For a long time I believed that the key to resolving a difficult conflict was to help the disputants arrive at logical conclusions to
which they could agree.  I tried to help people think their way through differences and negotiate compromise based on a rational definition of fairness. Over the years I have come to appreciate the role of heart skills — our capacity acknowledge and  address the emotional dimension of the conflict in an authentic and non-manipulative way.

I can remember learning this lesson when I was facilitating a meeting between farmers and farm workers in the state of Washington.  The goal of the meeting was to create a plan for newly funded farm worker housing. But within the first five minutes old battles, lingering resentments, and name-calling ensued. The long-festering bitterness in people”s hearts made it impossible to proceed with the agenda. I called for a break and when we reconvened I asked farmers and farm workers to pair up and discuss two simple questions: 1) What makes you proud about producing food for others?  2) Can you tell me a story about when it meant a lot to have a house in your life?  After about 10 minutes you could literally feel the shift in the room. Through the stories being told, self-proclaimed adversaries were discovering their shared human connection. As hearts opened so did the possibility for getting something done that day.

One of the best teachers on heart opening skills is Ken Cloke, an author, mediator, and attorney. Ken”s perspective is that we who convene high-heat meetings must learn to be vulnerable and self-aware. In his recent article in ACResolution Magazine Ken offers a number of strategies for mediating from the heart. Among these strategies is to begin the meeting with questions and invitations that go directly to the heart.  Here are some of the questions Ken offers:

  • Why are you here? Why do you care? What did it take for you to come here today?
  • What kind of relationship would you like to have with each other? Why?
  • What life experiences have led you to feel so strongly about this issue?
  • What role have you played in this conflict, either through action or inaction?
  • What would you most like to hear her say to you right now? What would this mean to you?
  • What would change in your life if you reached an agreement?

When intense emotions fill the room we often want to take the safe route, pretending the feelings aren”t there or maintaining a superficial frame on the conflict. It”s only when we bring empathy, heart-piercing questions, and  and a willingness to move to the deeper levels that we become true catalysts for transformation.