Mediation is the fine art of getting everyone on the same page. To do this, one must bring their whole being to the table, to be present, and to look past their own biases to see the real person on either side of the issue.
As a mediator, your desired outcome is a win/win for all parties involved: a result that, if not perfect, is at least acceptable to everyone so they can put the dispute behind them and get on with their lives. But how will you know when you’ve reached that stage? It may sound pat, but the real answer is, you need to know what each person wants. What they really want—something they may not even know themselves at the beginning of the process.
To find this, you’ll need empathy and discernment of course. But your best and most reliable tool is to simply be truly present with the person, to sit with them and listen. They may feel they have been wronged and want grievances addressed, or they may simply want an agreed-to or assumed process to be followed. At the very least you can always count on the fact that people want their thoughts, views, and feelings to be understood and acknowledged.
Along with what the parties say, keep an ear out for what they don’t say. People are unlikely to bring up (or possibly even acknowledge) inconvenient facts of the case that don’t support their position or inconsistencies in their desired result. There could also be possibilities for common ground that they’ve missed. As an uninterested third party, you have a better view of the whole than either person involved in the dispute does. As a mediator, you don’t agree—or disagree—with either person’s view. The more unattached you can remain from the entire thing the better, to avoid tipping the scales either consciously or unconsciously.
As a mediator, you are responsible for clearing the space for your parties, like preparing a canvas and allowing them to bring their own materials and ideas. In our current (and likely future) world of online dispute resolution, the mediator’s “being” is even more important. Where we had previously made a safe space in our offices, equipped with white-noise machines, and fine tea selections, now we must bring that being over video conferencing platforms, with the reality of cats walking across the desk or kids in the other room. We are allowing each participant into our own world as we are also inviting ourselves, and the people they feel opposed to into theirs.
As a clearing for our parties, we too must be prepared, by attending to our human bio-needs. We owe it to our participants to be rested, fed, hydrated, and free from internal or external distractions. It can be helpful to develop a practice of journaling and mediating both before the workday starts and between each mediation session, both to “externalize” the experience and as a record, you can all refer to later if clarification or a reminder is needed.
Finally, as you close your workday, leave everything behind and intentionally declare it “complete” as it is, whether finished or not. Give yourself space to recharge and refresh—tomorrow will be a new day, a new river to step in, even if you are working with the same parties in the same matter again.
In this way, by bringing your whole and best self to the table each time, you are most effectively able to serve all parties involved and find that elusive win/win that will carry the day.