NEWS & VIEWS

Empty Shelves and Mediation

What makes toilet rolls so desirable? It’s a world-wide obsession. According to the Daily Telegraph knife fights broke out in Australia between anxious purchasers. The BBC reported that armed robbers stole pallets of the stuff in Hong Kong. On the internet the jokes abound, showing single leaves being used as currency and car thieves giving precedence to rolls over piles of cash. Some even suggest there is speculation with the idea of selling on at a higher price; check out You Tube. When you look at those pictures of empty supermarket shelves or of groups frolicking in the parks, defying the continual exhortation to stay apart, what explanations come to mind? Do you dismiss the perpetrators as selfish idiots and leave it there?  

Naturally in the USA there was immediate resort to psychiatrists. The New Yorker reported and expanded upon the fascinating fact that Freud believed that human beings subconsciously equate faeces with gold or money.  I prefer to ignore that line of thought. Strong as the temptation is to label the behaviour as irrational it is probably not the best explanation. More likely it is an expression of fear coupled with a herd response to the wide publicity given by the media to the phenomenon.

One might think that if fear is the basis a proper explanation of supply chains and the logic of removing the shortages by not stockpiling would put minds at rest but that certainly has not worked so far. Only when shoppers see fully-stacked shelves whenever they get to Lidl or Waitrose will they calm down.

By now you are wondering why this is in a mediator’s blog.  Well it is about those confrontations we read so much about when stock-pilers are challenged in public. Anger erupts from both those confronted and their accusers. Possibly no journalist has an interest in reporting occasions when a calm explanation cooled temperature but frequently, it will be because no one involved knew how to react.

Emotions are often exceedingly intense in mediations. People can feel very angry over the conduct of former colleagues or business partners. This happens a lot when teams defect. Hair-splitting over the terms of a restrictive covenant disguise strong feelings of betrayal on one side and a wish to be free of constraints on the other. Allegations of discrimination are usually vehemently disputed, generating anger. Family disputes are notorious, but even the most technical business issues and legalistic differences can have similar undercurrents. All experienced lawyers are familiar with apparently legitimate legal arguments that are really driven by personal animosity.  The conduct of parties during both group meeting and separate caucuses can be just like those supermarket queues when anger and resentments surface. In an identical way emotional behaviour on one side generates the same on the other.

Of course, it is for the mediator to recognise what is happening and to get parties to overcome or set aside these emotions.  It is essential because as is well recognised it is practically impossible to achieve a rational resolution of any issues when those emotions dominate. Nothing is more certain to fail than trying to apply reason to overcome anger. Rather like the fact that explaining the effectiveness of the supply chain has no influence on panic buying.

Techniques for handling angry or emotional parties have been known to therapists (and mediators) for years. If that emotion is directed at the mediator (not uncommon) then never react personally, acknowledge the emotions displayed and make sure each party knows their point of view is understood, listen without interruption and let as much steam be expressed as time allows.  Recognising and exploring the basis for the resentments and anger often helps defuse the emotion. There may be some situations where reconciliation of the dispute is impossible, but they are the minority.

I am not suggesting from this that every employee on a check-out should be a trained mediator but when you are in the queue and the row erupts you will know how to intervene!

Stay healthy.