The Master Mediator, Seventh Installment, Hollywood and Me (Web)

This is the seventh installment of The Master Mediator, a periodic CPR web column featuring commentary by Robert A. Creo, describing and discussing mediation room techniques and practice issues.
 
“Hollywood & Me”

I know I have finally arrived. It happened this past Fall. In large, dark rooms filled mostly with strangers. Twice. In a row. There I was, kinda, on the big screen.

I love movies. At least those with real people and almost real stories. Good ones. Bad ones. Long ones. Short ones. Samurai movies. Rude and crude teen comedies. Action flicks. Historical dramas.

Documentaries. Chick flicks. Historical revues. Films with subtitles. Musicals. Classics. My childhood favorites like “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “Beau Geste.”

I love stories. I excel at suspending my disbelief. I love being drawn in--to feel the action, the triumph and disaster, the despair and redemption. I identify with the ordinary people called upon to abandon their daily life to act heroically.

When privileged to mediate a death or catastrophic injury claim, I am alive and in touch with my own, and common, humanity. I go into a room with almost strangers. It is metaphorically dark and filled with uncertainty and tension. Their lives are bigger than any screen can depict.

These people have been transported to a new world of hurt and uncertainty, often in seconds, by an accident or claim of professional negligence. These individuals, and their families and friends, are forced into the unwanted role of adjusting and accommodating the rest of their lives as new people in a risky land.

The loss of a loved one has emotional, economic and spiritual impact that none of us can fully understand as being beyond the bounds of empathy, sympathy and humility. I am often astounded at how well the injured adjust, at how they adapt, and often thrive, despite devastating disabilities and limitations.

I marvel at the 18-year-old boy who grows into a man after losing both legs at the knees in a farming accident. He walks into the mediation proudly displaying photos of his newborn son. His medals earned on the ski slopes and in equestrian competition, both sports learned after his accident, take my breath away.

I have seen reconciliations transcend anger, grief, pain, retribution and the weight of the past. Physicians have taken the initiative to reach across the mediation table to accept responsibility in the most human of ways.

Countless times corporate and commercial entities step-up to the plate to do the right thing. I have experienced claimants, defendants and risk managers participate by acting upon their faith, beliefs or values to move beyond recrimination and dollars to resolution. We have all witnessed these triumphs of human spirit. Our own humanity and optimism once again is affirmed.

It is with this background, this context, that I view my role as a mediator. It is serious business. I mediate, therefore, I am. So, how did, and do, I react to these fictional mediators?

Both movies involve opening scenes. The first was “Dark Water,” an otherwise forgettable flick for me, except for the mediation scene. It is brief. The protagonist, a divorcing single mom, enters the co-mediators’ office seeking advice from them on a recommendation for a lawyer for herself. It seems the spouses are at impasse. The mediators decline to make a referral, citing neutrality and impartiality concerns. She walks away frustrated.

The mediators are on the screen briefly and are portrayed as caring professionals with integrity, but are essentially props to set the stage for the wife’s selection of a friend’s choice of a lawyer who doubles as a taxi driver, with his cab as his office. Have mobile fax machine, will travel!

Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson open the popular and funny movie, “The Wedding Crashers,” co-mediating a divorce case. For those mediators and advocates who have not seen the movie, please do so if only for the opening scene. It is rich from both professional and cultural perspectives.

In brief, the spouses are stuck on the final open issue of division of the frequent flyer miles. This has become a point of power and/or principle between the spouses. Both spouses vent honestly about their own emotions and perspectives. The mediators are either exhausted, frustrated or bored.

Seeking closure, the mediators launch into serial monologues. These narratives are filled with cynicism, humor, elegance, reason, and pragmatism. The spouses are disgusted with the mediators, but understand at some level the inherent truths of these narratives.

The husband reaches metaphorically across the table to comfort his ex-wife. Both offer the frequent flyer miles to the other one with a recognition that the value of the miles themselves is meaningless in the scheme of things. The mediation concludes successfully in a transformative manner.

I suspect most mediators either would abhor this approach or be dismissive of the fictionalized process as trivializing our almost-profession. That was my initial reaction. The media has discovered our existence and now distorts our fine work. We become misunderstood as mediation is sucked into the vortex of popular culture. Common mediation leads to a greater number of mediators. This inevitably results in a watering down of the art and a lost opportunity to become a true profession.

This is a legitimate viewpoint. I do not quarrel with it. But, like any good mediator, I must acknowledge and respect other experiences and perspectives.

The Wedding Crashers scene brought to mind the framework of our colleague and friend from Rome’ s ADR Center, Guisseppe De Palo. While visiting him last summer, he articulated a mediation theory in two English words: “Whatever Works.”

What the twin-fools of the big screen did as worked. It was a catalyst for transformation. Closure and a healing process began. The mediators had worked with the couple over time, which led them to their own insights and experience to find how to interact at a critical moment in the negotiation.

Who am I to impose my own orthodoxy upon real--or fictional--mediators?

So, despite the vortex created by the popular “culturization” of mediation, mediators are not truly threatened by Hollywood. I will continue to practice my calling, knowing that I am a better mediator the more I touch and interact with popular culture. Popular culture reflects the mores of daily expectations and aspirations expressed as stories.

I will however, listen for the last sounds of the mediation frontier on my radio. I will know the integration of mediation into popular culture is complete when, on one of my endless drives on the turnpikes of  the isolated, my humanity is touched once again. It will be by an empowered voice, recognized over his guitar, lamenting that he lost his truck, dog and girl despite the mediator’s best efforts. If the title or refrain of this country tune is “Self-Determination,” I will drive forward with a smile on my face.

by Robert A. Creo
The author, a Pittsburgh attorney, is a mediator and arbitrator. He also represents parties in alternative dispute resolution and designs conflict resolution systems. He is a founding member of the International Academy of Mediators (see www.iamed.org), and served as its president between 1997 and 1999. He also is a member of Alternatives’ editorial board. He can be reached at robertacreo@cs.com.