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Behind Mediation’s Smoke and Mirrors

CMP Resolution Blog by Lesley Allport and Katherine Graham.

The secrets most mediators won’t tell you

Positive mediation outcomes are fairly common, which you might think is down to the magic of mediation. But there are several implicit reasons why mediation outcomes are high, which aren’t generally to do with the quality of the mediator! I want people to understand the reality of mediation and what it can achieve, and not to be taken in by the rhetoric you’ll find on some websites.

Mediation works – and the quality of the mediator does make a difference. But there are four built-in reasons, too, which most mediators will not talk about.

Only the ‘right’ parties say yes. People coming to mediation are those who already have a mediation-type mindset. People who are dug in to their positions will simply say no. They’re going to stay stuck in an “I’ve done nothing wrong, I don’t see why I should go to mediation” mindset. So you’ve weeded out the ‘least likely to succeed’ from the start. But don’t settle for this! You can get more resistant people into mediation if you never ever ask them to ‘go to mediation’ – because they’ll say no! So ask them simply to ‘meet a mediator’, as a really experienced mediator is able to do the hard work of encouraging ‘positional parties’ into the joint session.

People with good communication skills make the most of mediation. Because only those who are minded to engage in mediation will contemplate it, most mediators are already working with a subset of people who believe that talking can be useful and who believe in taking responsibility. These are people who already have the qualities and skills that will make them more able to benefit from mediation: they are already a little more conversational and open. As these are key qualities to a successful mediation, you’ve got the people in the room with the greatest chance of making the most of the opportunity! But don’t settle for this! Adapt your model of mediation so that people who are less confident, less able to talk, are given more support. Something that that contains an element of ‘pre-mediation coaching’ will level the playing field and get more people sorting out their differences.

Most mediators don’t follow up. It’s one thing to reach an agreement in the room, it’s quite another to have that agreement go on working, month after month, back in the workplace! So a ‘success rate’ of say 90% is meaningless unless it has held under the pressure of the reality back at work. Mediators who think their job is done when the joint session ends, are failing you. Make sure you ask to see the follow-up results from any service you use!

Only those with a chance get referred. Some conflicts seem so namby-pamby that no employer is going to offer mediation to resolve them. Do Janet and John really need to have one-to-one meetings in a neutral venue with a round table and a pot plant, when all that’s happened so far is they are starting to avoid each other? Nope! But some conflicts are at the other end, so extreme that it would be inappropriate to offer mediation. This means cases are referred to mediation are usually those that are like Goldilock’s perfect porridge: not too hot, not too cold. You’re making life to easy for your mediator! A good mediator should be agile: able to work post-grievance wonders and offer a shorter, lighter process for conflicts which are still ‘in the bud’. You should look for flexibility and a range of needs-based models, in your provider.


Katherine Graham

Katherine Graham has worked in the field of dispute resolution for over 15 years’ as a mediator and trainer. She has mediated on the BBC Learning Zone and has given keynote speeches on conflict management and mediation for The MOD’s Equal Opportunities Conference, Women in Business Annual conference and “Getting Beyond… MORE >

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