“What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet;”
Or would it? Juliet refers to objective reality; Romeo is still a nice guy even if he was born a Montague. Her family, however, begs to differ. For them, Montague has a meaning that also transfers to Romeo by being born a Montague. Their form of reality is referred to as socially constructed reality. Most conflicts that we deal with as mediators are about two socially constructed realities colliding. Therefore, it would be helpful to think about how socially constructed reality is, well, constructed.
In the dominant model of communication, Speaker A sends a message that Speaker B receives and decodes to enable them to respond. I am proposing that there is another, simultaneous process going on for both speakers. Socially constructed reality, as Shakespeare knew, depends on the medium with which it is created, in our case language or more specific language patterns. The constraints inherent in the language patterns a speaker uses influence how the speaker thinks about a topic.
Consider an example Trevor Noah uses in one his comedy skits. Why is it that in America groups of people are identified by adding a descriptive word to “American”, for example, Asian-American, Black-American, Native-American, but not for Americans of European descent? For that group, it is just “American”, the same word used to refer to all inhabitants of the US. Trevor Noah is illustrating that the lack of a descriptor is a sign of privilege that non-white Americans do not enjoy. Consequently, how can one discuss racism when the language used to express thoughts about racism maybe itself racist.
There is a second point; meaning is always negotiated in the interaction for the purpose of the interaction. In conflict, where two parties are dependent on each other and at least one party perceives the other party as preventing them from achieving their goal, how the parties negotiate meaning is relevant. Therefore, it makes sense to be aware of language patterns speakers use to constrain meaning and consequently options for resolution.
I want to focus on patterns speakers may use to minimize their responsibility. My list includes the use of (1) Positioning as Victim or Offender, (2) Labeling, (3) Mediopassive Voice, (4) Shifting from Agency to Attention, (5) Norming and (6) Naturalizing.
Parties in mediation may use positioning to claim either that the other party is an offender or describe themselves as a victim. Research suggests that listeners have difficulty perceiving someone both as an offender and a victim. It seems in conflict we prefer clear black and white classifications. A victim deserves compassion and an offender deserves blame. The pattern consists of referring to a person, stating if the referenced person is active or passive, and making a judgement about the action. Consider the following exchange from a mediation session: Father, “She will not let me see my kids.” The Father combines referring to the Mother with assigning the action to her and judging her action as negative to make her the offender. The implication is that the Mother deserves blame. This pattern tends to escalate conflict in mediation because the other party is likely to dispute the positioning. As a mediator, I respond by refocusing the parties on the issue that they wanted to discuss, here access to the children.
Similar to this strategy, speakers may choose to label themselves or the other party. The power of a label is that it acts as a mental shortcut to convey meaning. For example, the difference between the statement “He lied” and “He is a liar” is that a behaviour has been converted into a character trait. Someone may have uttered a lie but a liar lies all the time. In mediation, this behaviour escalates conflict because the other party is likely to resist the labelling. I pay attention to whether parties use labelling and ask them to explore what these labels mean.
I think of mediopassive voice as an object acting on itself “the vase fell off the shelf”, “the book reads well”. This strategy, in contrast to the two earlier strategies, removes any references to an agent, a vase does not simply fall off a shelf and a book does not read itself. In mediation, the challenge is that a situation for which no one is responsible cannot be resolved because mediations are about renegotiating behaviours. If a party is using this form of argumentation, I generally ask to explore the statement further. For example, the statement “the Parenting Order says so” is intended to end a conversation. I intervene by asking for an explanation of the purpose of the condition in the Parenting Order, how it got there, and if it is working for the parties or how it could be changed.
Occasionally, parties to a mediation try to avoid responsibility by shifting from agency to attention. Consider the examples “I left the children home alone” and “the children were left home alone”. Both statements convey the same meaning; however, in the second example “I” has been dropped and “the children” moves into the subject position of the sentence by using passive voice. As a result, “the children” becomes the focus of attention and subsequent conversation will focus on them. This pattern is difficult to detect if the mediator just focuses on the content of the conversation. When I hear parties switch to passive voice, I encourage them to restate the sentence using active voice.
Norming connects two sets of data that are not normally linked with the intent to set up a norm. An example in mediation might be “he always leaves the children with his mother when he has them”. The two sets of data are his parenting time and who takes care of the children. The use of “always” implies the behaviour is a norm, it happens often. The implication is that the other party normally leaves the children with the grandmother. It is important to pay attention to norming statements because they limit the range of possible scenarios, in this case, a scenario where he cares for his children, and therefore possible resolutions. The issue from a mediation point of view is that these statements remove options for resolving the conflict. When a party using norming in mediation, I inquire about why the speaker sees the two sets of data as connected.
The final language pattern that I want to highlight is naturalizing. I look for use of “as you ...”, use of quantitative adjectives ( many, excess, big, small, lots) and evidence indicating nouns (fact, data, evidence, clear). Consider the statements “we have always done it this way”, “I have never denied you access”, “it is a fact that your new partner has a well-paying job”. The purpose of these statements is to prevent the other party to make a reasonable opposite claim. If we have always done it this way then there is no reason to change. I tend to ask the other party what they hear the speaker say to reflect back to the speaker the impact of their statement. This often encourages the speaker to restate their point.
I hope that with these examples of how speakers minimize or avoid responsibility I can raise some awareness that mediators must consider not only what parties say, but also how parties make their point. To detect these patterns, I pay attention to what speakers are talking about. Are they discussing an issue brought forward during the agenda-setting stage or are they “off topic? If they are blaming, accusing or judging each other I intervene as quickly as possible to shift the conversation by using one of the strategies identified above to prevent an escalation of the conflict.
Georg Stratemeyer is working hard to make this a better world for children, one separating couple at a time. As a mediator for over 20 years, coach and trainer, Georg has delivered workshops and training sessions and written articles to help mediators become better at what they do. Recently Georg has started experimenting with writing for parents using his Master’s Degree and extensive experience to help couples find a positive perspective on conflict.
Georg Stratemeyer is currently working as a mediator for RCAS in Calgary. He has a Master’s Degree in Conflict Analysis and Management and teaches courses in mediation, communication, and anger management when he is not working with families.