Mediation – essential First Aid

Every year, I work as an external mediator for companies where relations between individuals or groups of individuals have broken down completely. Mediation doesn’t get easier. Although I’ve developed experience and an intuitive grasp of what is often needed, the unpredictability and the sheer extent of distress, anger and disruption is always a challenge. Of course, it is also the most rewarding, in the vocational sense, where we see breakthroughs and eventual resolution.

HOWEVER, so much of the heartache and wasted time and energy can be avoided through early intervention. Just as First Aid administered early on where there is an injury, so too many of us can intervene effectively, even if we’re not trained mediators. The key is for someone (usually their managers or HR) who is aware of a fracturing in relationships, to facilitate them coming together earlier rather than later. Too often people hope things will resolve naturally – almost magically. Yet to ignore it, risks a worsening fracture in the relationship with all the bad atmosphere, gossip and ‘silo’ working that often comes with it. Everyone loses out including the organisation, with days lost in absence due to stress.

Given below is my typical game plan for the first mediation session. The clarity of boundaries, quality of listening and opportunity to think afresh together are the key ingredients.

1. Introductions

Quick housekeeping outline eg about length of session, comfort breaks etc.

2. Define mediation

What is mediation? – a safe space to pause, take a step back and listen, think and look afresh at a difficult and perhaps painful situation. Initially, all I ask is that you be open to the process. I will steer the process but won’t dictate it. If anything is unclear, distressing you too much, distracting etc., then let me know. It may be challenging at times, but it’s not intended to be brutal; in fact it should be supportive and therapeutic.

3. Establish a contract together for this session

Firstly, let’s agree on the boundaries eg. confidentiality – how much do I report back to senior management? This will usually be only the general direction of travel, rather than any detail. With each other – private information stays here, because outside of the mediation space, a sentence could easily be misconstrued. Please be honest, and as open and you are able to be. This is not about point-scoring, or score settling as that undermines progress. We want this conversation to reflect the values of the organisation. Any questions thus far? Before proceeding any further check that there is sufficient desire to see some progress.

4. Share responsibility with everyone in the process

One of the biggest pitfalls in mediation is the false perception that the mediator will resolve things. Such thinking is unhelpful because it absolves the individuals involved of responsibility.

While you will do your best to help ensure a successful outcome, this has to be a collective effort, at very least to try. The following questions are helpful with this: What do you want from this? What do you want from me? What are you prepared to give to this session?

5. Listening exercise

Introduction to exercise 1 – an overview of active listening – letting go, being fully present, not fact – checking, so much as hearing where the other person is at. Above all being fully present, and connecting with the other. It takes generosity and courage. Try to link here with the core values/ethos statement of the organisation.

6. Active listening exercise

One talks first, for 5 minutes about: where are you at with this/what is going on for you? You are mainly talking to each other, but if that feels too intense, talk to both of us. This is an honest appraisal of what’s going on for us. The other individual is to fully listen and above all let go of responding in any way.

The listener then summarise what they’ve heard – not to add in their version, but to convey that the individual have at least heard what is being said. Swap over, with the listener now talking and vice versa. Maybe do this again, with slightly altered question, but ideally the same one.

7. Mediator summarises

With an initial focus on feelings, ask each to identify the main feelings of the other. The mediator is focusing on getting to the heart of the issue. Be prepared for surprises, and be respectful of what this is, even if to you it makes little sense or seems trivial. Ask one open question such as: What is this really about? Allow silence. Slow things down and work with what emerges.

Towards the end of this exercise the mediator can ask the individuals to swap chairs/space, and to take it in turns to reflect back what they have understood about the other person’s perspective, even if they don’t agree with it/don’t like it etc. This is a powerful task that is not easy, but works to deepen empathy and is particularly useful to improve relations in the longer term.

8. Establish a temporary contract between sessions as a ‘running repair’

Contract – how are we going to be with each other to stay intact till the next session? What will each work on? Work with emerging issues, focussing initially on quick wins where possible and any apparent opportunities to improve communication. Listen for negative triggers which will inform what would be helpful to do/say less of and what would be helpful to do/say more of.

9. Conclusion

Mediator summarises and ask final question such as

What has surprised us in this session?

This is usually a positive note to end on. Avoid going back into any substantial detail.

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Fantastic course [Motivational Interviewing]! Totally relevant, understandable, practical and interesting. I look forward to using the skills and tools I learned. I was particularly impressed with Alasdair Cant. He is a brilliant trainer, knowledgeable, patient, engaging and clearly skilled at facilitating groups ensuring fun and learning.

Youth Justice Worker