Mediating conversations; the “third point” protocol

One of the most powerful concepts I’ve learned in mediating difficult conversations is what I call a “third point”. It’s a way to create safety for the participants, to ensure certain discussions don’t turn into personal attacks, allowing everyone to say what’s on their mind while maintaining vital relationships.

Quite simply, there’s me and you, and we’re both OK, and there’s an issue which we’ll place in the space between us, the so-called “third point”. Separate from me, separate from you, so we’re both safe. We can examine the issue from all sides, we can sit and look at it on the table there between us, a disembodied thing that will become our focus of conversation.

We can be hard on it, and pry it open for examination if we like, all the while understanding it doesn’t live within us. We’ll learn something as a result of our talk, and we’ll move ourselves forward, because there’s safety in the protocol.

Why do we do this?  Well, as we all know, there are always issues simmering which, if left unspoken or untended, can poison an environment. Like it or not, they must be dealt with, and our work must move forward better than before.  We are in the relationship business, and relationships take work. We must keep our eye on ever-improving connections with our partners, for as we know it’s the networks which keep us strong and vibrant.

Over the years, I’ve had some success with this protocol, and come to understand on a deep level how people thrive in safety and flounder without it. As a result, I’ve become somewhat of a “student” of organizational cultures, and continually watch the ways people negotiate their relationships with all their nuance and subtlety.  For instance, I find it endlessly fascinating how our choice of words can create these safe spaces for discussion (the flip side of that is how the wrong words can cause terrible harm). Starting the conversation “I’d like to talk to you about the way you…” has an entirely different tone from “can we talk about the issue of….”.  One focuses the conversation on the person and creates a vulnerability for them. The other sets the topic as an issue, apart from the person and potentially much safer for them to talk about.

This will be my thought as I go forward into my day as a leader in my school. Hard on the issues we need to deal with, gentle with the people who come our way.  Never perfect, but we’re working at it.


About Ron Sherman

I am the principal of Salmo Elementary/Secondary School, a small rural K-12 school in the Kootenay Lake School District. Happy to be part of the Grand Conversation, moving learning forward and joining with great people every day. Runner, triathlete, skier, blogger, loving husband and father of 2 great boys
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One Response to Mediating conversations; the “third point” protocol

  1. Casey says:

    Nice work Sherman.

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