I have the periodic opportunity to coach students studying mediation and negotiation. I always learn more than I teach. It happened again on Saturday.
The students were role-playing an eldercare mediation. The mediators were nudging the parties toward some possible agreements, but the process had bogged down. The participants were "stuck." Conversation trailed off. They looked at each other with furrowed brows. The mediators stole a couple of furtive glances at me, the coach.
"I want one of you mediators to get up, go to the white board, and start making a list," I said. One of the mediators complied, and the conversation started to pick up. In a few moments participants were generating options. The parties had turned toward one another in their chairs. The actor who was trying to be the more difficult of the parties began to make acknowledgments and consider options that had been off the table ten minutes before.
What had happened? Somebody moved.
It is easier to move something that is already moving than it is to start something that is stuck. If mental and emotional processes are stuck, we can still move our bodies. And once we get off our behinds, our guts and our brains tend to follow.
For many of us, for example, conversation flows more freely when we are walking. Brainstorming and option-generating processes work more quickly when the participants get up and move around. This is one of the many values, for example, of asking group members to put their ideas on sticky notes and then to put the sticky notes on a wall.
I have facilitated meetings on difficult topics. When we have come to an impasse, I have sometimes asked participants to get up and sit in a different seat. There is often some grumbling that goes with this activity. I have learned to stay focused and not to take that personally. Once people move and been re-seated, I review the conversation so far and invite folks to move on. The physical change of location can often facilitate a change in perspective and level of cooperation.
So much the better if participants exchange some sort of safe touch during the move. I have tried this a few times in some really tight conversations. I have asked participants to get up, shake hands with three other participants and then to take new seats. This facilitates movement and increases connection. The results can be startling.
This is why greeting rituals are important at the beginning of a worship service. Asking people to get up, move about and touch each other (safely) will improve the emotional tone of the service. Such rituals make people more receptive to input and more generous in their giving.
I have reflected on this in preaching as well. What is the mixed message we preachers send when we advocate for personal or corporate change while standing in a fixed spot? What is the mixed message we preachers send while suggesting greater connection between people while standing in a spotlight and separated from our congregation by a pulpit, a rail, steps and a veritable moat of interpersonal distance?
It is important for the method to match the message whether we speaking to a congregation or facilitating a meeting or guiding a mediation.
These tactics are rooted in some understanding of social neurology. Much of this happens at a pre-conscious level and can seem by turns either mysterious or mythical. In fact, we can use these insights to help each other make deeper connections and arrive at better solutions to our common problems.
It is all so moving.