Is Mediation Right for the Parties?

I’ve had a few mediation cases recently that didn’t reach agreement. In trying to analyse what ‘went wrong’, as it were, one conclusion I came to is that the parties weren’t really on board for mediation. They were on board yes, to have a dialogue with the other person with me present but really they weren’t in a place of being able to move forward.

In my current pre-mediation questionnaire I have a question ‘on a scale of 1- 10, to what extent would you like to get this matter resolved’. All of them gave either 9 or 10 out of 10 – yet my gut instinct, on reflection was that they hadn’t a clear understanding of the type of challenge that mediation presents.

Mediation yes, is a great process and has many advantages over its more adversarial cousins such as investigation or litigation. However, it’s not without its challenges. In order for mediation to be able to work, people need to be in some sort of mindset that fosters collaboration and compromise and be able to think in terms of needs rather than wants. Yet, it can be hard to help people clarify this for themselves in advance of the process and to get clear on the type of challenge they need to rise to if the process is to be successful.

I have since developed a short ‘quiz’ here that people can take in order to help assess whether they are in such a mindset. I’d welcome any thoughts or feedback you might have as to whether this would be useful or not. Maybe consider a conflict situation you are in yourself and how well this questionnaire would help you identify where you were at in terms of willingness to move forward in the situation.

Is there a need for some self-reflection before mediation?

While I have no solid research to support this assertion, my experience over the last six years seems to show a positive correlation between a person’s ability or interest in self-reflection and better outcomes for the conflict situation they are involved in.

An obvious indicator of a person having taken time to reflect on themselves is if they attend some form of one-to-one intervention such as counselling or conflict coaching. A couple of recent mediation cases illustrated this.

The first was a situation following an investigation of a bullying complaint that was put in by two people against one person. Mediation was proposed as a means of rebuilding the working relationship. At the pre-mediation meetings with both of the complainants, they both spoke about their fear of the person and there was also lot of anger towards her. At the time, I had suggested that they consider attending the company’s Employee Assistance Counselling service.

One of them did and the other ‘couldn’t find the time’. Notwithstanding the fact that both had different issues, personalities etc. there was a clear difference in how each of them presented and dealt with the mediation meetings that they then had with the person they complained about.

The person who had attended counselling was much calmer, accepting and although still somewhat fearful, was able to see the situation from a broader viewpoint, not just one of ‘victim’ and ‘offender’. They reached an agreement about how to restart working together.

The other person was still palpably angry and predictably, the mediation was more about how little contact they would want from each other and how best to manage that, in the future working relationship.

A second interesting case was one where an organisational glitch in moving people and departments resulted in one employee being quite hurt and traumatised.

The organisation recognised and acknowledged their faults and her line manager actually met with her in a facilitated meeting and apologised profusely for what had happened. Yet almost a year later, the employee requested an independent mediator to facilitate a meeting with her and her manager, telling me in pre-mediation that the manager had never actually apologised to her!

She had in the meantime attended counselling and the mediation worked well, her manager reiterated the apology. The client said later that she had been so angry and upset she hadn’t actually heard the apology that had come in the first meeting!

In my view and experience, mediation will only work to the extent that parties are willing and able to engage in some sort of process (and it might just be taking the time to think it through themselves) that causes them to work on themselves internally rather as simply turning up on the day and hoping that the other person has done all the changing!

Whose fault is it that I’m feeling like this?

I heard a statistic recently that that over 90% of our current reaction to a situation has got very little to do with that situation. Now there’s a statistic that one can easily get very defensive about: “Are you saying that my irritation at Ann’s unco-operative behaviour at work is nothing to do with Ann?”

Well the answer is yes, to an extent (that’s the 10%!) but the challenge is to take the focus off Ann and start to look at what’s happening inside oneself, when faced by behaviours such as Ann’s in the workplace. One of the most useful definitions of what happens for us when we are upset or annoyed by something is that framed by Cinnie Noble, that the triggering behavioiur of the other leads us to perceive our needs, values or identity are in some way undermined or challenged. So if we take the situation with Ann, the imaginary staff member, what might this challenge or undermine for you?

It will probably touch for starters, on values – work ethic perhaps or the importance of being collaborative and team work. You would draw on memories from childhood of hearing from parents or other respected teachers about the importance of people pulling their weight and observing the scorn they had for people who didn’t conform to this way of being.

Needs are also involved – the need to get the job done effectively and efficiently – maybe you have a need to look good perhaps with the boss or maybe you just need to get it done so as to get home to family and free-time.

The third piece, identity is often a juicy kernel to unpack. More than likely, at some level, we might feel perhaps undervalued or disrespected if our colleague Ann doesn’t want to co- operate. Here, this can touch on the universal habit many of us develop of wanting or expecting our identity to be reinforced and positively endorsed by others around us and feeling hurt/angry where this is lacking.

So now, Ann’s behaviour is actually just a key that’s unlocking a doorway to our own storage cupboard of beliefs about ourselves, needs in other areas of our lives, learned values about how people should behave.

But you might ask, why would I bother doing this – why should I spend time exploring what’s happening for me when it’s Ann that’s causing the problems in the first place…we are back to focusing on Ann again of course – but if you can bear with me, the reason is very simple.

When you can own your reaction and take responsiblitity for it, your ability to deal with the situation involving Ann will be greatly enhanced. For starters, imagine that you could be in a place where Ann’s unco-operative behaviour would no longer be experienced by you as anything other than a mild challenge that you have to deal with? Think of how much more relaxed you would feel? In turn, you would have greater resourcefulness and skill in how you deal Ann because when we are less stressed, our ability to think creatively and problem-solve increases.

Most important of all, you would be coming across differently to Ann – non-reactive and calm rather than having an undercurrent of resistance and irritation in your energy around her and any action you would take would be so much more effective than if it was laden down with your own emotional responses to her behaviour.
Call to action: Think about a recent time when you were annoyed or upset by something someone said to you. Now, take a pen and see if you can find 5 other factors that might be influencing how you are reacting to this person and take responsibility for dealing with those first before you deal with the person supposedly causing them!