Beyond Empowerment: The Magic of Synergy

When the local court reporter came to our high school shorthand class and showed us his steno machine and told all about his life in the courtroom, taking trials and hearings in machine shorthand and transcribing all of that, verbatim, for use by the court, I fell in love with the idea of being a court reporter.  How exciting, hearing all the details of high-profile cases, and it’s all real!  Ten years, a bachelor’s degree and a shorthand school certificate – and three kids – later, there I was, in the same courtroom where he’d worked, taking arraignments, hearings, depositions, grand jury proceedings, and trials.  I was getting paid to listen to stories.  It was my dream job.

Sitting behind my steno machine for the next twenty years, I began to notice a pattern.  Plaintiffs or defendants would often come into the courtroom the first morning of the trial, as I’d be setting up my machine, getting the exhibits marked, getting everything ready for the trial to start.  They’d sit there with their attorney, all excited:  YES, we finally get our day in court.  Our attorney will represent us.  He will be our Knight in Shining Armor.  He will ride in on a white horse, and soon, victory will be ours!  The jury will see that clearly and we will WIN!

The judge would take his seat, the jury would be selected, the trial would begin.  Plaintiffs and defendants would sit at their respective tables with their respective attorneys, everyone looking very serious.   Witnesses would be called, testimony would be taken, the opposing attorney would cross-examine the witnesses, evidence would be collected.  Attorneys would make their impassioned closing statements, the judge would charge the jury, and the jury would deliberate in the privacy of the jury room, while the rest of us waited around in the courtroom or someplace a short distance away.

The jury would ring the buzzer, summoning the bailiff:  the verdict was in!  Once everyone took their places again, the jury would file in.  The judge would ask the foreman of the jury to read the verdict.  All this time I would watch the faces of the defendants and the plaintiffs.  The jury, then excused, would return to the jury room and leave by another entrance, while the plaintiffs and defendants were left in the courtroom with their respective attorneys to deal with the emotional impact of the verdict.

So many times, those who were so excited on the first day of the trial would be reeling by this time, no matter what the verdict happened to be:  “What?  THAT was the verdict?  Really?  That’s not at all what I expected.  Wow.  This is so unfair.”

It began to be obvious to me that the legal system does not work for people.  The system of opposing “expert” attorneys, the judge as “the expert” following the law, and the jury of peers deciding yea or nay on a matter of importance, does not work for people.

Well, I asked myself, what does, then?  What does work for people?

At that time I was developing an interest in Native American history and culture, so the thought occurred to me, what worked for the indigenous people before white colonists came and brought their legal system with them?  Did they have a better way of doing things?  What worked for them?

That was the background I brought with me when I started my master’s degree program in conflict resolution:  Obviously the legal system doesn’t work for people; what does?

When I ran across the Transformative Model of Mediation*, which is so similar in so many ways to many of the indigenous forms of conflict resolution, I got to see first-hand, as an observer and as a mediator, what works for people.

So, what works for people?  At the core of the Transformative Model is the basic belief that the parties themselves are capable.  They don’t need a mediator (judge, attorney, priest, or any other “expert” outside themselves) to fix, change or resolve their situation.  The parties are capable; they have all of their own answers inside themselves.

The first step for the mediator in a Transformative Mediation session is to put all choice in the parties’ hands.  The parties choose.  “Who should be in the room?  What would you like to be called?  Where would you like to sit?  Who wants to start?  What would you like to talk about?”

Empowerment emerges.  The parties begin talking and listening, and the mediator begins summarizing their statements.  “So, Party A, you’re saying 1, 2 and 3; Party B, you’re saying 8, 9 and 10; is that right?”  It’s the mediator’s responsibility to support what each party is saying.

By summarizing and merging the ongoing points and then saying “So, what would the two of you like to do about that now?” it invites the parties to their own empowerment.  The mediator consistently offers the parties choice and consistently steps out of the role of “expert” or “the one with the answers.”  Mediators do not empower the parties – no one can empower another person – that is up for the person to do for himself.  Mediators create the safe space where empowerment could occur.

Recognition may follow.  Usually there will come a point where one or both of the parties “get” something.  One party steps into the shoes of the other, that missing piece falls into place – “OH, I didn’t HEAR that part of the story before now!” – and from there, the agreement takes about two minutes to write.  “OH, I didn’t know you were going to work at 6:30 every morning, leaving your 6th-grade daughter to care for her dying grandmother AND her three younger siblings, all who had to get on three different buses at three different times.  No wonder she’d go back to bed and was truant for 72 days of school so far!  We have services that can help you!”

