One of the most difficult tasks facing someone resolving disputes is to withhold judgment. We exercise judgment every day about many things in our environment—will I need a coat outside? or what do I want to eat? And we approach most situations with a ready response based on our own experiences. For example, I do need a coat today, because it is cloudy and there is no sun. Or, I want toast for breakfast because I have toast every day for breakfast. For most of those daily judgments, there is little thought or reflection. Our frenzied lives do not permit much time for such issues or we will be late for work or some other deadline. Further, as Daniel Kahneman notes in his best-selling book, Thinking Fast and Slow, such judgments become fast and automatic through prolonged practice.
When we as mediators or other dispute resolvers are meeting the people who are involved in the dispute, we need to be aware of our tendency to make snap judgments about the people around the table. When we hear a comment that triggers a judgment response from within ourselves during mediation discussions, we need to be aware that it is our fast thinking based on our experiences directing that response. All of us, at one time or another, have been wrong about that judgment made in the moment. For example, we think, “Of course I can jump across that puddle,” or, “Sure, I can park my car in this narrow spot.” It is in these humbling moments, that we realize we can be mistaken in our “fast” thinking. Making such judgments as a mediator impair the mediation process because suddenly your own experience is being substituted for the actual experience happening in the conversation. Thoughts such as “those kinds of people always…” or “they never…” alter the perception of the process that is actually present in the discussion. Further, while we are in the process of imposing our values on the situation, we will miss what is actually transpiring in the room.
Withholding judgment and actually listening without judgment is the key to overcoming our all too human tendencies to categorize and impose our own experiences and values on a situation. The need to deeply listen and understand needs to overcome the need to judge. What we miss while imposing judgment may be the most critical information that we need to really understand the conflict. Automatic judgments are the opposite of actually listening and being present. Almost all of the people in dispute have already felt judged by the other side of the dispute, and the last thing they need is to be judged by the mediator. What they need is to be heard and understood. Reflective practitioners will recognize when their internal dialog moves to judgment, that they are no longer exercising the impartiality and presence necessary to be effective.