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All hail ‘The Mediation Process’ – really?

All over the mediating world you can hear 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. Parties are described as ‘entering The Mediation Process’; mediators are responsible for The Mediation Process; and if we’re lucky, the Mediation Process will deliver an outcome. Really?

This is nonsense – it is the people who achieve all this, not ‘The Process’.

A good mediator does not “do a mediation process” to people, but that’s the impression you all too often get.  If the language you see used about mediation emphasises ‘the process’ over the people, this should set alarm bells ringing about the quality of the mediator concerned.  The Mediation Process should really not to be talked about as something parties service or need to conform to or contract with.

A mediator who focusses on the people first, will engage with those who are stuck in a dispute and offer them new ways of connecting and safe opportunities for understanding each other. A workplace mediator should prioritise party needs over some simplistic concept, “The Mediation Process”.

A good mediator does this by simply paying attention to direct or indirect statements of need.  By helping 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.

Mediation is about valuing the people involved – as needy, vulnerable, confused, contradictory, defensive – 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, manager or leader 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 lightening 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.

One Comment

  • Michael Jacobs says:

    Morning Katherine,
    I enjoyed your blog — and agree with it. Parties certainly need a process they recognise as ‘fair’, but in terms of engagement, they need even more to be able to have rapport with the mediator. Parties trust people rather than process.

    And this is the tricky bit, especially with beginning mediators. At first mediators need to believe that is the ‘process’ that does the work — and that their job is to ‘manage the process’ to get a good outcome. And while there is some truth in this belief, there’s also a lot of hot air. Mediations may follow a similar trajectory, but that’s descriptive rather than presecriptive. The process unfolds, it doesn’t lead.

    So the hard bit is convincing the mediators, not the parties that they should be more human, less technocrats. To shift mediation more into the ‘artistic sphere’ and encourage practitioners to find their own ‘artistic style’ — which will use elsements of the process, but in their own individualistic/authentic ways.

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