the deal is really the mediator’s deal and not the parties. Most attorneys will tell me, ” a done deal is a done deal no matter how we get there.” But in many of those “pounded” out deals, no real understanding of the problem has occurred such that often the agreement unravels later or people live with the shame of an agreement they hate and end up slamming the mediation process as a byproduct.

Understanding a problem requires the mediator to prepare the parties for becoming curious instead of attacking so that they can begin to see the conflict from different frames of reference. People come in needing to unload emotionally and get unlocked from their position. This takes time and patience. But this is precisely what must be done before we begin coming up with solutions that will stick and that the parties will want to adhere to.

The story below is a wonderful example of taking the time to understand the problem. Thank you, Tammy Lenski, and her blog, Conflict Zen, and the comment from Amanda Bucklow for inspiring this post.

A man walking in the desert approached a Bedouin. “How far to the nearest oasis?” he inquired.
The Bedouin did not respond. “I said, how far is it to the nearest oasis?” the man asked, a bit more loudly this time and enunciating his words very carefully.
The Bedouin still did not respond. The man shook his head in frustration, turned, and began to walk away.
The Bedouin called out, “It will take you three hours!”
The man spun around to face the Bedouin. “Couldn’t you have told me that when I first asked?”
“No,” replied the Bedouin. “I couldn’t answer until I knew how fast you walk.”