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Win Friends, Influence People: Providing Conflict Resolution Training To Those Who Don’t Really Want It!

In Ireland and the UK, the success of a mediation service often depends on the cooperation of third parties. Police officers, HR professionals, or social housing providers frequently find themselves cast in the role of mediation gatekeepers. These professionals encounter conflict on a daily basis. The mediation service is contracted to handle disputes for them, but first the gatekeepers need to identify and refer suitable cases. Success hinges, therefore, on these people ‘getting’ the whole idea of mediation. Yet delivering pre-training mediation sessions to gatekeepers presents a different challenge to working with mediation ‘believers’. This article will consider why this is the case and suggest how the specific challenges posed by these training events can be addressed.

There are several reasons why trainers may experience difficulty working with gatekeepers. Chances are that staff gathered up for this kind of session are not volunteers. They are present because they have been told by their supervisor to attend. Some may be doubtful about the use and relevance of this training event to their jobs and may feel that their time could be spent more productively elsewhere. Others will bring with them their own theories of conflict, which may differ markedly from the average mediation trainer’s. Not everyone embraces the collaboration model of conflict resolution as the ideal. Those who work in close proximity to difficult, intractable conflict may have trouble seeing that conflict can be a positive experience if handled constructively and they may resist the trainer’s efforts to convince them.

The group’s expectations of how a training session should be conducted can throw up another barrier to engagement. If their organisation belongs to the ‘death by powerpoint’ school of training delivery, then an event with an interactive format represents a shift of responsibility to the learner. Some may be uncomfortable with this. Even minutiae such as whether attendees sit behind desks for training events, the time their sessions normally start and finish and what kind of dress code operates in the organisation, can give rise to a chill factor. If they arrive in business suits and the trainer turns up casually dressed, there is immediately a barrier to be overcome. The use of role plays, icebreakers and ‘energisers’ are also potential hurdles. What may be perfectly useful and enjoyable exercises with one group may be, to a different set of workers, embarrassing and childish.

Such concerns can be headed-off in advance with a bit of research and a couple of phone calls. The more substantial barriers to meaningful engagement with the group, such as the scepticism of attendees and their reluctance to be there, need to be addressed directly. Initial introductions at the start of the training can be augmented by asking individuals to say, in a few words, what they would be doing if they were not attending the session. This gives the trainer the opportunity of acknowledging the fact that people are taking time out from busy schedules and also of identifying how mediation can be relevant to their job. An initial ‘board blast’ exercise can be useful in surfacing negative perceptions of mediation as a soft, fluffy option, totally unsuitable for the conflicts regularly encountered by the group. Case studies can be an excellent way of countering these negative perceptions, but only if the models of conflict and conflict resolution highlighted in them resonate with those present. A series of case studies which concludes with relationships transformed and full agreement on all issues is likely to be rejected as bogus by people accustomed to working with intractable conflict. One effective strategy, therefore, is to get participants to outline their own case studies and to work through these in small clusters. Each cluster can be tasked with taking on the role of a party to the dispute, including their own role if they featured in the dispute, in a case that they themselves have described. Not only is it instructive for attendees to place themselves in the shoes of one of the parties, to think through their issues, but the interaction between the groups as they debate their concerns can generate a lot of humour.

Care needs to be taken with how these case studies and models of intervention are presented: the trainer needs to avoid giving the impression that the mediator is some kind of conflict ‘super-hero’, parachuting in to resolve the conflicts that lesser mortals find too difficult. An elicitive, rather than didactic, style of training can help with this. Staff will respond better if they feel their experiences and opinions are being validated, that the trainer is there to enhance existing good practice, rather than to teach old dogs new tricks. They will also respond positively if they can see real outcomes and benefits of the training. For this reason, the focus should be on practical matters rather than theories and concepts. Those present will want to know what is being offered and how it can help them in their job. They will need to know how the relationship with the mediation service will operate and where the interface areas will be. They will also be looking for some reassurance that the new relationship does not signal the introduction of a whole raft of onerous or bureaucratic procedures. While gatekeepers require some knowledge of how mediation works, they do not need to understand the nuances of narrative or transformative mediation theory. Success will be measured by the number of referrals the mediation service receives from the group, so it is essential that what is conveyed in the session contributes to this end. Examples of this would include some basic facts about mediation, such as that parties to a dispute do not have to meet face to face if they do not wish to, that a mediation process is not about forcing people to be friendly towards one another, and that a case should be referred for mediation sooner rather than later.

Humour and fun are important elements of these sessions and can provide a vital antidote to the negativity engendered by compulsory attendance and professional scepticism. One way of injecting these elements into the session is to personalise the training where possible. Introducing exercises such as those which determine people’s conflict styles is a way of making it unique to them and of holding their attention. People are always interested in learning more about themselves! Participants can be encouraged to complete a conflict styles questionnaire individually, but then to position themselves on a spectrum or in a designated part of the room according to the result. The aim is to get people moving around and engaging with each other and with the trainer in order to hold their interest. Communication skills exercises – pairing people off and getting them to explore, through short role plays, issues of active listening, mixed agendas, and barriers to understanding – perform the same function.

Short group exercises can be slipped in throughout the day to reinvigorate people when energy levels are low. For example, the group can be divided into Teams A, B and C and, at appropriate moments, despatched to flip charts located around the room. The Teams can be asked to list, within sixty seconds, the ten largest cities in the world, or the ten biggest box office movies of all time, or whatever other list of ten the trainer downloads off the internet. This gets people up on their feet and moving around, while the competitive element between the Teams (and within each Team) makes for a lot of fun. It is vital, in gatekeeper training sessions, that exercises are credible, illuminating and enjoyable. If these elements are combined, there is a good chance that a session with press-ganged and sceptical professionals will be successful.


Brendan Donaghy

Brendan Donaghy has worked for the Northern Ireland Housing Executive since 1988. In 2000, he was appointed Mediation Development Officer and was seconded for 18 months to Mediation Northern Ireland, an independent mediation NGO. In the course of the secondment, he trained as a mediator and worked with Mediation Northern… MORE >

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