I think that helping people reason their way through emotionally fraught conflict is the core competency for a mediator. It is also the most challenging to master. Can I help a person think of a reason that makes sense to him and allows him to unclench his fist?  And can I provide that kind of help and remain true to the essential tenet of mediation – self-determination?

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In South Asia, monkeys are sometimes trapped by placing food in a secured vessel with a small opening. When a monkey slips his hand inside to grab the food, it soon discovers that its clenched fist is too large to pull out through the hole. The monkey will remain stuck clinging to the food until someone comes along and captures it. This “attachment trap” is a metaphor for a core Buddhist principle: by holding on to external sources of happiness, we prevent ourselves from being truly free.  (

The attachment trap that plagues the monkey is the same problem we struggle with when we try to resolve difficult conflicts. In spite of our evolutionary advantages, we nevertheless keep our fists clenched, holding onto positions that keep us captive – unable to identify and advance our self-interest.

Compared to the monkey, however, we are capable of a greater ability to reason – to take into account competing interests, assess risk and distinguish fact from fiction. It is not easy but with time, energy and the help of a skillful mediator, even seemingly intractable controversies can be resolved.