I don’t rate the mediation process as highly as many people seem to – yet I think it makes me a better mediator. All over the mediating world you can her mediators reverence The Mediation Process. They talk about it endlessly as some magic tool. You’ll hear them saying that parties must respect The Mediation Process; how The Mediation Process achieves win/win outcomes; how organisations need to have access to The Mediation Process. My goodness it’s like the Holy Grail.
Mediators – particularly lawyer mediators touting their expensive wares as workplace mediators – have lost sight of what mediation is all about in the workplace. Mediators don’t “do” mediation to people, but that’s the impression you’ll get from listening to most of them. Parties are described as ‘entering The Mediation Process’; mediators are responsible for The Mediation Process; and if we’re lucky, the good old Mediation Process will deliver an outcome. Really? And there was me thinking it was the parties themselves who are key. Mediators are not setting up a meeting which parties attend; we are not enabling them by our skills and magnanimity to take part in mediation. They are not clients or passengers in The Mediation Process. The Mediation Process should really not to be talked about as something parties service or need to conform to or contract with.
A real workplace mediator is engaging with people who are stuck in a dispute and simply offering them new ways of connecting and opportunities for understanding each other. A workplace mediator should prioritise party needs over their own, and certainly over some concept of The Mediation Process.
And we do this by simply paying attention to direct or indirect statements of need. By working to help parties speak in a way that they may not usually feel able to do. By not judging parties. Putting people at the heart of mediation, and making The Mediation Process secondary in importance, is what delivers results for the parties and helps them to move on with feeling better about themselves, each other, and their workplace. We need to remember that the heart of mediation is to value the people involved as needy, vulnerable, confused, contradictory, defensive people – who are neither their behaviours nor their dispute.
We each have weaknesses, habits, egos and fears which cause us to mess up in our workplace relationships from time to time. There isn’t an employee at any level alive, who hasn’t annoyed, undermined or hurt a colleague along the way. Mostly we see what we do, we take responsibility and seek and gain forgiveness – the mess is cleared up and we can move on.
But our communication skills and connection skills grow worse as we enter into conflict. This is when we most need someone to bring better and more effective communication and connecting skills back to the room and back to our relationship. This is what mediators do: when we are questioning, reframing, mutualising and normalising, we are articulating the better selves of the parties, acting as a lightning rod for their needs and wants, fears, history, intention, and meaning, and using that energy to illuminate the conflict so the parties can see it in a way and see their path out of what has brought them to a standstill.
So no more of this glorifying The Mediation Process. And let’s hear it for parties themselves, who are brave enough to sit down and talk to each other as human beings.