Professionals Who Mediate: The Endless Opportunities for Professionals Who Mediate
Not every individual seeking to develop mediation skills wishes to become a certified, specially trained professional mediator. Some wish simply to fortify innate skills in helping others resolve conflicts through other roles they hold or to support other personal or professional interests. This was the premise of my previous article, “Professionals Who Mediate: Who are They and How Do They Differ from “Professional Mediators?” In this article, I share insights on the many contexts for which “professionals who mediate” can develop and utilize mediation skills.
Kenneth Cloke boldly notes that a teenager or a drug addict may be “a better mediator in certain kinds of conflict than a reasoned, respected jurist,” particularly in conflicts involving teenagers and drug addicts respectively. Jennifer Beer and Caroline Packard include teenagers in a list of potential and effective mediators along with parents, clergy, police, therapists, barbers, and “anyone [else] who helps settle conflicts in their own corner of the world.”
Beer and Packard further note that “mediation isn’t esoteric,” though perhaps that is how many who might otherwise seek training come to view it, then doubt their ability to mediate when confronted by a plethora of mediation training opportunities available for “professional mediators” in specialized fields. What about returning mediation to its roots as a basic life skill and developing mediators accordingly?
From my own experience serving in various roles and training others, I can speak to some prime candidates to develop as “professionals who mediate,” though perhaps differently from models for training “professional mediators.” Let’s add, for example, to Beer and Packard’s list to include professionals from multiple employment sectors like government, education, corporate, non-profit, and small business, involved in professional associations and boards of endless variety, and doing work in broad professional categories like engineering, social work, counseling, communication, law enforcement, and information technology (to name a few). Suddenly, the list of potential “professionals who mediate” becomes endless. Let’s explore a few key mediator candidate roles more closely:
Human Resources. The ability to manage conflict is among the essential competencies for HR professionals (Gutman, 2009). The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) takes a broad view regarding the direct role HR professionals can take to mediate conflicts. A professional proficient in the “conflict management” sub-competency “[r]esolves and/or mediates conflicts in a respectful, appropriate and impartial manner, and refers them to a higher level when warranted.” A senior professional “[m]ediates or resolves escalated conflicts.” Mediation skills are further demonstrated when the HR professional “[f]acilitates difficult interactions among employees to achieve optimal outcome,” and “[i]dentifies and resolves conflict that is counterproductive or harmful.” A senior HR professional demonstrates this when the individual “[f]acilitates difficult interactions among senior leaders to achieve optimal outcomes [SHRM, 2022, p. 31].”
John Ford, author of Peace at Work: The HR Manager’s Guide to Workplace Mediation, notes in an article for Mediate.com:
What is fascinating is that SHRM, accurately in my view, identified what it is that HR professionals (and other leaders for that matter) do a lot of the time in the management of employees: mediate. However, for the most part, they don’t know that they are already mediating. Certainly they are mediating informally more often than they realize. This is encouraging as with a little training and guidance HR professionals make great mediators [Ford, 2017].
HR professionals are clearly empowered to mediate many forms of workplace conflict rather than always defer to external third parties.
Institutional Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. Closely linked to HR are professionals in Institutional Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) roles who manage policies and practices for ensuring equal opportunity and fair treatment in the workplace without regard to race, gender, age, or other identities. Mediation is integral to addressing discrimination and misconduct complaints. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) offers mediation to help parties avoid escalation of complaints already filed with the agency (McDermott, 2018). State and local human rights agencies provide similar services. Though meaningful, mediation at this level occurs after opportunities for addressing interpersonal conflicts within the organization, pre-complaint, were either not afforded or not successful. Also, as noted previously, many organizations offer mediation services internally, but only after a formal complaint has been filed and often only with the assistance of external “professional mediators.”
