As a veteran Group Facilitator and Mediator, I often deal with people who are very angry and intemperate with the words they direct toward other parties to the discussion who they perceive to be on the other side of the issue in dispute (or even consider those other people to be the entire cause of the problem). The use of toxic language results in two things that are antithetical to the conflict resolution process. First, it shuts of dialogue between or among the parties. Those on the receiving end of the aggression typically react in kind, and true dialogue is lost. Second, the discussion then becomes focused on the angry discourse between the parties, and issues are not revealed, recorded and discussed. In this situation, the job of the mediator is at least twofold: detoxify the language and, in the process, clarify the real issue(s) for the parties. I have engaged in this activity so much during my career, that I have developed a segment about it that I use whenever I do conflict resolution training.
I will illustrate my methodology by using my favorite example from community mediation. Two neighbors, both men, were in conflict about the perception that one of them (and allegedly others in the neighborhood) were driving too fast (and therefore, unsafely) on residential streets. At the beginning of the mediation session, the man who had the concern turned to the other party and said: “You speed through the neighborhood like a crazy man and don’t care how many kids you kill!” As might be expected, the recipient of this invective recoiled and was about to launch a verbal counterstrike. I held up my hand toward the alleged crazed speeder to forestall his response and said the following to his attacker: “So, you’re concerned about safety in the neighborhood.” He responded, “Well, of course”. I then turned to the other man who had been waiting to verbally engage and asked, “Is safety in the neighborhood a concern for you, too?” As expected, he said that it was. I then noted that the two parties shared a concern and wrote “Safety in the Neighborhood” on the flip chart under the title “Mutual Issues of Concern”. The two men then discussed their viewpoints on that issue, rather than arguing over whether or not one of them was a potential killer. Based on this initial experience, the parties found other issues to discuss, and, after an hour or two, they signed a written agreement.
I have enough other examples toxic statements from my career to allow trainees to spend several minutes on trying their own skills at detoxifying language. I always stress to them that there is no “right answer”. Toxic language can be reframed in many different ways, and it may be masking more than one issue. Nothing is ever as simple as that “perfect example”. The proper management of toxic statements can be the key to success in helping parties find their way to an otherwise elusive agreement.
My strategy for dealing with toxic statements attempts to accomplish several things:
- Reducing aggressive, non-productive behavior
- Reducing defensiveness in the party being attacked
- Clarifying the issue(s) being revealed to me (and often masked for everyone else) by the toxic language
- Ensuring that everyone feels heard by writing those revealed issues on the flipchart for all to see
- Allowing the parties to understand that they can at least agree on the issues to be discussed
- Allowing each person at the table to begin to recognize he/she is a part of the conflict (it’s not just “the other guy’s” fault)
This is not the only skill an experienced conflict resolution professional brings to the table, but it is one of the most crucial – and I use it in every Group Facilitation or Mediation.