In this latest post on applying Talmudic principles in mediation, we will explore a Talmudic insight that can be used to manage high conflict personalities in mediation (the Talmud being an ancient Jewish legal text compiled around 500 C.E. that is a primary source of Jewish law and philosophy).
The Five Books of Moses (or Torah in Hebrew), is divided into 54 weekly portions. One of those portions is named after Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro (Exodus 18:1-20:23). Commenting on the first verse of that segment, the medieval commentator, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (more commonly known by his acronym, Rashi), cites a source from Talmudic times that Jethro had several other names. One of those names was Yeter, which means “extra” in Hebrew, and commemorates the “extra” verses added to the Torah to convey the valuable advice that Jethro gave Moses concerning the development of a judicial system.
Rashi identifies the first of those extra verses as Exodus 18:21, in which Jethro first lists the personal qualities he believes judges must possess, and then proposes a tiered judicial system to adjudicate disputes. Rabbi Moses Sternbuch (a contemporary Israeli sage) asks, however, why Rashi identifies Exodus 18:21 as the first verse added in Jethro’s honor, when Jethro’s advice actually begins four verses earlier in Exodus 18:17, where Jethro tells Moshe, “you are not managing things properly.”
Rabbi Sternbuch answers that Exodus 18:17 constitutes criticism — Jethro finds fault with how Moses is adjudicating disputes. In contrast, Exodus 18:21, represents problem-solving — Jethro proposes a solution to restructure the judicial system. By citing Exodus 18:21 as the first verse added in Jethro’s honor, the Talmudic sages sought to convey the following point: when you see a problem, don’t complain; find a solution. Or as Henry Ford famously admonished, “don’t find fault, find a remedy; anybody can complain.”
Lawyer, therapist, mediator, and co-founder of the High Conflict Institute, Bill Eddy has pioneered techniques for managing disputes involving high conflict personalities that build on the principle “find solutions, not problems.” Eddy has published many books on the subject, including a 2014 work entitled “So, What’s Your Proposal?: Shifting High-Conflict People from Blaming to Problem-Solving in 30 Seconds!” (“SWYP”).
In SWYP, Eddy observes that high conflict people tend to complain and blame, but fail to take responsibility for solving the problems they’ve created or identified. Dealing with such people can be extremely stressful, especially in the context of a dispute.
As Eddy notes, the strong temptation is to become defensive and shift the blame back on to the complainer. But that is counterproductive. So instead of getting angry, Eddy recommends responding calmly with these four words, “So, what’s your proposal?” The idea, Eddy says, is to encourage high conflict people to “focus on the future, take responsibility, and contribute to finding solutions to problems—including those they created themselves.” Eddy says this method has proven incredibly effective, and provides many helpful scenarios in his book.
I am presently reading the book and recommend it to mediators looking to learn new techniques to manage high conflict parties in mediations.