Seek First to Understand…

 Firas Alsalih Reflects On His First Place Finish at the Dubai Mediation Tournament

Firas Alsalih- When Noam recently asked me to share some thoughts on my recent first place win in the individual mediator category at the inaugural Dubai Mediation Tournament organized by the InterNational Academy of Dispute Resolution (, I didn’t need to think about it long, and frankly, anyone who has ever had the privilege of meeting Noam probably understands that it is not easy to say no to Noam, and once you’ve been a student of his, you will always feel a certain debt of gratitude, so I said yes, of course.

My entry to the tournament was a late decision, and came as a result of an introduction to the organizers by Creighton’s own Bryan Hanson, who suggested I enter as the lone Creighton student.  Although the teams had to be made up of at least 3 students from each institution, I was used as a “filler” to complete a team from Dubai that was short one student, and although we did not qualify for placement in the team competition (all 3 students must be from the same school), I still qualified for the individual competition.

The competition included 12 teams (and 36 individual competitors) from the US, UK, UAE, India and Sri Lanka.  More information on teams and institutions is available on the website.

Up until this competition, my only other competitive experience was an online mediation competition, organized through the online dispute resolution platform “Modria” (, in which I placed second.  However, this was a much more intense experience, as the pressure was significantly greater, the audience bigger, and there was a much greater sense of “theater.”

While it would have been great to have had an entire Creighton team there, it was nevertheless a wonderful experience, and I learned so much from it.  The greatest value I gained was a real sense of confidence in, and appreciation of, the training and education I am receiving at Creighton.  A competition like this places all your training to the test, under real-life pressure.

We often talk about “intuitive” abilities, and I even recall writing once in one of our online posts for the MS NDR program at Creighton, that the more you learn, the better stocked your “intuitive arsenal” is.  I thus found myself applying skills that felt completely intuitive, although they are ones I only learned over the past 18 months, and were far from intuitive prior to entering the program.

I also gained a greater sense of appreciation of mediation as a wonderful process of healing and resolving disputes.  I truly believe mediation will continue to gain momentum, and will become one of the most effective and widely used dispute resolution processes (note the absence of the word alternative) in the world.

I also learned that as a general rule, the greatest contribution a mediator can make in resolving conflict is helping parties build rapport (thank you John Ford), and creating a safe, open and constructive environment where dialogue can take place, and where genuine rapport can indeed be built.

Another skill I put to great use during this competition, and which our program goes to almost extreme lengths to help us master, is that of reframing.  Reframing allows us to be a really positive force during the mediation process (and is perhaps the only time we look to be any kind of “force” during mediation) and while reframing effectively can do magic, I would offer some words of caution here: Reframing is not as intuitive or natural as one would think, and applying it poorly can backfire badly.

I would thus offer the following advice to all future mediation competitors and aspiring mediators: Practice your reframing, and when you think you’re done, practice some more.  It will come in handy, I promise.

Finally, the most memorable part of my mediation in this competition was my use of a quote from Stephen Covey in my opening statement, which to me goes to the core of what mediation should be about:  “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

This started the mediation process in an almost “transformative” and deeply idealistic tone, which carried us through the entire process, and which I feel tipped the scales, not only towards successful “resolution” of the dispute, but also towards winning the competition.


Firas Alsalih is an MS NDR Candidate at the Werner Institute, School of Law, Creighton University.


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Comment by Raymond R. Roelandt on March 5, 2013 at 5:37pm

Firas:  Sounds like the competition was a wonderful experience for you.  Congratulations!  Many quotes are memorable and the one you cite from Stephen Covey is certainly one of them.  I like the idea of using a quote to set the stage or tone of the mediation.  That is a great tip. Thanks!   ray roelandt


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