How to Waste Your Breath

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It's said that people fear public speaking even more than death. But from my experience as someone whose business is helping others resolve conflicts they could easily have resolved themselves, I have a candidate for a new number one: negotiating. And this goes for countries, political parties, employers and employees, and the couple glaring at each other across the kitchen table. Public speaking requires only a general knowledge of who you are talking to; you are in charge, you have the power to shut off the heat if it gets too intense; what's more, you probably won't be seeing those people again. Negotiating is very different. We do it every day; negotiation is present in most conversations.

In my career, I've mediated or arbitrated over 1,500 cases, of which 90 percent were frivolous. Either they had no substance or the complainant didn't want to talk to the person with the power to tell them no or both. They had already played the scene out in their own mind so many times that any vestige of substance had liquefied into molten, tongue-tying rage; they had no doubt about the outcome, and were present only to have this confirmed. Having no intention of being reasonable, the last thing they wanted was talk to someone who might tell them they could be wrong.

In arbitration, where I am the Trier of Facts, they have wanted to talk to the other party. In a mediation, where I have no power to decide, it's been me they try to convince. Forget I've explained the difference between the processes ad nauseum. They just don't want to hear. When asked to repeat what the other party has said, it's as if they have realized for the first time that there is a third person in the room. This isn't having a conversation, this isn't negotiating, this is making a speech - the kind that makes you look like an ass; the same fear that haunts the public speaker. But if the only one you are prepared to listen to is yourself, hey, you, too, can enjoy the lonely echoes resounding through the narrow world of the frivolous.

With a Perspective, I'm Richard Friedlander.

Richard Friedlander is a mediator, author and actor.  He lives in the East Bay.