Sunday, December 20, 2009

Does Staying Neutral Require Staying Up in the Air?

I went to the movies last night and saw "Up in the Air". There were so many messages for a mediator, I'm still trying to process them. The story revolves around George Clooney's job flying around the Country to terminate people from their employment for Big Co. He does his best to re-frame the moment into an opportunity and indeed, seems to succeed at finding the one passion or interest in the person's past that was set aside for all the years of his/her employment that truly drives them. Through a brief, but ever so personal interaction, he attempts to give them hope that their future may be brighter than their past. It is a technique we mediator's call "re-framing" and most of the time, when it's done with thoughtfulness and sincerity, it works to help people accelerate acceptance of a less than optimal result.

Enter a very young Cornell alumna who seeks to revolutionize this business by terminating the employees via Skype. It sounds a little like internet based mediation to me. (I never understood that either). She uses the same approach (even the same lines), but this time is one step removed. NEUTRAL! She makes no personal connection and remains "Up in the Air". On the interpersonal level, both the Clooney character and the attractive young woman find they are unable to make or maintain genuine personal relationships. Their "up in the air" status precludes them from finding a center or home that is meaningful to either of them.

And so it brings me to wonder whether being neutral actually requires the proverbial being "up in the air" (as in not taking sides) or whether it's possible to be bi-lateral instead--meaning human and empathic towards both sides of a controversy.

I really enjoyed this movie and recommend that if you see it you consider these underlying issues...


Dan Dassow said...


I came across your blog since I have a Google alert for Up in the Air. I have been researching the Wikipedia article on the Jason Reitman film Up in the Air ( ). I hope to see the film next weekend, when it becomes widely available in the St. Louis area. After I see the film, I would be interested in discussing the film further.

In the meantime, I would like your reaction to Jason Reitman using twenty-two recently fired people as themselves in the film. Reitman actually fired them on camera and asked them to either respond the way they did the day they lost their job or if they preferred the way they wished they had responded. He stated in numerous interviews that he expected the major concern to be the loss of income, but was surprised that loss of purpose was predominantly their concern.

Dan Dassow

Jan Frankel Schau said...

Thanks Dan for that fascinating insight. There was a series of interviews towards the end that appeared a bit like "out takes" with the terminated employees. That explains why. Happy to continue the dialogue after you've seen the film, but I do a lot of employment mediations, following what is perceived to be a "wrongful termination" and invariably we find that it is NOT about the money--but the way the individual was terminated (and the reasoning behind singling them out for that). Good luck on your research.

Joe Markowitz said...

Was it really the video hook-up tht made the connections between the terminated employee and the "terminators" less personal? Interestingly, the video terminations seemed to work pretty well, but the thing that was really threatening about the use of video to the George Clooney character was that using this technology would have forced him to remain home, and he was unable to establish a home base or make personal connections to people around him. And the incident that shook up the other character was not a video termination, but a face-to-face encounter. She could not deal with the personal repercussions that came out of the nature of the job she was doing. For her, it would probably have been easier to do her job via video.

Jan Frankel Schau said...

It's not a question, I don't think, of making the job easier by doing it via video, it's a question of making a connection (which I think works better face-to-face)--whether in one's home or with one's clients in a mediation. Thanks, Joe, for calling me on this blogger's creative license, though. You are correct.

Joe Markowitz said...

I agree with you that making connections is easier face to face. I'd of course much rather do mediations face to face, but I might rather fire somebody via video!

Debra Healy said...

In discussing the essential qualities of a good mediator, Nobel Peace Prize recipient Martti Ahtisaari states: "Parties should get the feeling that they are both being treated fairly. In other words: the mediator should be “all-partial.”

At the following link is an interview of Ahtisaari by Dr. Antje Herrberg:

Thank you for your thought- inspiring post!

Debra Healy
Healy Conflict Management Services

Jan Frankel Schau said...

Thanks, Debra. I agree!