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Mediator Burnout

by Michael Jacobs
August 2012 Michael  Jacobs

Mediators get tired. The levels of concentration and attentiveness, combined with the intensity of context, create conditions both demanding and draining. Sometimes we get so tired we end up leaving the profession.  We talk about becoming ‘burnt out’.

Most mediators begin from an idealistic stance – searching for better ways to deal with conflict, to encourage greater collaboration, to promote peace.  It’s only after spending years with people locked in conflict, dealing with the minutia of their disputes, that these ideals can begin to slip.  It seems that no matter how skilled we become, the world can always generate more conflict. Peace begins to feel an impossible dream.  Eventually, with tired hearts, we give up the chase.

I believe we are chasing the wrong dream. In doing so, we set ourselves up for failure and burn out. Burn out is a symptom of the mistaken belief that mediators are meant to resolve disputes. Adopting such a framework means that we focus our energy and attention on achieving satisfactory results.

And it is this assessment of success that I think really tires us out. We are elated when it happens and despairing when it doesn’t. The problem is that we can neither control not guarantee any outcome. All we can control is our own practice. Peace isn’t some distant dream, it’s precisely what we are called to embody in the way we work. It is also the invitation we extend to those we are working with.

Tiredness comes when we forget we can invite, but never insist. Peace is always a choice. Parties are always free to say no. If we wish them to join the dance, it will be because they see us doing the steps.

Embodiment, whether via dance, paint or clay, clearly falls within the artistic realm. And to the extent that both ourselves and those we work with are open to embody peace, then what we are engaged in is a form of social artistry.  And at the centre of the work is the ‘artistic quality’ of our own practice.

To fully shift into an artistic way of thinking would promote a completely different set of  criteria for success.

  • Did we mediate beautifully?
  • Were we as present as possible during the work?  
  • Did we pretend interest, ignore our internal responses, engage in some form of subtle manipulations?  
  • Can we differentiate between healthy and unhealthy suffering?
  • Did we encourage the parties to show up as people rather than positions?
  • Was there space in the work for laughter and joy?  

As far as I know, these are not questions often asked of our practice. They do not easily fit into some tick-box recording system. They are more interested in process than product. They also open up the assessment criteria for our clients. We might widen the focus to include not only agreements reached, but also whether the process enabled parties to: ¹

  • See the ‘other side’ as human beings rather than stick-figure villains
  • Move away from simplistic definitions of black & white and become more interested in the infinite shades of grey
  • Think creatively and engage their imaginations  
  • Be willing and able to take risks

 

As mediators we need to reclaim the central intention of our work – to embody peace in the world. Through ourselves and through our clients. 

Will this make us less tired? Probably not. Art isn’t easy. What it may do is cause us to reconsider putting the work aside. To echo the statement of the novelist John Gardner, it’s hard to think of an artist who chose to retire.

After all, why would anyone want to give up trying to live more beautifully?

 

¹These four points paraphrase the essential criteria for peace identified by John Paul Lederach in his book The Moral Imagination.

Biography


Michael Jacobs has been mediating for the past 23 years across a range of disputes, including family, community, workplace and civil/commercial. He appreciates the fact that even after all this time, he is still quite capable of making mistakes and getting things wrong – it means that he has more to learn.  



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