When I heard a few years back that my Uncle Billy had started a “Friendshipology” initiative, I found it not at all surprising as I had long felt that he was an exemplar in the area of friendship.  He’s been a long life friend to my father and to me, and I’ve seen his remarkable ability to connect with people of all ages and all persuasions.
A little background…  My father emigrated from China to the US back in 1950.  He came to the US as a teenager and Billy was the first friend that he made after arriving.  I can only imagine the combination of security, comfort, and joy my father felt in making his first friend in a new land where he knew no one — and it came in the form of Billy.  Thus I have always known Billy as “Uncle” Billy, “Uncle” being a term of respect and closeness in Chinese culture.  
Years later, when I came to the Bay Area as a graduate student, the pattern repeated itself.  Having spent all my life in the Boston area, I knew few people in the Bay Area, and so at a welcoming reception for the new grad students and their families, I invited Uncle Billy to attend.  One memory I have from that event was that I introduced him to people there as “my father’s good friend,” and Uncle Billy corrected me by saying, “and I am Adrian’s friend too!”  This comment really struck me (and I remember it to this day, over 35 years later) as I had always related to Uncle Billy through my father, and here he was connecting to me directly by stating his friendship with me.  So Billy has been a first friend in a new place to both my father as well as to me!
I had lunch with Uncle Billy the other day, and he talked about this blog and his thoughts on friendship.  I spoke to him about my involvement in community and court mediation and he asked me to write about mediation for his friendship blog.  So in what follows I will describe what mediation is and how it works, what are the key elements of good mediation, and finally how it relates to friendship.
A good way to introduce the topic of mediation is through the following quote:

“Conflict is inevitable but combat is optional”  –  Max Lucado

Conflict is indeed inevitable.  As individuals, people have their own needs and wants, and at any given time one person’s needs might be different than someone else’s — this is simply part of life.  Some examples of common conflicts include landlord/tenant disputes (security deposits, evictions, etc.), neighbor/neighbor disputes (noise issues, fence issues, etc.), disputes between businesses and customers, and family conflict (divorce, etc.).
A well-known way of dealing with conflict in our modern world is through litigation, which is combative in that the conflicting parties argue in front of a judge in an adversarial style, trying to prove their case and discredit the other party’s case.  Litigation tends to be expensive (lawyers fees, etc.), time consuming, and stressful, especially because of the adversarial nature of the system.  Ultimately, the judge makes a ruling, which may or may not be to one’s liking, so the outcome is uncertain.  
An alternative, non-combative way of resolving conflict is mediation.  In mediation, both parties come together in front of a neutral third party (the mediator) and get a chance to freely and confidentially speak their concerns and needs.  The mediator does not make a ruling, but rather is there to facilitate and encourage honest and free discussion between the parties.  In such an atmosphere, often the parties can come to some agreement themselves, which the mediator will help clarify and write up.  The key distinction is that any agreement is crafted by the parties themselves, so they are more likely to be satisfied with it than with a judge’s ruling, over which they have little control. 

The following table highlights some of the key differences between mediation and litigation


TimeTypically a few hoursWeeks to Months
CostOften freeExpensive (lawyers fees)
Control of process and agreementParties are in control of the outcome and any agreementJudges rely on precedent and make a decision which results in loss of control and power for parties
CommunicationHonest communication of interests and needs is encouraged between partiesCommunication between parties is discouraged by counsel.  Opportunities to express concerns are limited
Emotional AtmosphereCooperative and informalAdversarial and stressful;  court is formal and can be intimidating
ConfidentialityAll information shared during mediation is privateAll information shared becomes part of the public record

Because of the many advantages of mediation, often courts will require that mediation be tried first before litigation.  It doesn’t take much time, and if an agreement is reached it tends to be something with which both parties are satisfied (since they are the ones that created the agreement).  If an agreement is not reached, the parties can still go on to litigation without too much time and effort lost. 
A good mediator will focus on several things in the mediation:  Remaining neutral and not judging, listening well, creating an environment in which both parties feel safe to honestly express their needs and concerns, and asking good questions to help the parties to talk with each other.  If these factors are present, it is often the case that the parties themselves will come to some form of agreement.  In the community mediation that I do, this happens in about 80% of cases.

So that’s mediation (in a nutshell);  but what about Uncle Billy’s Friendshipology Initiative?  What does mediation have to do with friendship?  Another quote is illuminating:

“Whenever you’re in conflict with someone, there is one factor that can make the difference between damaging your relationship and deeping it.  That factor is attitude”  –  William James

Just as conflict can arise between any two people, it can also arise between friends (or family members).  William James reminds us that the key factor in how the conflict will impact the friendship is attitude.  Indeed, if you have a conflict with a friend, and the way you try to resolve that conflict through the “litigation” model (by trying to prove you are right, trying to discredit your friend, trying to “win” the argument), then it is likely that your friendship will be harmed.  On the other hand if your attitude is aligned with mediation, then you will have an honest, open, respectful discussion with your friend to express both your needs and understand your friend’s needs, and you will try to find a way to come to an agreement, and your friendship can deepen.  In the first approach your goal is to “win” the conflict;  in the second approach your goal is to try to find an agreement.  The first approach focuses on yourself only, the second approach focuses on you and your friend and your relationship.   I think for most of us in any conflict we have with a friend or family member, if we take a step back and think about it, in almost all cases we will realize that the relationship we have with that friend or family member is far more important than winning the specific conflict.  Unfortunately in the moment we often tend to lose sight of that fact, and we slip into a “litigation” mode.  So next time you find yourself in a conflict with a friend or family member (or pretty much anyone for that matter) , a suggestion is to keep in mind the principles of good mediation:  Listen, seek to understand, be honest about your needs, and focus on how you can together reach an agreement as opposed to how you can “win” the conflict.  In doing so it may seem like a small victory, but if we all approach everyday conflict this way, we can help enable individual friendships to grow and deepen and help “friendship” in general to spread across our communities and the world.  ___________

Adrian Ho
Varenna Consulting
T:  415 377 4739E:  adrian@varennaconsulting.com