Mediation as a Life Skill

By Michael Muehe (Follow us on LinkedIn)

Recently, I reconnected with some faculty from my law school alma mater, and they asked me what my favorite law school class was and why. Though a tough call between Contract Drafting and Mediation, I ultimately explained that Mediation was because of the interpersonal, life skills it taught me beyond the classroom – skills that I carry with me to this day. From seeing conflict on the streets of the city to seeing conflicts in the news headlines, I wonder what the world might look like if more people had the opportunity to learn this resolution method.

I grew up in a conflict-heavy household where emotions ran hot. Arguments led to shouting and, sometimes, even physical violence. My mother’s and siblings’ conflict styles were likely informed by their own experiences growing up, and perhaps social norms from the 80s and 90s. Undoubtedly, those too rubbed off on me, teaching me that the louder the voice, the better your issues were heard. Conflicts weren’t solved by figuring out whose feelings got hurt and why; they were solved by whether someone acted right or wrong. While it wasn’t nearly as extreme as, say, the Jerry Springer Show, that show and its sort of conflict resolution is a pretty adequate parallel here. 

As I progressed through college in the early 2010s, my campus placed a strong emphasis on civil discourse. I imagine that the ~600-person campus community could easily fracture with any other form of dialogue. While this introduced me to handling disagreement in a more appropriate manner than aggressive shouting, it centered on intellectual or scholarly debate, rather than interpersonal conflict. And, still living at home, I truly knew no other way to handle issues.

As I embarked for law school, I brought with me those under-developed skills and, to be sure, they affected my friendships and romantic relationships. I went from zero to one hundred at the turn of a dime, just as was done at home. I learned then that some of my issues – and their reactions –  stemmed from Anxiety. However, I couldn’t put my finger on how to unravel those emotions, which seemed to become layered upon each other, sometimes in such a way that the issue at hand was actually far removed from the projected emotion. Therapy, of course, later helped, but it was my Mediation course that first helped move things along.

I enrolled in Mediation as an experiential education course, not knowing exactly what it entailed; I simply knew at that point that I didn’t want to be a litigator, so anything dealing with alternative dispute resolution seemed appealing. As the semester progressed, the lessons, the reflections, and the mediation practice became more applicable to my everyday life, and I took an even greater interest in it. At first, I thought it was because I’m a Gemini, and we’re known for wanting both sides of a story. But I realized that it was because I could finally see emotional layers unraveling. 

While it didn’t train me in immediately changing my own conflict style (that took separate work, requiring mental health and cognitive behavioral therapy), the outsider’s perspective was exactly what I needed to start making positive changes. I was fascinated. That there could be inward emotions underlying a seemingly unrelated, outward issue blew my mind. I looked back on my upbringing and wondered how many of those arguments and fights stemmed from uncommunicated and unprocessed emotions. As Peter Ladd and Kyle Blanchfield suggest in Mediation, Conciliation, and Emotions: The Role of Emotional Climate in Understanding Violence and Mental Illness, “Feelings are the ingredients frequently overlooked when settling conflicts. Inward emotions may be intrinsically connected to peoples’ outward behavior, and solving one may require a resolution of the other.” They also note that fifty years ago, conflicting behavior was often divorced from personal feelings, and dealt with by different parties, such as judges and psychiatrists, respectively. This mutual exclusivity perhaps explains why my family acted accordingly – as a product of our societal norms. 

Today, I’m extremely noise-adverse, with loud arguments often leaving me triggered and anxious. But, with the insights gleaned from Mediation, I look at conflicts – my own and others’ – with an eye towards the unseen and unsaid before reacting. Coincidentally, my results from multiple Meyers-Briggs tests have also labeled me a “Mediator,” certainly reinforcing these traits. And, I continue using mediation skills as a backbone for my own conflict resolution style, since being a party-in-conflict differs from being a neutral third party. Altogether, I hold that course and its lessons near to my heart and I ask my fellow librarians, what unexpected life skills might you have uncovered in school?


Notes Between Us (NBU) is a blog about conversations and topics of interest to the writers. The writers are expressing their personal opinions solely. The essays represent their personal beliefs and not that of their workplaces or any organization they are associated with.