“To practice the process of conflict resolution,
we must completely abandon the goal of getting people to do what we want” - Marshall
Reflecting on a couple of recent mediation cases, I considered whether the process or the person was more important.
I pondered over what is it that makes an effective mediator?
Is it sticking to the process no matter what or is it focusing on the what the clients need to enable them to engage in the mediation process?
Of course, high quality, accredited mediation training is one of the main components of becoming an effective mediator, but is the key to the whole process lie with the ability to make a connection on an interpersonal level? Is establishing rapport more important to providing parties with an arena to find resolution if they so wish, rather than specific mediation tactics and techniques?
To gain clients trust and confidence, the rapport we build must be genuine. The importance of relationship building is especially important in contentious situations and cannot be underestimated. Some measure of trust is essential before people are able to open up and move from their positions to reveal their interests. For clients to feel confident that mediation may bring resolution or agreement, they must feel their interests are truly understood. Only then can the mediator support them in identifying what needs to change in order that they feel able to reach a mutually acceptable solution.
So, with this in mind, I reflected again on a recent case and a conversation with a colleague about a mediation we had worked on.
I’d been out to visit a neighbour in their home to discuss their concerns about a dispute with the person who lived in the flat upstairs. No sooner had we knocked on the door than our client started to launch forth into a full description of their complaints about what had been going on. They barely drew breath, as they described their situation, how it had affected them and what ought to be done about it. We were about 30 minutes into the visit before they stopped and said “so what is it you wanted to say to me?”.
We took the opportunity to acknowledge the concerns we had heard them express and start to explain how the mediation process worked. This was interspersed with comments and questions from our client, who explained that due to some personal difficulties, they found it hard to focus and listen until they had been able to say what they needed. They thanked us for allowing them to speak first and “get it out”.
During our co-mediator debrief after our appointment with the client, we commented on how the visit hadn’t really stuck to the mediation process – we didn’t’ get to do any introductions or explanation at the outset of how the visit would work and our role as mediators. We had felt it more important to allow our client the opportunity to say what they needed, without interruption from us and look for an opportunity at a later stage to explain how the mediation would work. Was it the right thing to do? We felt for this client it was, we needed to allow them the opportunity to say what they needed rather than risk alienating them by interrupting at an early stage and making sure we stuck to process.
Then there was a phone call with another mediator about another community mediation appointment they’d recently conducted – “I’ve been out on a case today, knocked on the door and when the client answered they told me I couldn’t come in as their partner was too ill. They said we’ll have to sit in your car”. I listened as my colleague described their initial shock at the unusual request, made an assessment regarding safety and then said “okay, no problem I’m parked just outside, lets sit in the car and you can tell me what’s been happening”.
We talked about how we can still be surprised, even after working as mediators for over 16 years and we explored what could have happened had my colleague said no. We concluded that each case brings it own set of unique circumstances and that the mediation process is there to provide structure for us. However, it’s really important that as mediators we remember this is a person-centred process with a focus on how we build rapport, develop trust and engage our clients. Sometimes this needs to be done with a little creativity and willingness to be flexible about how we have those conversations in order to allow people to access the opportunity to reach resolution.
“In my early professional years, I was asking the question: How can I treat, or cure, or change this person? Now I would phrase the question in this way: How can I provide a relationship which this person may use for his own personal growth?” - Carl R. Rogers