As I deliver mediation training, it is fascinating to see a new group come to grips with its nuances. People, often already highly experienced in their own field, are exposed to a wide range of ideas and techniques, some new, some familiar. And gradually they ease themselves into the role of mediator. Observing these senior learners’ first steps, it is fascinating to see them bring their life-skills and experience to the role. Some look nervous to begin with, but quickly demonstrate the capacity to appear calm and learn on the job.
One recurring thought is that, while mediation training concentrates largely on techniques and skills, broader and subtler questions are raised about the persona of the mediator. Not so much ‘What should I do?’ as ‘Who should I be?’ Trainees are quick to spot the potential for good and harm in the mediator’s smallest gestures and simplest expressions. Behind the model and the strategies is the simple question: what is it that people need from me? And the answers probably lie, not in skills, but rather in values. If we are clear about our values, we can apply them to almost any situation.
A number of authors have written about this, most notably Daniel Bowling and David Hoffman in their edited collection: ‘Bringing Peace into the Room: How the Personal Qualities of the Mediator Impact the Process of Conflict Resolution’ (2003). In a UK context, I recently came across the ‘Seven Principles of Public Life’ on the website of the Committee on Standards in Public Life (http://www.public-standards.gov.uk/ ). While mediators are not necessarily ‘holders of public office’, for people in dispute a mediator is not just any old person. She or he does seem in some way to represent society. The following reflection considers each of the principles, and suggests that they offer a helpful starting point for grounding conflict resolution work in widely held societal values.
I am not proposing that mediators have no self-interest in doing their work, still less that they should not be paid! However, the catchphrase, ‘This is not about me, it’s about you’, captures well this dimension of our role. For people mired in long-term conflict, it is important to know that someone is prepared to go the extra mile to help. For example, participants in Northern Ireland’s Good Friday Agreement were unanimous in praising Senator George Mitchell’s patience and persistence.
Better than the more commonly used (and controversial) ‘neutrality’, this quality seems to be a sine qua non of the mediator. When people can’t trust each other, it is essential that one person in the room can be trusted. And if, when mediating, we ask ourselves ‘Am I behaving with integrity?’ we find guidance on many of the moral dilemmas with which we are presented.
The heart of this principle is that decisions should made on their merits, rather than because of any personal connection. In the mediation context it hints at the limits of empathy. Because there are at least two sides, the mediator cannot afford to base his or her choices or moves on factors such as the pleasantness of a client, or how persuasive their arguments seem. This value is linked to fairness, and anyone who has been through mediation knows how important it was that the mediator behaved fairly to all.
Holders of public office are accountable for their decisions and actions. The privacy of the mediation session may appear to work against this principle, but in reality it becomes even more important. I refer not only to the more obvious ramifications, like having an accessible complaints procedure, but also to mediators developing a reflective practice. We need to make space to consider our choices in the cool light of day and learn from them: not just what we did wrong, but also what worked well. We work with people at the most vulnerable moments in their lives, and so we need to be accountable for attaining the highest possible standards. Michael Lang and Alison Taylor’s thoughtful book, ‘The Making of a Mediator’ (2000), helps mediators to view their practice through the lens of the ‘Reflective Practitioner’ (Schon, 1983).
This may seem a strange principle to apply to mediation, which almost always takes place behind closed doors. However, we need to remember that mediation is a new and often unfamiliar process. We rarely go wrong in spelling out to parties what we are doing, or recapping why we have taken a particular step. A self-deprecating remark like, ‘I’m a typical mediator, always looking for the common ground’, is both disarmingly honest and informative, reminding people of the purpose behind our interventions.
This seems so obvious as to be trite. The fact that a ‘dishonest mediator’ sounds like a contradiction in terms tells us a great deal about society’s expectations. In practice, however, the line between honesty and politeness can be hard to draw, particularly when it comes to voicing concerns about the weakness of a person’s case. It is perhaps helpful to ask ourselves what we would prefer clients to say: that we were honest, or that we were nice. This principle also warns against manipulative behaviour, where mediators withhold or use information selectively in order to coax a client into settlement.
Finally, my favourite: ‘Holders of public office should promote these principles by leadership and example’. Whether we choose it or not, people in disputes are looking for some kind of leadership. When participants in mediation training reflect on their own experience of conflict, they report a confusing welter of thoughts and emotions. They are NOT looking to be told what to do, nor to be criticised. They are looking for someone to help them think our way out of what seems like a cul-de-sac. Leadership implies the capacity to inspire, and effective mediators do this as much in the way they behave as in what they say.
Although not written for mediators, these seven principles apply comfortably to the role. Mediators are public figures, even in the most private of disputes, representing more than themselves. In a sense society entrusts mediators with other people’s conflict and, whether they like it or not, they are responsible for ensuring a fair and decent process. Whether they have an equal duty to ensure a fair outcome is a moot point, but these principles offer a useful guide to how people might view mediators, and the kind of persona they will hope for. Even if selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership don’t appear in the manuals, if we attempt to apply them we are unlikely to go far wrong.
Bowling, D and Hoffman, D (2003) Bringing Peace into the Room: How the Personal Qualities of the Mediator Impact the Process of Conflict Resolution San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
Lang, M and Taylor, A (2000) The Making of a Mediator: Developing Artistry in Practice San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
Schon, D (1983) The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing