Last week, while co-mediating a complicated landlord-tenant dispute, we watched a woman who had been treated appallingly by a property management company find her power. We could not provide her with any legal advice and didn’t. Eventually, after caucusing with both parties, we re-assembled in the main virtual room. But when this diminutive, disabled woman began to speak, slowly, as if trying to construct her words one at a time so that she left nothing out, we sat back in awe at the power and grace she displayed.
Here was indignation without a hint of sentimentality. Here was finesse in fury. Not one obscenity, no shouting, or hysterics. She told the company’s representative what destruction their negligence had caused. She talked about mental stress and loss, about the damage caused, not just by their lack of care but also by their lack of basic human decency. Always polite, not one tear, nothing hysterical, just grace and humility under pressure.
Also last week I watched a woman testify in front of a judicial committee, trying to enact legislation and during her testimony she started crying. It was difficult for her to speak while tears trickled down her cheeks and all who were present were deeply moved. The motion passed.
The problem was the tears she was shedding concealed that her facts did not add up. Tears don’t only blind the ones who cry and sometimes they obscure the truth. There was no science to support her claims, only hysterical lobbying from those who had convinced her to speak. Tears sell well. They are powerful weapons when targeting the more sentimentally inclined.
Mediators have to try to decipher truth while sifting through body language, rage, copious amounts of tears, insults, and occasionally the earnest and convincing liar. I don’t mean to dismiss the emotions that drive disputants to mediators. But I have to remind myself how to listen and not to trust my first reaction when someone either smiles or cries as they relate their problem. Shakespeare, in OTHELLO, said you can smile and smile and still be a villain. Sometimes simplicity, humility, wisdom, and fortitude speak louder than tears. Sometimes they speak volumes.
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