One of the most useful interventions to manage difficulties in a working relationship is the process of mediation. It is widely and successfully used in many different types of conflicts. For example, workplace bullying or harassment situations can be resolved with mediation, particularly if it is used at an early stage in the dispute resolution process. In other words, rather than trying mediation at the end of an investigation, it is more likely to have positive outcomes if it is attempted before any investigation process takes place.
What is Workplace Mediation?
The vast majority of people I meet initially have very little idea what mediation means. Some even confuse it with ‘meditation’ – as does google… In fact I was once asked if I was bringing a candle along to the meeting!
Let me start first of all with a definition of mediation. Taken from the website of the Mediators’ Institute of Ireland (M.I.I.), the only non-profit professional association for Mediators in Ireland, it defines mediation as:
…a process whereby an independent, neutral Mediator(s) assists the parties to come to agreement through collaborative engagement…The Mediator supports the parties in identifying their issues and needs, in exploring how those needs can be addressed and facilitates them to reach agreement.
What is the role of the Mediator?
One of the myths about mediation is that the Mediator will ‘tell’ the parties what to do or ‘make recommendations’. Indeed, media reports of some high-profile mediation cases that have sometimes refer to the Mediators’ recommendations. This is far from the reality however of how most Mediators practice (and may indeed be a reporting error). In fact, a key element in the Code of Ethics and Practice of the M.I.I. is the principle of ‘self-determination’ – in other words it is the parties themselves that make the decisions and determine the outcome, not the Mediator. The Mediator’s key role is to facilitate constructive communication between the parties so that they are enabled to talk through their chief concerns and issues as well as hear those of the other party. When people are caught up in the often intense emotion of a breakdown in a working relationship, it can be very stressful to have to try and discuss and reach agreement on contentious matters. The supportive expertise of a skilled Mediator can enable that to happen.
Is there a record or minutes kept of the discussion?
Another of the hallmarks of mediation is the emphasis on confidentiality. So not only is there no detailed report written up on all matters discussed but parties are also asked to agree to hold confidential all of the content discussed. In most cases, I request people to sign an Agreement to Mediatewhich sets out a number of binding clauses, among them confidentiality.
One of the key reasons for confidentiality is that people can be more frank and honest in their discussions with the other person. This increases the likelihood of having a discussion that gets to the heart of the matters at stake. That is because in conflict, people tend to get into positional arguments with each other rather than going for more risky discussions about what is really important to them. Mediation provides a safe and confidential forum thus enabling more effective exchanges between people.
In terms of a record, there is a record kept of the fact that mediation took place as well as whether an agreement was reached or not. This information is also shared with the commisioner of the mediation e.g. H.R. Manager as well as being formally sent to the parties after the session.
At the end of the session(s) parties might decide to put in writing some of the things they have agreed upon and they might also agree to share this with someone else in the workplace. Many people however, also don’t feel the need to commit any details of the agreement to paper.
What if we don’t reach an agreement?
Yes, this can happen, for various reasons and at times, despite the best will and intentions of the parties to try and get things resolved. Whether mediation is ‘successful’ or not tends to be measured by whether people have reached an agreement and sorted all the issues out. This can be an unrealistic expectation sometimes, especially if the situation has been going on a long time. However, even when people don’t reach agreement, it doesn’t mean the process wasn’t useful in some way
For example, it’s an opportunity for people to get a deeper understanding of where the other person is coming from or maybe clear the air about some of the issues in dispute. Knowing that you and the other person don’t have a lot of common ground is also information. Without going through a mediation, that question might always remain unanswered – ‘we should have tried to talk it out’.
If people don’t reach agreement in mediation, this doesn’t in any way preclude them from going ahead with other dispute resolution processes such as an Investigation, in the case of a workplace dispute or difference.
Should everyone in a difficult situation try Workplace Mediation?
Mediation is a great process but it’s not a universal panacea either. I always applaud people for their courage and willingness to enage in mediation with someone they are having difficulties with. It can be stressful and despite people’s best intentions, the discussions can be intense and heated. So it’s important to be in a frame of mind that you will be able to participate and stay the course of the session. If you find it very difficult to hear someone disagreeing with you or not seeing things your way, then mediation might not be the best process for you. Some people benefit from doing some individual one-to-one coaching sessions either in advance, or instead of doing mediation. Another option that I sometimes use, as a last resort, let me add, is to have ‘support’ persons attend also. This can work although again, if the ‘support person’ is not on board and doesn’t really get what we are trying to do in mediation, then it can be hard to find common ground and talk constructively.
In cases of bullying or harassment, while mediation can work very well in many of these situations, there are also certain cases that are not suitable for mediation.
Download this short questionnaire as a tool to help assess whether Workplace Mediation is the right process for your dispute