Handling hurtful statements

Let’s say you’re a classroom teacher, or a parent, and you face a situation you’d really like to resolve, peaceably, for all parties involved.  Maybe you’re a pastor or a small-time lawyer, or soccer coach, and you just need some simple, practical help in resolving a dispute, without banging heads together or involving the U.N.

If you Google “mediation” or “mediator,” you’ll find screens full of hits involving high-powered corporate lawyers and court-ordered cases.  Where is a “seat-of-the-pants” peacemaker supposed to turn?  For selfish reasons, I will say, this blog, of course!

Combatants almost always resort to “hurtful statements”:   vicious, well-targeted verbal attacks that are proven to draw blood.  You step in, metaphorically (or even literally) covered in spattered blood.  What guidelines should you, Accidental Peacemaker,  use?  Even the list below will have to be adapted, because of the heat of battle and the real-world demands of the situation at hand.

Erin Brit is a professional mediator.  Her background is in the law.  On her blog, she posted some practical advice for handling hurtful statements.  Check out her six tips and see if they might fit the situation you’re facing.  In my humble opinion (IMHO), they apply to every human interaction.  Please share your own responses in the comment area below.

Here’s what Erin Birt suggests:

Hurtful statements can derail and/or prolong mediation and the collaborative process.  It is a common occurrence which must be addressed immediately in order to stay focused on the main goal of resolving a legal issue.  Below are some general principles for how to handle hurtful statements during mediation or a collaborative meeting (or at home).

As a party, when a hurtful statement is directed to you, it is important to pause, breathe, think, and try not to respond immediately. If needed, ask to take a break. Give yourself time to acknowledge how you truly feel about the person’s comments.  Often if you wait a few minutes to respond, you will understand better why the person said the hurtful statement.

Hurtful statements can be a result of ignorance, confusion, misunderstanding, or lack of information.  If you can determine the possible motivation for the hurtful statement, you can respond appropriately.

If you chose to respond, the following are general principles:

1. Be direct.  Talk to the person that offended you and not to others.

2. Be specific. Be brief and explain exactly what offended you.

3. Be timely. Do not address this issue days or weeks later. Memories will fade and perceptions will change.

4. Use “I” statements to communicate how the statements affected you.

5. Explicitly state what changes you want the person to make. Ex: Do not make derogatory remarks in front of the children.

6. Acknowledge change.  Express appreciation for the change in behavior, if possible.

Remember, not all hurtful statements need a response. If you determine the statement was made due to ignorance or ill will, it is okay to decline to respond.

A lot of time in mediation and settlement conferences is devoted to addressing hurtful statements. As a practitioner, keeping an open mind and asking additional questions when hurtful statements are made can help clear up misunderstandings and allow the parties to refocus and resume working on resolving the legal issues.