I know it’s blokes who are supposed to be unable to see the pint of milk on the second shelf of the fridge (it’s because they have the eye on the big picture, isn’t it – checking out the lion on the horizon the while we women worry about grubs and corn on the ground?). Let’s be honest, it’s not just blokes.

I made myself a stir fry yesterday and I knew I had half an onion. I was pretty sure it was in the fridge and certain I hadn’t used it since it was last spotted.  Couldn’t find it anywhere. In the end, I made the meal without the onion, slightly disturbed that I hadn’t remembered throwing it out.

This morning, it’s at eye level on the first shelf behind the yoghurt. Logic and the laws of the universe tell me it’s been there all along, but yesterday’s search was thorough.

This happens to us.  Something that’s paralysingly obscure one moment will be transparently clear a few days later.  So now the metaphor diverges a bit.  Back to the laws of the universe.  I’m guessing someone else would have spotted the half onion, and it would have ended up in my stir fry.  But that’s not quite how it seems to work with less straightforward problems.  Other people’s reassurances and ideas are often useless over something more complicated.

I learned this early on in my mediation career.  One thing a mediator shouldn’t do is offer solutions, not even where a fair, sensible, practical, achievable answer is glaringly obvious. This rule seemed borderline perverse when I first qualified. I’d been a lawyer all my professional life. Offering advice and solutions was my bread and butter.  It was painful to stop.

But the value of stopping soon became clear. First, if a solution is that obvious it will generally have been thought of already – there’ll be a good reason why it won’t work; second, finding solutions is ultimately about meeting a need, and you have to dig down to identify that need before you can find a way to meet it.

Take this as an example:  I’ve just moved into a flat.  I am neurotic about neighbour noise (a flat? I know).  The woman upstairs has her telly on quite loud.  I moan about it to my friend. He tells me it’s not that bad. That doesn’t help me. He suggests talking to her. That doesn’t help me either. If I ask myself what’s the feeling and need behind this problem, I realise it’s anxiety and my need is for security and peace.  Digging deeper, I’m worried that it’ll get worse, if she moves. I might have noisier neighbours. Reliability and security. Talking to the old lady isn’t going to make much difference to that, and in the meantime I can find quiet in another room and be glad that it always ends at ten.

What on earth has this got to do with half an onion in the fridge?  Nothing much.  Just that sometimes the answers aren’t obvious even if they seem to be starting other people in the face.  Take your time, sit with your difficulty, listen to what’s really going on, and know the other half of the onion will most likely turn up tomorrow.