We tell stories to make sense of experience. We need to organize the chaos of events in the form of stories, containing a beginning, a middle and and end. By doing that, events acquire meaning.
We tell stories to define who we are. Tomorrow night my family will gather to re-tell the Passover story, a defining story of the Jewish people, as it charts a journey from slavery to the promised land. Every culture defines itself by telling their own stories.
We also tell stories as a means of resolving conflict. One thing that trial has in common with mediation is that both forms of dispute resolution provide an opportunity for the parties to the conflict to tell their stories. In a trial, two conflicting accounts of the relevant events are laid side by side so that a neutral fact finder can try to decide what really happened, and which side should prevail. In mediation, parties have the chance to tell their stories to each other, and are allowed greater scope to describe how the conflict has affected them, all in an effort to promote reconciliation or compromise.
On Friday, I had a chance to hear Professor Lela Love at an SCMA program, talking about her recent book Stories Mediators Tell, which attempts to convey how the mediation process works by means of a series of stories. This seems a very effective way to explain what happens in mediation that can allow parties to let go of conflict: whether that comes from understanding the other side’s point of view; recognizing the other side’s humanity; discovering common interests; or finding acceptable middle ground. The stories in the book run the gamut from heartbreak to humor to common sense resolutions of practical problems.
Mediators themselves seem to enjoy and learn something from telling stories, as we discovered when members of the audience were invited to share our own experiences that to each of us seemed to capture the essence of the mediation process. When trial lawyers get together, they like to tell war stories. I guess you could call the stories this group of mediators told on Friday “peace stories.” Thanks to Professor Love, the other participants in our discussion, and the indispensable Robyn Weinstein for organizing the program.