Now I’m facilitating Native Family Team Meetings using the Iowa version of the Family Group Conferencing model from the indigenous Maori of New Zealand, one of the models I studied for my MA thesis.  It’s a more directive approach than a Transformative mediation session; still, at every place possible I insert “party choice,” from what guidelines or ground rules would you like to have for the meeting, to what kind of food would you like, to is there a certain ritual your family uses to begin or end meetings, and would you like to do that here.  I meet people when they are potentially at the most disempowered point they could be in their lives – with the state threatening to take their kids away from their care if they don’t comply.

We’ll have an initial meeting, where usually the parents will show us just how disempowered they are in their relationship, speaking over one another, not listening to one another, blaming each other for their perceived weaknesses.  “You were gone for three days and the boys didn’t know where you were!”  “I was gone for three days because you punched me in the face and my face was bruised and I didn’t want the boys seeing that!”  I take notes of the family’s existing strengths to accomplish their “purpose,” and what they need and what they’re concerned about in reaching their goal – and what the family members and friends, social workers, coordinators, attorneys, therapists, and other supporting professionals are concerned with about the children’s well-being.  Together we create an Action Plan, a list of things people will do to begin to work on the needs and concerns presented.  We meet as often as the family needs a meeting over the next year or two.

It’s so exciting for me to see the parents develop their sense of empowerment over the ensuing meetings.  What I’ve noticed at the family team meetings is that once we’ve had several meetings for families, once the families know the process, that they’re going to be safe in the family team meeting, and that all these support people are really on their side and are their biggest cheerleading section, it’s truly magical.

We come into the meeting, and let’s say Mom’s been going to treatment, she’s going to two AA meetings a week and really putting her heart into this, and she’s had a setback:  she’s about to be evicted from her apartment and she’s pretty terrified.  Well!  The social worker just that morning attended a meeting with the local Community Action Agency, who just started a brand new program offering housing to clients, and she would qualify.  The social worker will take her to Community Action Agency right after the meeting and get her signed up for that program.

That’s just one example of what I’m seeing now:  empowered and sovereign and whole people, meeting together for the purposes of collaboration and support, wanting what’s best for themselves AND for the other person, create synergy – and synergy is magic!  Synergy is what draws the perfect solution out of people.  People don’t even know what they know until they need to know it, and they find out it was within themselves the whole time.  We don’t have to go out looking for, efforting the solutions; they are magnetized to us and arrive effortlessly.

You get to “synergy” by bringing your whole and complete self, warts and all, to the table; you  bring your whole self to the table by wanting the best for yourself and others; you want the best for yourself and others by being empowered and sovereign;  you feel empowered and sovereign by experiencing choice; you know there is choice because someone, somewhere, knows You Are Capable.

It’s helpful for someone in your surroundings to see you as Capable, to know that they themselves are Capable, and, to quote Jim Self’s Living Words, are happy, certain, capable, senior in their own body, present, gracious, pleased with themselves, and commanding, and to see that potential in you, too.  It’s helpful to have that person around as a Standard for yourself.

And how do you then find the capable, happy, pleased-with-yourself person, the connection to God inside each of us?

Ah, that.  We want to make it so elusive, so complex, so complicated, “finding God.”  Declare that you are a safe space.  Take a deep breath and feel you, inside; feel the smile emerge on your lips, ever so gently.  God is the breath, the lips, the smile.  God Is.

This is the God that’s going to create the peaceful, balanced, harmonious, cooperative, collaborative, synergy-in-communication world we envision.

This is what works for people.

*The Transformative Model of Mediation was articulated first in 1994 by Baruch Bush and Joe Folger in their book The Promise of Mediation.  This was the model I learned as a volunteer and program manager at the Dayton Mediation Center, Dayton, Ohio, from 1999-2003.
Susan Bame Hoover has been studying and practicing mediation, facilitation, and indigenous forms of conflict resolution for over 14 years and owns her own businesses, Cynergy Communications Inc. and Full Circle Mediation, in Sioux City, Iowa. She has a master’s degree in conflict resolution.

One response to “Beyond Empowerment: The Magic of Synergy

  1. Great post. The work you are doing is very important. I myself benefited from mediation in the issue of sharing custody of my son (when he was young). Here’s to empowerment, synergy, and magic!


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