On September 29, 2016, I sat riveted as Judge Michael Aloi of West Virginia encouraged mediators to become more vulnerable.[1}
The message, the messenger, and the audience’s response were stunning.
The message was surprising because mediators are usually encouraged to be neutral. Judge Aloi reminded us that most of our clients are experiencing deep pain. Our visible empathy and deep listening can help them feel safer—show them they’ve been heard. Judge Aloi said our vulnerability shows we connect with them. It telegraphs, “You are important to me. You matter.”
As a former judge myself, I was surprised by the message of humility and vulnerability, not traits judges are known for. Judge Aloi demonstrated both. He grew up in a very poor coal town, the son of Italian immigrants with very little education. He knew the pain of discrimination. “But I was a loved child,” he said. That made all the difference.
He tries hard never to be late to a session. “Those people have taken off from work. They are scared. They don’t know what to expect. I want to show them respect. Everyone is important. Everyone matters.”
He urged us to leave our comfort zones and go where people are hurting. It will make us better mediators because we’ll connect more deeply with our clients, listen more empathetically, and understand their concerns and emotions on a new level. He asked, “How can we know the answers if we don’t know what the questions are?”
He told the story of how frustrated and sad he felt to have to tell an eight-year-old boy he had to wait 30 days to be placed in a nice home. He said, “Son, the grown-ups in your life have all failed you, including me.” The boy responded sympathetically, “Don’t worry about me, Judge. I’ll be okay.”
The judge said, “Sometimes we can’t do anything except embrace the other, feel the pain, hold each other’s hand.” But that helps. That little boy knew he was being held. Someone believed he was important.
Judge Aloi told the audience, “We need to connect. We’re all in the struggle. The problem is struggling alone.”
His father told him, “If you have to deliver bad news, do it with a tear in your eye.” He said, “Sentencing is the loneliest thing a judge has to do. I never make a decision out of anger. There’s a constant tension between enabling [by giving too light a sentence] and extinguishing hope [by being too harsh]. The most dangerous person is the one who has no hope.”
He reminded us that mediators are the people in the room holding hope.
During the Q&A, an audience member spoke for us all: “You are embracing everyone in the room with intimacy. You’re exemplifying what you’re speaking.”
 The occasion was the Association for Conflict Resolution conference in Baltimore.
© Carolyn Parr and Beyond Dispute Associates, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Carolyn Parr and Beyond Dispute Associates with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.