How much do parties need to experience the “frustrating conversation” in order to move forward? It is a balancing act between getting to the nub of the conflict and keeping them in the room. In the spirit of “authenticity” it sometimes pay’s off to allow the “destructive conversation” when parties may blame or even insult each other.  However, “authenticity” does not always equate to abuse and it is crucial that parties trust the process and have a conversation that helps them to move forward. This raises a number of questions about the role and responsibility of the mediator.

I will explore these questions by drawing on a recent mediation experience.

The Case

The frustrating conversation in question followed a hearing concerning allegations of racism within a workplace. My approach was to declare that I too shared the parties’ frustration with the challenges on issues of racism. Some might say I was being sympathetic rather than empathic. The distinction between the two is difficult, but I will explain it as follows:

On the one hand, I was being empathic because I was imagining and reflecting back how the party was feeling. It was empathy because I could see his point of view – that the issue was frustrating, while also having an awareness that he was being racist in that moment – albeit unconsciously. I was making a judgement (yes, we do, don’t we) about him AND empathising with him in order to support him at this meeting. My approach was to support both parties, while also challenging the nub of the conflict. And I believe it worked: The other party, B’s, face lit up when I said that A’s awareness of B’s race was an element of the office dynamic and was potentially “colouring” A’s perspective of the team. This therefore could amount to racism even though A thought it was a positive for the team. In a white dominated culture it can be hard to for white people to understand what it is like to not be “seen” for your skin colour.

Party A responded, “Yeah, but I don’t think it’s racist if I am embracing diversity as a positive thing!” He then had a moment of reflection – we all did. For me, this was a success because he openly recognised that some of his behaviour was contributing to the conflict. In order to have empathised with him more, I might have added, “Yes, it’s really frustrating/annoying when you think that something is good and other people don’t see it that way.”

However, in this instance I was also sympathising. That is, I was also finding working with racism frustrating in that moment. As this was also the parties’ experience, I thought it was valid to bring in my perspective, as both parties were frustrated about not being able to work with the issue constructively. I also did two other things:

1) I supported one party by sitting next to him.

2) I supported the other by speaking about how it had affected him, and

3) I used my awareness of prejudice to find ways to communicate to both parties about it in a way they could understand. Fortunately, in this case, there was already a great deal of trust between us and so it worked.

These seemed crucial elements in the intervention. It also meant that by bringing it to the table, I was owning my perspective on the issue of racism and allowing the parties to reject or accept it. Of course, the reality of whether this is truly possible for the parties raises another question about the power mediators have to influence a conversation.

Another perspective

I had the privilege of working on this case with another mediator who had a very different approach. She appeared to “intervene” a lot in order to slow down the communication process. Instead of evaluating the content as I was, she appeared to focus on supporting the communication transaction itself – making sure both herself and the other party had heard the party’s message before allowing a response. This meant she helped them feel heard while keeping them to the challenge of hearing the other. She also managed to keep them engaged and supported them to have a clear dialogue about their choices. Nor did she appear to be evaluating the situation as racist or not, as I was.

The concerns

Possible concerns about such a slowed-down approach include that harmful patterns of abuse, in this case racism, were not directly challenged; that the mediator is taking a lot of responsibility for the communication style (leading the parties to question the extent to which this was “their” conversation; and that they may not be able to communicate without a mediator in the future. This raises the perennial questions: what is a mediator there to do? What support do the parties need? Should the objective be fostering growth and learning or resolving/working through the conflict? Ultimately of course, it will be a combination of both, as the resolution will entail some kind of learning.

One way to answer this is to look at the stated role of the mediator. Often, explicitly or not, the mediator’s role is to take responsibility for the communication. Support for this view recognises that since the parties are in conflict, it makes sense to give them guidance and provide empathy. This raises such questions as:

  • What is the role of the mediator? And what actions support that?

  • Is it to take responsibility for the communication?

  • Is it to support the parties through a particular conflict?

  • Is it to empower the parties?

  • And is conflict an opportunity for personal transformation?

For me, these questions encapsulate different elements within facilitative mediation. and are worthy ofmore detailed onsideration.

Some answers: An Exploration of the Facilitative Spectrum

A focus on the transformative end of the facilitative spectrum sees conflict as an opportunity for increased awareness as well as for conflict resolution. It reflects the values of Impartiality, Being Non-judgmental and Empowerment. It also values personal growth and the potential for resolving future conflict. I will call this tendency Focus A. (I would argue this approach is particularly suitable when the relationship is likely to continue but the parties are not yet sure how – as in a workplace.)

A more directive approach focuses on resolving the conflict. While success here should empower the parties to resolve any future conflicts, this is not the essential concern of the mediator. This approach reflects the stated values of Resolving Conflict and Taking responsibility for a Constructive Conversation. More explicitly, it uses the mediator’s experience in resolving conflict AND in the process – this, after all, is why they are being employed. This approach encourages more interventions, particularly with the way the conversation is being conducted. I call this Focus B.

Focus A tends to have the mediator step back. Focus B asks the mediator to be more involved. Are these approaches in opposition? My experience tells me that they are complementary. The mediator should be alive to both and can change depending on the responses of the parties.

Another way of working with these two styles/approaches is for the mediator to describe the style he or she is using and advise when they change it. Mediators can then obtain feedback from the parties as they go. The advantage of this approach is that the mediator is transparent and works directly with the parties’ feedback in the moment. It also values the parties’ role in determining how the conversation is structured – not just over what the content is. The disadvantages include:

a) that the parties may not care (they are in the middle of a conflict and likely to be emotionally charged)

b) the parties may not know what you are talking about, or

c) the parties may disagree about which approach feels better for them. As a result, the process could be disrupted. However, it sometimes happens that we learn more about the conflict’s dynamic and what lies behind it.

Conflict resolution is as much about how you seek to resolve the conflict as it is about what the apparent issues are in the conflict. Describing what your approach is enables the parties to obtain more awareness of their personal conflict, which could in turn lead to a greater understanding of, and more options for resolving, the matter.

Given these, it makes sense to keep this style choice out of the public domain. However, the mediator can still consciously choose to work with one and then the other within a single mediation. For example, they may step back first, then intervene more later on, or vice versa.  Both have advantages which I will outline below.

Stepping back first (Focus A) may allow the parties to have a go and gives them an opportunity for self-determination /ownership of the discussion. Empowerment is the priority. The advantage here is that the parties may experience their frustration quickly which, in turn, may provide extra stimulation to look for their own resolution. Failing that, it could then prompt a need to ask for help from the mediator while still giving the parties some control over how the process is managed. The frustration of their “circular arguments” may also increase their willingness to buy in to the mediator’s interventions later. Of course, the down side of this could be that the parties continue a destructive conversation that repeats the cycle of conflict and they lose faith in the process. It could also be viewed by those involved as a waste of time if they are just having the same conversation they would have “back at the office.” However, mediator’s presence can in itself make the conversation different.

On the other hand, intervening a lot at the beginning (Focus B) may help the parties get through the difficult moments first and pave the way for them to take ownership of the discussion later. Having the mediator slow down and model some effective communication early may also give them the opportunity to do it themselves later.

I have a bias for Focus A because I believe it supports my highest goals for mediation – that it is an opportunity for transformation. This raises the question: How is the mediator to know if “transformation’s” what’s needed and if so, what that looks like to the party! On the flip side, being more interventionist may present the mediator as the one with the “answers”, the one who knows “what is right” for the parties, thus challenging the ethos of self-determination in mediation. Many of us working in the field should perhaps stand up for this more. Certainly, there is plenty of scope for further exploration of mediation practice.