Learning to mediate has been likened to learning to speak another language. Personally, I think it’s more difficult than that. Learning to mediate is like learning to think in another language.
Changing the way we think can feel extraordinarily disorienting. This can be especially hard if your habitual patterns of thought are based on expert knowledge and a proactive stance towards problem-solving. And in terms of backgrounds for many neophyte mediators, this is precisely the mental framework they bring into the training.
Mediators generally shun violence, even as trainers. As tempting as it sometimes is to berate beginning mediators for once again trying to ‘fix’ the parties, it rarely produces much learning. In attempting to learn workplace mediation, those with backgrounds in Human Resources or Employee Relations often struggle to give up their role as ‘solutioniser in chief’.
In almost every mediation training that I’ve been involved in, there is a dance of one step forward and two steps back – a movement between the known and the new. I often refer to a well-known model which describes the alternating steps from conscious incompetence to conscious competence and then back again.
The aim of training is to develop the capacity to spend longer and longer spells in the conscious competence quadrant. Of course, the idea that you will only need to cross the border once is absurd. While they might experience this bouncing back and forth as frustrating and exhausting, it is also an inevitable part of the process of changing the way they think.
In reflecting on this reality from a trainer’s point of view, I wondered if there was some piece of advice or indication that I could give trainees to make the journey less confusing and less disorienting. Something that might function as a ‘true north’ as they journey towards mediator thinking.
I suspect that different trainers might nominate different Pole Stars, or at least slightly different viewing angles. There is something both helpful and potentially risky about boiling down a complex and intuitive process like mediation into a pithy maxim – and I’m aware of that risk. I’m also aware that having clarity of intention allows new practitioners to focus on what’s happening in the room, rather than constantly worrying about what’s happening inside their own heads.
So my offer to help sustain mediator awareness can be summed up as “If you aren’t doing empathy or curiosity, you probably aren’t mediating.”
Simply putting this down in print feels daunting. Partly because I have a number of other semi-glib statements that I trot out on a regular basis during training. And partly because it sounds like a prescription, rather than a description – and I am personally very wary of someone saying there is a ‘right way’ to mediate.
And yet, for those starting out in mediation, I think the maxim captures something essential about the work, something which differentiates it from problem-solving. Empathy and curiosity are ways of inviting parties into the room, extending an invitation for them to ‘show up’. Together they are intended to create enough safety for people to do the work they need to do. They specifically don’t offer solutions from a position of expertise.
To paraphrase a popular television programme from my childhood, ‘Parties say the darndest things’. And as mediators, we need to understand what lies behind what they are saying, to be interested in what matters to them, to try to understand what’s important and what they need.. Helping parties express these thoughts and feelings can only be done through empathy and curiosity, by demonstrating that someone is listening and someone cares.
People in conflict get stuck because they believe that invulnerability is the only safe way forward. The armour has to remain in place. The problem is that it’s very hard to see much of a way forward through those tiny little slits in that heavy metal helmet. Only when they are willing to dispense with some of that cladding, to engage as human beings who have a shared problem, does progress becomes possible. And the real beauty is that having shed the armour plating, exposing themselves to both the world and each other, they can feel the warmth of potential resolution.
Problem-solving is a hugely important capacity. But people aren’t problems. People may have problems, but that’s very different. They don’t need to solved, sorted or fixed. Mostly what they need is for someone to slow things down, to be truly interested in their perspective, to give them the time and space to reorient themselves to their own sense of true north.
“If you aren’t doing empathy or curiosity, you probably aren’t mediating”