Ever since I began mediating in 1991, I wondered why there weren’t television shows or movies about mediators. As I began to understand the dynamics of conflict resolution, I realized why: “in story, nothing moves but for conflict” (Robert McKee in Story). And, while mediation may be challenging, rewarding and productive, it just isn’t as sexy or enticing as a good knock-down, drag-em-out conflict. From sitcoms to dramas to the Jerry Springer’s of the entertainment world, conflict equals ratings. Conflict resolution; not so much.
Because I am fascinated with storytelling and screenwriting, I am constantly on the lookout for shows or episodes that feature conflict resolution. In the movies, The Wedding Crashers features two mediators (though apart from a short, dysfunctional mediation at the outset, their profession recedes into the background). An episode of The Office (“Conflict Resolution”) shows Michael Scott (played by Steve Carroll) mediating a dispute between two co-workers. And more recently, Showtime’s Fairly Legal (filmed locally in the Vancouver, B. C. area) features lawyer/mediator Kate Reed (played by Sarah Shahi) as she fights for justice for the underprivileged. While these portrayals are, for the most part, entertaining, they do a disservice to mediation, it principles and its values. In many cases, humour emerges from the bumbling or heavy-handed behaviours of the characters playing the mediator. In The Wedding Crashers’ opening scene, divorce mediators (played by Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson) encourage the divorcing couple to think about the good times in the past and paint a picture of a brighter future. While these strategies are not uncommon in mediation, our movie mediators turn the mediation into a two man dog and pony show, prompting one of the clients to agree to settle and ask them “could you two just not talk any more”. In The Office, Steve Carroll conducts the mediation by reading from a manual and then imposing his own solution on the parties. In Fairly Legal, “mediator” Kate Reed usually attempts to impose what she sees as a reasonable solution, and then dons an advocate (or investigative) cloak to unravel the mystery behind one party’s refusal to accept her solution. Her “joint sessions” seldom last more than five minutes before one party storms out and imposes a deadline – setting in motion the race against time that defines most episodes.
I find these shows entertaining and amusing – even if they do poke fun at my profession. I hope that other viewers realize that there is little resemblance between the fictionalized world of mediation and its application in real life. Mediation stands on the principles of an impartial third party and the autonomy of the parties to generate their own solutions. The mediator creates a “safe space” for each party to tell their story and express their needs. The mediator ensures that the conversation remains focused and respectful. The mediator is not, however, the hero and therein lies the disconnect between reality and show business. So next time your favourite sit-com or drama features conflict resolution, enjoy the humour and drama, share a laugh, but make sure you have more than a grain of salt available.
Next week: Negotiation lessons from the movies.