“If only we’d had this conversation over a cup of tea fifteen years ago.” The client expressed frustration at the time which had passed, during which she and her opposite numbers had spent hundreds of thousands of pounds in litigation. That had got them no nearer to solving the underlying problem about which a court action had been raised all those years ago.

Now at mediation, remarkably this was the first occasion the clients had met during that period. Three different court actions, with a fourth pending, had left them financially impoverished and deeply angry at the legal system.

The (fairly recently instructed) lawyers at the mediation could only acknowledge the shocking nature of the situation. There was no rational explanation. Things had got out of hand. That of course had led to the well known problem of sunk costs – and who bears them. There was a possible route to pursue recovery of some of these but it would take that fourth litigation to open that up. Meantime, the real practical issue on the ground still needed to be addressed.

A “cup of tea policy” seems a rather quaint notion. But as a metaphor for meaningful negotiations it works well. Negotiating over a cuppa eases the tension. There is choreography in it too. Mediators can set up these moments well in order to make the very best of the opportunity.

Much more poignantly, the idea of a “cup of tea policy” was proposed at a mediation seminar in Edinburgh last week by Jo Berry, daughter of the murdered British MP Sir Anthony Berry, as an antidote to violence in political conflicts. She did so while sitting next to Patrick Magee, the one time IRA member who planted the bomb which killed her father at the Conservative Party conference in 1984. For seventeen years they have been speaking together about what it takes to overcome hatred and violence and consider healing and reconciliation. The key point they made, though, was the need for real understanding of the “other side”. Conversation over a real or metaphorical cup of tea can help achieve that.

“I did not understand where you were coming from.” “We felt misunderstood, demonised, not heard properly.” “Their political allegiance meant they couldn’t see beyond the uniforms…” “Your lawyers didn’t even try to make contact to find out what we really needed.”

Political malfunction and legal malfunction are not that far apart. For lawyers representing clients in claims handling and dispute resolution, whether in negotiation or mediation, it is critical to make – and take – time to listen and understand as well as to explain and be understood. For mediators, enabling that to happen is one of our primary roles. We must not underestimate its importance.

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