In contrast, DEI professionals must often manage situations where employees seek support to address perceived discrimination, harassment and other forms of mistreatment and uncivil conduct, but whose concerns are not cognizable as discrimination or harassment claims defined by EO law and policy (Andersson & Pearson, 1999; Cortina, et. al., 2013). Employees experience subtle, difficult to substantiate, yet very real, forms of discrimination for which they seek non-compensatory remedies such as improved co-worker relationships, reduction of stress, and freedom from abrasive and retaliatory conduct by co-workers and supervisors. It then becomes necessary to provide mediation support pre-complaint (Gadlin, 2009). Informal, face-to-face mediation processes can address such concerns with more immediacy to avoid the adverse consequences of formal agency and institutional responses (Lloyd, 2015).
Ombudsman. Many institutions have an organizational ombuds who is available to the organization’s constituents to address concerns in an informal, confidential manner outside standard procedural frameworks. This affords constituents the opportunity to be heard and engage in problem solving without making a “federal case,” as may occur when conferring with the HR department that is often bound by law and policy to make such concerns “of record.” Ombuds often serve as informal mediators to assist employees and other constituents with conflict issues, or they work with other informal mediators within the institution to facilitate such processes (Smith, 2014; International Ombuds Association). Because the role usually resides outside an organization’s traditional hierarchical framework, the ombuds may be the ideal function to provide informal internal mediation services compared to human resources which can’t ensure absolute confidentiality due to its obligations to management (Kiorpes Parker, 2013, pp. 84-85).
Health care. Health care professions seek to expand traditional counseling approaches to address conflict situations through informal mediation. Individuals in counseling and similar roles benefit from mediation training to reinforce important skills they possess, though in a different context. These include skills in communication, reflection, goal setting, managing emotion, breaking down psychological barriers, facilitating the attainment of mutually agreed upon goals, focusing on outcomes, and summarization. Yet, many training approaches do not address these skills adequately (Hammonds, Jordan and Block, 2019). While counseling skills are part of standard nurse education, there is a growing need for mediation skills training to equip nurses to address patient and workplace conflicts (Cheng, 2015).
Mediation affords opportunities for parties in clinical settings, such as patients, families, and health care workers, to explore their own priorities and come to their own resolution whereas traditional bioethics consultations tend to determine who is “right” and who has the authority to determine healthcare outcomes (Morreim, 2015). In general, health professionals would benefit from conflict management and mediation training as part of their education, such as a 20-hour intensive training module involving simulations (role-plays), application, and reflection (Cochran, et. al, 2018). One study of a 25-hour mediation training program for health care professionals increased participants’ comfort level with conflict and showed that learned conflict management skills were effectively transferred to interactions with patients and peers (Saulo & Wagener, 2000). These approaches put the requisite skills in the hands of individuals directly impacted by the organizational conflicts and expected to address them “in the moment” without benefit or time to call upon external “professional mediators.”
Education. Models for informal workplace mediation processes within K-12 and post-secondary education are also needed. The ability to informally mediate parent-teacher conflicts is an essential skill for principals (Samuels, 2019). Colleges and Universities see the value of such approaches to address workplace conflicts (Klingel and Maffie, 2011). For example, Purdue University – Ft. Wayne developed employees from different departments and areas of responsibilities to serve as informal mediators as an alternative to formal grievance processes:
[The program provides] an informal, structured, safe, equitable way to address interpersonal conflict at the lowest level, before it has a chance to escalate or to fester. This type of approach enables affected parties to control the outcome, helps employees develop problem-solving and conflict-resolution skills, improves communication, and helps preserve, repair and improve work relationships (Smith and Griffith, 2016).
Higher education institutions also understand the value of informal mediation to address student conflicts. They can teach both students, faculty and staff involved in conflicts problem-solving, leadership and “soft” skills and provide opportunities for resolution that avoid the harsh consequences of formal discipline (Mathews, 2019). Mediation training also supports personal and professional relationships outside the context of formal mediation. As one college instructor noted:
I have utilized a number of these skills, or have been more conscious of using such skills [when teaching and advising students]. I have been more mindful of trying to develop a rapport with the students, engaging in empathic listening, asking open rather than closed questions to obtain as much information as possible, etc. [Devinatz, 2018, p. 200].
This short, non-exhaustive list scratches the surface of potential “professionals who mediate.” It also omits the vital area for mediation in managerial and leadership roles. I cover this topic in the third article of this series.
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