Can Poetry teach us about Mediation?

NMC2019One of the best features of the national Mediation Conference 2019, with 7 separate streams jam-packed with sessions, was the extraordinary variety of themes and presenters.
Days after the conference has ended I am still revisiting the ideas that were shared and the challenges to my view of what ADR is and might be.

BrysonIt is probably unsurprising that David Bryson, a colleague with qualifications in Politics, History, Psychology, Social Anthropology and Organisational Change signaled his intention to present us with a decidedly different conference session.
He described his surprise when the NMC organising committee accepted the idea he had proposed (somewhat provocatively) for this session – and his subsequent challenge to deliver something that until then had been just a playful idea.
Session participants, were surprised also – but certainly not disappointed.

Bryson bookA published poet himself, David delivered a session on ‘ADR Lessons from the Art of Poetry’ (subtitled (Poetry Lessons from the art of ADR).
His idea was that in some ways ADR and poetry share the same space although they have different frames.
He used the example of how poetry and ADR both rely heavily on words and on navigating meaning through the use of metaphor, with poetry adding the influence of imagination.
He used the language of ‘encode’ (from the deliverer) and ‘decode’ (from the receiver) to explore the intention/reception dynamic which is often a significant element in a mediation process. He engaged us further by sharing some lines of poetry which invited the audience to explore the intricacies of language.
Bryson used the unexpected concept of ‘sweet and correct formality’ to continue his exploration of concepts linking poetry and mediation.

New language for mediators
He developed this idea through his notion of ‘the ‘thoughtful machinery’ of poetry, giving us:
• Structure of lines
• Rhythmic energy and
• Repetitive sounds
He demonstrated how we can also find the ‘sweet and correct formalities of mediation’ where:
• Words are channeled in form and purpose in process
• Language is directed into negotiation elements
• Interpretations [need to be] filtered for heuristics and mind tricks and
• Social dynamics of conflict [can be explored]
We were certainly being engaged in a very different but compelling frame in which (using unexpected analyses) Bryson described mediation and poetry as sharing the common elements of:
• Multi-level meanings
• Emotional drop, below the surface
• Images of truth about humans enlivened to take greater weight; especially by the use of metaphors.

Learning from poetry
Using extracts from a series of poems, Bryson encouraged us to explore these elements – an analytical framework quite different from more conventional analytical frameworks that we are accustomed to bring into mediations with us.
Continuing his theme of comparisons he gave 3 further examples:
Multi- level meanings (using poetry to encourage our exploration of a range of possible meanings)
The emotional drop (through naming and listening)
The use of metaphors
This example was the most powerful – exploring, through the language of poetry, how mediators change the frame by changing the metaphor. A memorable example was changing the metaphors of conflict from war or entrapment (such as armed with the facts; between a rock and a hard place) to journeying and collaboration (such as first steps towards an agreement; where do we go from here?).
Bryson finished by encouraging us to think about becoming poet mediators. A big challenge and one that seemed to be taken up very energetically at the Poetry Slam – a very unexpected highlight and hotly contested highlight of the Conference Dinner.

This entry was posted in Dispute resolution by Dr Rosemary Howell. Bookmark the permalink.

About Dr Rosemary Howell

I am a Professorial Fellow at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, delivering dispute resolution programs to undergraduate and postgraduate students. My company, Strategic Action, provides mediation, facilitation, coaching and bespoke training to business and government.

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