The Most Ignorant One in the Room

Everybody is ignorant, only on different subjects. -Roy Rogers

I don’t approach mediation thinking I’ve got to know everything.

There’s just way too much knowledge in the world for me to think I can muster together some collection of it that is more relevant and extensive than what the others in the mediation will bring with them. Even if I could, things would not go well if we all pulled-out our respective knowledge bases like weapons and slammed them down on the table to see whose is bigger and badder.

But there’s an even deeper problem with thinking that to be effective I must be the most knowledgeable one in the room.

There is at least one fundamental truth in mediation. One thing I can always count on for certain. It’s always going to be true every time I step into the mediation room to work with people as their mediator. Here it is:

I will never know as much about their situation as they do.

If I dedicated the rest of my life to learning what they’ve been through, I’ll never know it all. Even if I spoke with everyone endlessly, read everything ever written about it and investigated all aspects of it to the end of time, I’d still never know it as well as they do. They will always know more than I ever could.

In a very real way, on the stuff which may seem at first to be most important, I’m the most ignorant person in the room.

It’s a really important role for me to play. Here’s why.

When I started mediation work I had to reconcile myself with being the person who knew the least about the situation. I”m okay with it now. Yet not only did I reconcile myself to it, I learned something about it. It’s the highest value I bring to a dispute as a mediator.

I never helped people solve their problems by knowing more about their situation than they do. I help them solve their problems because I know I don’t know.

Wisdom traditions have various names for this. Beginner’s mind. Learned ignorance. Self-emptying. Poverty of mind. Getting out of the way. An articulate not-knowing.

Before starting a mediation I cultivate and deepen my awareness of my own ignorance. As a mediator I am most effective when I am fully aware how stunningly vast my not-knowing is. I may be perfectly ignorant on the stuff and substance of what it is they think they’re fighting about.

I’m not going to be effective if I’m thinking that I’ve seen it all before. I’m not doing anyone any good if I pigeon-hole them into my preconceived notions about who they are and what their problem is. If I did that, I’d be objectifying them. I’d stop listening. I’d stop understanding. I’d stop seeing and hearing them for who they are. I’d be replacing them with my preconceived notions of who I think they should be. If I thought I could know it all, I would certainly solve myself what I thought their problem was, and through considerable force of will could probably convince them I was right. But I wouldn’t be helping them solve their problem themselves.

So no matter how many interviews I’ve done or stacks of documents I’ve read, or hours spent in preparation, coming into a mediation I remind myself that I don’t have a clue what’s been going on. And that’s not just okay, it’s actually really important.

With that awareness, I may be the only one in the room who’s not deluded into thinking he knows what’s going on.

That aware not-knowing is the value I bring to a mediation. From that perspective, I can be a mirror, an observer, sometimes a challenger. Or as I’ve been called, a “nudge.”

I’m only half-joking when I say that as a mediator people pay me to ask them “I don’t know – what do you think?” I decline to be the one who knows all. Instead I ask them what is most important. This is the great value I bring to their mediation.

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