Taking the Third Chair

by John Kinyon
john kinyon

I think that men and women, individually and collectively are… rejecting the view of one single, culture-approved reality. I believe they are moving inevitably toward the acceptance of millions of separate, challenging, exciting, informative, individual perceptions of reality.” — Carl Rogers*

Three chairs can change your life. In the world of professional dispute resolution, the three chairs represent two disputants and a mediator. In our Mediate Your Life training, you learn to “take the third chair.” From this perspective, you perceive a different reality. You become more centered and effective in responding to life’s challenges and conflicts.

In our training you build your capacity — in awareness, language, and communication skills — to readily adopt a mediator’s perspective. You learn to move fluidly through the three perspectives of self, other, and mediating presence. You develop a new vision, seeing things from multiple viewpoints. You are able to hold together contradiction and uncertainty, let go of rigidity and a closed heart, and empathetically see yourself in the “other.”

When in conflict, people tend to get caught up in who has The Truth. We battle over who’s right, who sees things correctly, whose truth will prevail. But from the perspective of the third chair, looking at two opposing forces before you, there is not one truth or reality, but two. So, what if, instead of reaching for who’s right, we strove to see multiple realities – our own subjective truths and also the subjective truths of others? From the vantage point of the mediator, everyone’s experience is true within their frame of reference, equally needing to be heard and understood.

Seeing the situation from the third chair can be very difficult. Although obvious and simple at one level, the shift in perspective is a radical one that goes deeper and deeper. I have at times found it quite challenging — and also extremely valuable — to live this out in my own life.

In my relationship with my wife, for example, certain conflicts have periodically surfaced around topics such as money, intimacy, and parenting. The way we have disagreed over these issues, and what this has triggered inside each of us, has been very painful for us both. Despite my values and skills with Nonviolent Communication, when it came to these conflicts, I was sure I was right and she was wrong – that my view of reality was the correct one. She was equally sure of the rightness of her perspective.

It has been very humbling to see myself getting caught in these struggles time and again. However, using the internal image of the three chairs and taking the third chair, I began relating to those conflicts differently. I began seeing two realities, mine and hers, side by side, and that both of us needed to be honest and heard and understood about our experiences. Somehow, by seeing things from this vantage point, I was able to hear her in a different way, and, as I did, I started learning from my wife’s perspective. I started seeing things about myself and the situation that I wasn’t able to see before. I watched us both change and grow.

When I look deeply from the third chair, I see not only difference, but also commonality, something shared between the two “disputants.” There is one humanity, one life that animates both. This underlying commonality can be accessed through the language of needs. Because all of us human beings have the same basic needs (e.g., safety, trust, respect), as do all the beings of the natural world, a language of needs is a pathway to connection. From the third chair, you can see this underlying oneness and the possibility – the reality – of connection, even in the most dramatic clashes.

In the conflict with my wife, once we were able to accept each other’s differences without needing to agree, we found we could more easily connect through the needs we shared. At that level, there was no conflict between us. We both deeply share each other’s needs; we just have different beliefs and strategies around meeting them. From this place we have found new ways to reach common ground and work together, despite our differences. In fact, our differences now contribute to better and better solutions between us.

To me, there is a sacredness in the three chairs of mediation. I see them as a kind of holy trinity. I think of Einstein’s famous formula E=MC2, which describes the relationship between energy, matter and light (and led to the discovery of atomic energy). At the core of all matter — including human beings — is a synthesis and holding together of forces that have tremendous energy bound up in them. I see awesome power in holding together and synthesizing polarities, and using this energy to create the world we want.

This is not easy. It takes great courage, perseverance, capacity and skill to do this. But it is well worth the effort. As humanity’s poetic and wisdom traditions tell us, this is the entranceway to the temple of transformation, where seemingly impossible differences and opposing forces are held together in uncertainty until new possibilities emerge.

Will you join me in taking the third chair? Together we can make the world a more wonderful place.

*Carl Rogers, “Do We Need ‘A Reality’?”, from A Way of Being, Mariner Books, 1980.