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Thinking about the Future and the Need for Action by Mediators – Part 2

Adapted from an address to the annual conference of the Arbitrators and Mediators Institute of New Zealand in July 2015. A revised version of a keynote address given to the annual conference of the Arbitrators and Mediators Institute of New Zealand in July 2015. Recently published as a blog by International Academy of Mediators.

(Review Part 1 here.)

We are wired to resist radical changes. Risk aversion is a profound instinct; maintenance of the status quo usually feels preferable. Inertia is so familiar – and so comfortable.

Yet my proposition is that we need to anticipate what is coming, indeed to begin to see what is already so obvious that we are, as writer Margaret Heffernan says, willfully blind to it, shockingly unaware, just like the frog in heating water. . . .

Most of us know it of course. At a profound level, deep within us, at a sub- or un-conscious place perhaps, we know the answers to the looming questions posed in Part 1. Or, at least, we are implicitly aware of the very serious risk that these questions are not at all irrelevant.

At a profound level too, we know how we can resolve our difficulties more effectively, how we could do politics differently, how we could address much of the economic inequality and environmental degradation, how we could live more sensitively and thoughtfully with our neighbours. We know we could do things differently.

As former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan observed, “We have the means and capacity to deal with our problems – what we need is the [political] will.”

We see it occasionally in flashes, in the Mandelas, Malala Yousafzais, Gandhis and MLKs. Actually, we see it in countless people, unsung heroes, in every society, striving to make a difference.

But the forces of incumbency are strong and resistant, some people have a lot to lose, or think they have, and maybe that includes us (well, of course it does). Our default protective settings are strong, they help us to survive in a demanding world. Or, rather, they have helped us to survive. The risk now is that they are gradually killing us.

So, I argue, going on as we are is simply not good enough. In his seminal book, Leading from the Emerging Future, Otto Scharmer writes, “The framework we use today may have been appropriate in earlier times, but it is no longer in touch with the complex challenges and demands of our time.” Similarly, the great Edward de Bono once said:

“Our traditional thinking methods have not changed for centuries. While these methods were powerful in dealing with a relatively stable world (where ideas and concepts tended to live longer than people), they are no longer adequate to deal with the rapidly changing world of today where new concepts and ideas are urgently needed.”

Or, in the words of Einstein: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” And, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”

But this is what we tend to do. We repeat the same things over and over again, whether in our justice systems, our politics, our policy decisions, or our economic behaviours and strategies.

Somehow we need to raise to a conscious level that which may still be implicit – and which is often counter-intuitive and difficult to access consciously. Perhaps we should be angry, but that won’t help us.

Change will come, as it has to. The only real question is how? Will it herald a new order or disastrous disorder? What we see already with mass migration, which has assumed prominence even in recent months, is a clear indication of the challenges we face.

What has all this got to do with mediation? Well, as it seems to me, everything, not least because all of these considerations are what we mediators learn and work with already in our day-to-day practices.

So what should we do about any of this? I suggest that the only real question is what are we going to do about it? If we accept that these issues present really significant risks (and they don’t need to be certainties, just very significant risks), what will we, as mediators, do?

The trouble could be that most of us think that, out there, other people or some other thing, will deal with all of this. It’s not for us, we say. They/it will do what needs to be done.

Really? Speaking frankly, what is that if not abdication? Denial? Even delusion? “It’s not happening.” Or “it’s not happening to us.” Or “it’s not for us to stick our heads up and do anything.” “They will do it…after all, it is their problem. They created it.…” Really?

If not us, who? If not us, what? If not us, how?

I suspect that many of us mediators are shy about what we do and don’t realise or accept just how important mediation is. Yes, we evangelise and proselytise about mediation but we do so with reservations, a sense of diffidence or deference, an awareness perhaps that we are looked on with skepticism by those who, we perceive, hold the conventional levers, “the established order” (of which we are, in fact, often a comfortable part, are we not?).

Why is mediation not already transforming the world? Why is a set of tools, ideas, attitudes and aptitudes which nearly always help people resolve difficult situations quickly, cost effectively, creatively, humanely and legally, and is practical-, business-, family- and community-centered, not the primary method of dealing with conflict of all sorts?

Why do we sometimes defer and say, “yes, of course mediation is merely complementary to the existing system, and can add some value in appropriate cases. . . but please, we don’t want you to feel too threatened by us and what we do”?

Maybe we know at a deep level that this is very powerful stuff. That it is threatening. Maybe we too are frightened by the reality of its potential? Maybe, but who are we to be small?

Coming next . . . Part 3: A Call to Arms for Mediators?

Adapted from an address to the annual conference of the Arbitrators and Mediators Institute of New Zealand in July 2015.


Read Part 3 here.


John Sturrock

John Sturrock is the founder and senior mediator at Core Solutions, Scotland's pre-eminent provider of commercial mediation services. As a pioneer of mediation throughout the UK and elsewhere, his work extends to the commercial, professional, sports, public sector, policy and political fields. He is a Distinguished Fellow of the international… MORE >

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