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Thinking about the Future and the Need for Action by Mediators Part 3 (of 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. 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.

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you.”

–Marianne Williamson (often attributed to Nelson Mandela)

Mediators playing small does not serve the world. Shrinking to accommodate the insecurities or sensitivities or systems of others does not help us to address the real issues.  Beyond local dispute resolution, there is no doubt in my mind that mediation provides the ideas, tools, attitudes and aptitudes that can help address many of the bigger issues – our justice systems, our politics, our environment, our species.

I would go further and say that the future of our human civilisation depends to a considerable extent on adopting the kind of approach to disagreement and difference which mediation represents and encourages. We can’t go on fighting over diminishing resources and relying on binary win/lose, black/white decisions to resolve difficult issues such as climate change, distribution of wealth, migration, over-population, water shortage, environmental degradation and territorial disputes.

We can’t secure our futures by traditional power-based bargaining, where hierarchies and force are often used to achieve self-interested ends. We need to cooperate better than we do now, get more bangs for less bucks, recognise a multiplicity of needs, and work really hard to find intersections of interests in order to live interdependently and sustainably, whether we like it or not. We need to enable people to face up to and take risks, and to rediscover autonomy and self help as they work out how to resolve their own issues. In other words, to do all the things we suggest to others in our role as mediators every day.

This is not easy, but the skills and techniques of mediation are well suited to helping us to change the mindset at all levels. Is this a pipedream? Perhaps. But what is the alternative? What are the other options? The approach I suggest doesn’t need to be perfect, only marginally better than what we are doing at the moment.

Maybe the last great battle is between the command-and-control culture and a sharing culture, between stark power and collaboration, between determination by third parties and consensual agreement, between hierarchical structures and empowering engagement? 

Martin Nowak, a highly regarded Harvard mathematician, writes in Super Cooperators:

“The implications of this new understanding of cooperation are profound. Previously, there were only two basic principles of evolution—mutation and selection—where the former generates genetic diversity and the latter picks the individuals that are best suited to a given environment.

“For us to understand the creative aspects of evolution, we must now accept that cooperation is the third principle. For selection you need mutation and, in the same way, for cooperation you need both selection and mutation. From cooperation can emerge the constructive side of evolution, from genes to organisms to language and complex social behaviors. Cooperation is the master architect of evolution. . . .

“If we are to win the struggle for existence, and avoid a precipitous fall, there’s no choice but to harness this extraordinary creative force. We now have to refine and to extend our ability to cooperate. We must become familiar with the science of cooperation. Now, more than ever, the world needs Super Cooperators.”

What a call to arms for mediators!

The trouble is that most of our world incorporates binary thinking. Right/wrong, for/against, winners/losers, inclusion/exclusion, either/or. . . dualistic thinking. It is assumed that there is one true answer to any presenting problem so we are argumentative and adversarial.

And yet the world is more uncertain and non-linear, indeed volatile, than that, and most problems are more complex than that. Solutions are multi-faceted, political responses need to be nuanced and there are usually many different ways of addressing challenging situations.

The answers customarily lie in “both/maybe” rather than one or the other. There are usually only shades of grey – alternative, multiple “truths” which we need to seek out and be grateful for, seeing sameness and diversity as one. Indeed, to be honest, all of these characteristics can be found within each of us, as well as in the world around us.

In mediation we have turned these intellectual ideas into practical reality. All that I have described is or should be at the heart of good mediation.

We are “Third Siders” in William Ury’s words, with no immediate interest in the outcome, with the ability to work with many differing viewpoints and vested interests, while recognising and seeking to understand what is going on with others who may be trapped by their own biases. Our task is to help them to talk to and understand each other and acknowledge diverse perspectives, to identify where the real interests lie, even if counter-intuitive, and to reach for better outcomes.

In his masterful observations on Mandela, Richard Stengel in Mandela’s Way: Lessons on Life, comments that putting ourselves in the shoes of those with whom we disagree is demanding and “takes an effort of will, and…requires empathy and imagination.” But the reward is “something that can fairly be described as wisdom.”

These are aspirations we mediators can embrace. In Scotland, we launched a Commitment to Respectful Dialogue as part of our Collaborative Scotland initiative during the referendum on independence. In our emerging Collaboration Hub, involving senior civil servants, business people and others, in our work with parliaments, and politics, we have wonderful opportunities to help build a framework of trust and responsibility, where ability to communicate and build effective relationships is seen as critical. The same is surely true in global issues like climate change. (In that vein, it is truly heartening to see cooperation apparently trump parochialism at the recent Paris COP talks. It’s a long journey but what hope we can take from that event.)

So, shall we start a world-class movement as Third Siders? Shall we be the change we’d like to see in the world? In our powerlessness as mediators lies enormous power. This is true in a single mediation and we need to make it true in a broader sense, too.

It’s about getting to Yes. Will we say Yes as mediators to the biggest challenges facing us? One of my current favourite writers is the Jesuit priest, Richard Rohr, who says, “You must begin with yes. You cannot begin with no, or it is not a beginning at all.”

We are, after all, only trustees for generations past and in particular for generations to come. We have responsibilities. Unless our sole motivation is selfish, we need to take a broader view of things. Indeed, if we have any notion of serving the public interest, we surely need to have a higher purpose, rising above parochial concerns, as part of an extended family – ubuntu, or the concept of oneness, in the African tradition. To come to terms with this is crucial, and potentially life-saving. It suggests a worldview that sees nature, other nations and our own neighbours not as adversaries, but partners.

If we accept that the present way is not working, to stand aside is to take a side, namely to align with the present way of doing things. Aligning ourselves with the problem means that we become part of it, not part of the solution. Nothing less than a transformation is required. Who else is any better placed to lead this than those who understand and apply all of this already?

This is a lifetime’s work, indeed several lifetimes, but we are still the pioneers in our field. In our role as mediators, as Third Siders, we have choices. As William Ury says, “We can choose to say yes or no. . . . And our choices make all the difference.”

I hope we choose Yes.

Begin reading Part 1 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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