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<xTITLE>What is Mediation?</xTITLE>

What is Mediation?

by Brendan Donaghy
June 2007 Brendan Donaghy

Asking a bunch of mediators what mediation is may sound like I’m inviting a statement of the obvious, so let me put it another way. What is it we do? My problem is that all too often the answer to that question seems to focus on how we do stuff, rather than on what we actually provide. For an example of what I mean, type the question into your search engine. You’ll get chapter and verse on how mediators stay neutral, impartial and independent, how we facilitate win – win outcomes, how we offer a flexible process, how we guard the confidentiality of the process with our lives, etc, etc, etc. I’m not saying these things aren’t important. I just worry that sometimes we concentrate too much on the principles and ethics surrounding mediation and, as a result, lose sight of what we should be doing. Which brings me back to my question: what is it we actually do? As a mediator specialising in neighbourhood disputes, I see my role as having five broad functions:

1. Interrupting An Old Cycle of Interaction

This is the first function of mediation in many neighbourhood disputes. If a dispute has reached a high intensity stage, it is vital that the mediator’s first contact with the parties succeeds in stopping the escalatory cycle of destructive behaviour. Mediation is impossible unless this space for reflection is created. The mediator needs to convince the parties of the potential positive outcomes of engaging in mediation, and to allay their fears (‘you don’t have to meet face to face if you don’t want to’, ‘this isn’t about making you like your neighbour’, etc)

2. Growing Confidence / Respect

Parties to a neighbourhood dispute often have little confidence in either their neighbour or in mediation, particularly if the dispute has been running for some time. It is the mediator’s function to help ‘grow’ that confidence. A start has been made if the destructive interaction between the parties has been halted. The mediator can build on this by passing on (after seeking permission) any positive statements or remarks that are made in the course of conversations with the parties. (‘your neighbour said that your kids are never cheeky or abusive’, ‘your neighbour mentioned that you were very helpful to her when she first moved in’). It often comes as a surprise to people to hear something positive being said about themselves or their family by someone they assumed hated them with a passion. Mutual confidence and respect grow from such small seeds.

3. Exchanging Stories

Where parties to a dispute have agreed to meet, it is the job of the mediator to arrange and facilitate this meeting. Often, however, parties to a neighbourhood dispute refuse the offer of meeting face to face. It is then the role of the mediator to ensure the mediation continues by meeting with the parties separately and passing on the different ‘stories’ of the dispute. This is not simply a case of repeating verbatim a list of grievances held by both parties. Rather, it is for the mediator to look behind the catalogue of claim and counter claim and to uncover the assumptions and perceptions held by both parties. For it is these highly subjective views that form the real stories of the dispute and which need to be named and explored. (‘your neighbour is convinced you want her evicted from this house’, ‘he thinks there’s a risk you’ll assault him next time’, ‘he thinks you’re making these complaints because you don’t like the fact he’s gay’ ). Often the answers to these statements, when passed back to the person who made them, are enough to make that individual question some of the assumptions and perceptions they have held. It is unlikely they will throw out long-held beliefs overnight, but they may receive enough reassurance to allow them to take another step towards resolution.

4. Exploring Options / Outcomes

It is the job of the mediator to help parties explore their options. The mediator assists them in identifying the issues that are important to them, helps draw out their needs and interests, and walks them through the likely outcomes of various courses of action. The mediator may have to help the parties devise face-saving retreats from previous strongly held and articulated positions. If things have gone well in the mediation up to this point, this part of the process may take place in an atmosphere of relative calm, as some of the heat will have gone out of the situation. It may even happen that parties who have previously refused to sit in the same room together will agree to meet and discuss future relationships and arrangements. If this occurs, it is the mediator’s role to ensure that hard won progress isn’t lost by parties seeking to fight old battles and reopening old wounds in the process.

5. Establishing A New Cycle of Interaction

The parties will establish their own rules of interaction for the future, but it is the mediator who ensures that they consider how they will handle difficulties that have proved explosive in the past. (‘what will you do if you think the music is too loud?’, ‘how will you react if the ball lands in the garden again?’, ‘what if you come home and find she’s parked in that space again?’) Clear communication is the means by which this can be achieved. It is for those who own the dispute to decide whether the communication takes place directly or through a third party. The mediator may act as this third party until the parties feel comfortable about taking on the role themselves. The mediator may also act as a troubleshooter for a limited period, checking back with the parties that all is going well, taking calls and visiting them if requested and helping to iron out any difficulties that may arise. After that, they’re on their own.

I’m not claiming that this list of functions is either exhaustive or exclusive. I’m not even claiming it represents recognised good practice or standards. It’s simply an attempt to reflect on the service I provide to the clients with whom I work. If it gets you thinking about your own mediation practice, as opposed to the principles you operate by, that’s progress.


Brendan Donaghy has worked for the Northern Ireland Housing Executive since 1988. In 2000, he was appointed Mediation Development Officer and was seconded for 18 months to Mediation Northern Ireland, an independent mediation NGO. In the course of the secondment, he trained as a mediator and worked with Mediation Northern Ireland personnel on a range of disputes. He returned to the Housing Executive in 2002 and set up that organisation's in house mediation service. The service is offered free of charge to tenants of the organisation who find themselves in dispute with a neighbour. Since it was set up, over 700 people have received help with their dispute. In addition, the mediation service has delivered training on principles of conflict resolution to nearly 450 staff of the Housing Executive, as well as to staff from other organisations which work closely with the Housing Executive. Brendan is a part time conciliator with the Disability Conciliation Service of Northern Ireland. He holds a Masters Degree in Conflict Resolution and Mediation Studies from Birkbeck College, University Of London and an honours degree in English from the University of Leeds. He is married with one son and lives in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

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