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Taught to me by Don Fosen

This is a report on a conflict-resolution technique that was invented in the 1980's by Don Fosen for use in the business world. It worked so well that Human Resources began to be puzzled as to why there weren't the usual two complaints a week coming in from his division. It's tailor-made for couples and families.

The facilitator starts by going in ahead of time and writing on a white-board, "Most problems can be solved by people working together in good faith." And the rules are written below that on the board.

When the people are brought in, the facilitator might say something like, "You're both good people, and rather than fire somebody, we want to work things out so you can work together as part of a team. I'm not on anybody's side."

Then it's explained that this is a game, an exercise, and it's set up so everyone wins. The rules are gone over.

(1) Only the person the facilitator is talking to can talk. The other (or others) must listen without making any noise at all. No comments, no rude snorts, etc.

(2) The focus of the discussion will be on the issues. Nothing negative can be said except about issues. Describing each other's behavior isn't allowed.

(3) This game is based on fairness, so everyone gets to talk, and everyone gets equal time to talk.

If you have two people, put one at each end of an 8-foot table, and in between put up a screen, so they can't see each other. The original screen was made of masonite, standing upright in a groove cut in a 2-by-6, painted white. As though the clients were about to play on odd game of ping-pong.

For working with three people, a round table and three screens are used.

It's important to get a chair with wheels, so the facilitator can roll seamlessly from person to person. Have each person face the facilitator rather than the screen while they're talking. The dynamic that takes hold is that the people listening feel a little titillated, as though they're eavesdropping. And the speaker "forgets" there's anyone else there, and talks more freely. People say things they would never say to the other person's face. When the process gets into important stuff, the silence behind the screen becomes palpable.

If muffled snorts or muttered comments emerge from behind the screen ("That's a lie!"), the facilitator doesn't roll back to that person and tell them to be quiet. Instead, the rules are explained again. ("You get to talk when it's your turn. This is all based on fairness. Do you have some objection to fairness?") If repeated bouts of that don't stop the comments, the facilitator can say something like, "OK, you get to stand up over there, and we will sit over here, and you can go on all you like, vent, get it out of your system. Then, because this is fair, the other person gets to vent at you for an equal time. And after that you agree to abide by the rules for the rest of the time." The person would generally decline this offer and become cooperative.

What's talked about first are what the issues are. List ten. Pare that down to five, to two, to one. What's most important? If people can't agree on what the issues are, have each person choose their most important issue, and in addition the facilitator contributes an issue he thinks is important. And discussion is limited to those three issues.

Getting people to agree on what the issues are gives the clients (without their noticing it) an experience of agreeing with each other. Along this line, it's a good idea for the facilitator to choose an issue that is important but solveable. Address that issue first in order to give the clients an experience of success. Success paves the way for further agreement. The things that people will list as their top-most issue can be incredibly petty. And they generally won't say what the real problems are at first. You have to drag it out of them. Don Fosen once worked with two people where the issue turned out to be that one wanted the window open and one wanted it closed. The problem was solved in five minutes by changing desks around.

If people keep dragging up the past, the facilitator might say, "That's history. That's in the past. What do you want now?" Letting the clients replay history is fruitless.

Reframing comes in handy. A man who was having trouble with his supervisor was asked if maybe the reason was that he himself was intimidating? "But he's the supervisor," the man protested, "how could I be intimidating to him?" The problem resolved itself, and the two eventually became friends.

By keeping people visually separate, issues can be clarified to the point where it becomes obvious who's opposing resolution. At that point, the facilitator might say something like, "Someone here isn't operating in good faith. Is it you?" If all else fails, the facilitator can point at the person and say, "You seem to want to throw sand in the gears. You're the one who's refusing to let go of anger and resentment. You're the one who's standing in the way of a solution. You're not working in good faith." The reaction to such a confrontation is usually anger. The facilitator must be prepared to keep an even keel.

Some issues can't be solved. In that case, the only agreement that can be made is to agree to disagree.

The first meeting is generally an hour, and the ones after that are usually half an hour. Once the people begin to reflect on what they're learning here, it's time to stop.

To end a meeting, direct one person to leave, wait a bit and then have the other leave. There's no benefit in them leaving together and continuing to talk without a referee. They need time to process. And the problem will generally fade away over the course of the next week or so.

If people truly won't play, the meeting is over. A man once came to mediation in a clown suit, complete with rubber nose and floppy shoes. The facilitator said, "You have two choices. You can leave right now and not come back, or I'll bring in all the rest of the people on the team and you can explain to them why you're not cooperating." The man left and was never seen again. Human Resouces called up and wanted to know how Don had gotten rid of this troublemaker without the usual tempest. Results are results.

Here's a version you can download:

Download Mediation.txt