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Explaining Mediation to Non-Mediators: How Hard Can it Be?

CMP Resolution Blog by John Crawley, Lesley Allport and Katherine Graham.

I’m often surprised at how mediators and the mediation world talks about mediation to the people they want to take part in it. For people who are in the ‘communication’ business, we get very jargonistic and forget that while we might know what mediation is, the person being asked to take part may be very unclear what ‘process’ ‘win-win’ and ‘impartial’ actually mean. So here is my jargon-free, easy-to-use FAQ for people thinking about taking part in mediation.

What is mediation?

You’ll often see mediation described as ‘is a process by which an impartial third party helps parties in dispute reach mutually acceptable agreements’. At CMP, we believe in making things easier to understand, so we say that a mediator is someone who helps people in dispute with each other have difficult conversations, and helps them to iron out their differences and agree how they can have a more constructive future.

Who is a Mediator?

A mediator may be someone inside the organisation, or someone brought in from outside. Either way, they will not be involved in the situation or know the people they will be mediating. They ideally will have had proper training to mediate – but often a skilful HR or line manager will use mediation skills to help people have difficult conversations. Mediators in the workplace will not wear an ‘HR’ or ‘Union’ or ‘Legal’ hat: if they have these other roles, they need to hang that hat up before they start mediating.

What does impartial mean, in practice?

Everyone knows that impartial means ‘doesn’t take sides’. A CMP mediator will not be coldly neutral, but will instead work fairly and positively for each person involved. Impartial, for CMP, actually means ‘multi-partial’ – not on no-one’s side, but on everyone’s side. They make sure everyone has the same chance and encouragement to speak and put forward ideas, that everyone has the same chance to listen and understand each other. A mediator will also make sure they don’t judge or evaluate who is right or wrong, reasonable or unreasonable, and they won’t tell you what to do. It is the people with the conflict or dispute who decide what they are willing to do, and what they can agree to.

So, they don’t take sides, they don’t say who’s right or wrong, and they don’t come up with solutions. What do they actually do apart from getting people together?

A good question. What it boils down to is that mediators “create a safe environment”. This means that they control, manage and ‘own’ the meeting and say who can speak, when, to whom, and about what. They might do this quite tightly if tempers are flaring, or they might loosen the reins and sit in silence just listening, if people are talking usefully to each other. Mediators have a range of skills that they use to help people to talk honestly about what they have experienced, what they want, and what they feel. A CMP mediator will be very understanding and empathetic: if you get angry or upset, or find things difficult to say, they will help you manage those feelings. In unmediated meetings, conversations are often more about what you say, than what you hear, so a key role for a mediator is to slow conversations down so that everything gets proper attention, and ask people to say what they need to so that the other person can hear it, rather than just blaming and accusing. They also make sure that anything you might agree to is going to work in practice, so that you get something out of the meeting that is going last and be really workable.

Why should I choose mediation?

Because mediation is not seeking a culprit, or scapegoat, it can help rebuild relationships and restore broken communication and trust. Grievances and disciplinaries can be effective in certain situations, but for things such as a breakdown in communication or disagreements over work style or behaviour, mediation avoids the bureaucracy, the blame and the pain of being involved with a formal complaint. It’s fast, free at the point of delivery, and private.

How long does it take?

Normally, a mediation will be over within a week of you agreeing to it. You’ll meet with the mediator for a private conversation for a couple of hours, then get together with the other person involved, for a meeting that might last 4 or 5 hours. It’s all over in one session – but you can always come back to the mediation ‘table’ at any time, and CMP’s mediators can be contacted by phone afterwards if you need a little further support.

What is the status of confidentiality in mediation?

What is talked about is kept between the people involved, and the mediator. It may be appropriate to share some of the outcomes with other colleagues but only if both people agree to it. Nothing goes on your personnel file.

When would you use mediation?

Most kinds of disputes can be mediated as long as those involved want to find a solution and a way forward. Mediation can be used in a variety of situations including breakdowns in working relationships, communication difficulties between colleagues and conflicts involving feelings of being bullied or harassed. You can mediate at any stage of conflict, but if a formal complaint has been made, this needs to be “on hold” while the mediation takes place. Mediation may also be very useful after a grievance or disciplinary process has run its course, to get people back to working together and as a way of repairing damaged relationships.

What happens in mediation?

There are basically two meetings, which might vary a little in length.

First, the mediator meets each party individually for one or two hours, to listen and gain a thorough understanding of each person’s concerns and feelings. They will also explain more about the next step and discuss any reservations you might have about using mediation. They will not discuss what the other person has said.

Second, as long as everyone has agreed to meet, the mediator then brings everyone together in the same room, for between three hours and a whole day – the time varies depending on numbers involved.

During the first part of this meeting each person is given time to speak about their feelings and concerns, while the other listens. The mediator summarises the main issues and agrees an agenda. You then talk openly to each other and the mediator will encourage you to:

  • discuss things frankly and fully
  • look at the problems in turn
  • generate ideas for solutions
  • plot potential hazards
  • generate a time-frame for change
  • create agreements for future interactions and your future relationship at work.

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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