This article is the result of my switching seats – moving from practitioner to party in the context of an extended role-play. Some might object that a role-play isn’t reality and that my argument is undermined by that fact. All I can say is that the experience felt real to me – both in the messiness of the dispute as well as the struggle to find a way forward. While it might have been a training exercise, there was never any guarantee about where we would end up. That we did eventually emerge from the mire of mistrust and misunderstanding felt like a long hard slog. And it was precisely how to attribute the ‘ownership’ of this piece of work that took me by surprise when it came to the debrief.
Do mediators matter to parties?
Since the day was intended to promote practice skills, the parties were asked what they’d found most helpful in terms of mediator interventions. The question was greeted with an awkward silence. Then a somewhat shamefaced admission that neither of us could really remember any specific interventions. Mostly we were grateful that the mediators hadn’t got in our way.
On one level, our response was nonsensical. The mediators clearly had made a difference. I’m not claiming that mediators don’t matter. And yet, on another level, the ignorance we professed was both legitimate and, I believe, representative of our real clients. Mediation isn’t commonplace. People aren’t familiar with how it works.Mediation isn’t dentistry – it’s not obvious what the practitioners are doing. Parties are mostly unaware of the choices we, the mediators, might make at any given moment.
Much of our work – unless we make a blatantly crass mistake – is pretty much invisible. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s my belief that mediators are the least important person in the room. The person who matters most is always the other party. It’s their behaviour – every glance, gesture, huff puff and sigh – that is the focus of attention.
Why does feedback focus on the mediators?
Which is why I want to raise some questions about the usefulness of client feedback – at least in regards to our practice. Every mediation service I’ve worked for sends out feedback forms; sometimes immediately after sessions, sometimes a few weeks later. The questionnaires typically ask parties to rate their experience of mediation, most often on a numerical scale. They are asked about the helpfulness or otherwise of the practitioner. Sometimes they are asked to comment on specific qualities, such as the mediator’s perceived impartiality or capacity to empathise. The discrepancy here is that we are asking for feedback about things which have mostly escaped their notice.
Can parties give valuable feedback?
In addition, I have my doubts about the quality of feedback from parties who have no prior knowledge or experience of the process they are evaluating. In part, because as every practitioner knows, there are some sessions that sink beneath the waves not because of poor practice on the part of mediator, but because the clients just aren’t able or willing to make use of the process on offer.
Even when the mediation is deemed ‘successful’ there isn’t necessarily an acknowledgment of the mediator’s contribution. In fact, successful cases provoke comments such as: “Thanks very much for your time. I’m pretty sure that we could have sorted that out ourselves, but it was probably good that we had somebody else there.” Or the client shakes your hand, looks you squarely in the eye and says: “Much appreciated. I hope we never have to see you again.” Neither of these are scenarios feature parties who are deeply interested in understanding the intricacies of our practice. Mostly they feature people who want to get the hell out of the room.
So why do we ask clients to give feedback?
In many cases, we ask because we need the numbers. Mediation services need data both to justify their existence and to push for additional funding. Feedback questionnaires are a way of collecting quantifiable evidence. I’m not arguing against the need to demonstrate effectiveness, though there is a whole other conversation about what we ought to be measuring. At this point what I’m saying is that asking clients to make assessments of mediator competency might be both a practical and principled mistake.
On a practical basis because they struggle to recognise what we’re doing. And on a principled basis, because in focusing on our role, we risk minimising their endeavours. We may also be depriving them of significant learning. The purpose of feedback is to encourage learning. And while this certainly applies to ourselves as practitioners, we come into the mediation process with some degree of functionality and with at least a modicum of competency.
Feedback should focus on the parties
Our clients start in places of pain, confusion and diminishment. They have a real and direct need to learn how to manage their lives. I think it is vital that we support the assumption that ultimately it’s what the parties do (or don’t do) that makes the real difference. This very much reflects my experience in the role-play, insofar as it felt very much like the parties who were doing the real ‘heavy lifting’. And the feedback we design needs to underpin this notion.
Make mediation feedback part of learning for parties
This means asking people questions to help them reflect on their experience. The following suggestions are far from perfect, but they indicate a potential direction:
- What changed in the way you communicated?
- What did you do as part of this change?
- What did you notice them doing?
- Has it made any difference to other relationships
- What kinds of behaviours seemed to keep you stuck?
- How easy was it to notice your contributions to the difficulties?
- At any point could you feel the ‘atmosphere’ in the room shift?
- How would you explain this?
- What happened in the mediation that might be useful to remember for other difficult conversations in your life?
I know that these kinds of questions aren’t answered easily, and nor would all clients necessarily choose to engage with them. However, merely asking them would reinforce the notion that mediation is as much a process of education as negotiation. Fundamentally, how we think about feedback also reflects how we think about the role and purpose of mediation. Asking people to take their experience seriously raises the possibility of shifting the meaning of mediation from a sticking plaster to real life learning.
We might even exchange the myth that mediation is about making conflict disappear, for the more mundane but infinitely more useful lesson in how to disagree constructively.