The Mediation Times


Why you should listen to the ‘complainers’

by Amanda on November 28, 2009

It takes less effort to include people than it does to exclude them – in the long run. As Deepak Chopra said in a recent article ‘I know it’s tempting to tune out difficult people, but that’s the main reason they keep being difficult.’ I know exactly what he meant.

As part of my preparation for a recent mediation, I was speaking to the claimants’ legal advisers. During that conversation we talked about who should attend and she and her colleague were adamant that I should agree to preventing someone from the defendant’s group from attending. I had an idea that there would probably something very important that that person could contribute. I was curious to find out how that person might add value and why they should not be ‘tuned out’.  It also made me aware that there was something important going on for the people who had asked me to exclude him in the first place. I discovered that the man in question had a lot of knowledge about the dispute from the beginning, in fact he was unique in that regard. We agreed that he could attend.

On the first day of the mediation and during the opening meeting, I asked the ‘excluded person’ if they had anything to add to what a considerable number of people had already said. He started to speak and as soon as he did the advisors waved frantically at me across the table saying that he shouldn’t be allowed to speak. There aren’t many times when a mediator gets to decide things but making sure everyone is heard is one of those times. The session continued with the contribution and without falling apart. One the contrary, I believe it gave others at the table a strong sense of even-handedness and inclusion and many more felt able to tell me things throughout the mediation.

During the course of the following two days, the person they wanted to exclude turned out to be a most valuable ‘knowledge bank’.  He just needed to be heard, his knowledge and expertise appreciated and given encouragement and guidance on how he could add value to the process of reaching agreement without running away with the time available.

I learned the value of what so called ‘complainers’ can bring to productivity and problem solving many years ago when I put together a project team comprised entirely of ‘complainers’ and ‘cynics’. They were, without doubt, a most effective group who achieved the implementation of a complex nationwide IT system within 12 weeks from concept to working order and at a cost which was pennies compared with similar projects that came after that one.

People were amazed at the software, impressed with the delivery timescales and astonished at the cost. They wanted to know the ‘trick’. I told them. The project team was made up of people who were known to be difficult, argumentative, critical, outspoken and knowledgeable. I told them they had been some fire-filled project meetings but that we had made time to help people express their concerns and reservations and we had used that information to improve the processes. In the end if we could generate commitment within this group doing the same nationwide would be much easier.

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