Mediation is another option some employers now offer. I was sceptical about mediation but if done correctly it can lead to extraordinary resolutions. I had assumed it was the latest way for “human resources” departments to fob workers off, and a way to exclude trade unions from dealing with the conflicts their members face. When the BBC wanted to train mediators I did a bit of research: mediation, while only one element, has played a part in mitigating many conflicts – even on as large a scale as those engulfing Northern Ireland, Rwanda, and Kosovo. So I applied for the training and got a lot more than I bargained for.
As long as none of the four principles of mediation are breached, it is not to be feared but is just another set of useful tools. Drawing on the wording of the 2011 Mediation Manual from Consensio Partners Resolution Ltd, these four principles are:
- Mediation is voluntary “…and parties must feel that they have made an informed decision to be at mediation so that they can fully and confidently engage with the process.” If either or both parties are forced into mediation then they will be unable to own the content or outcome potentially resulting in further conflict.
- What goes on within mediation must remain confidential. “Confidentiality should engender trust in the parties to communicate with the mediator and with each other in an open and honest manner.” Anything said in mediation cannot be used as part of a formal complaint. Mediators are also bound by confidentiality, with the normal statutory exceptions.
- The mediators must be impartial: “Impartiality is imperative to the mediation process as it allows the parties to speak about their conflict without feeling judged or blamed for it.” If impartiality is breached parties can lose faith in the mediators and the process.
- Self-determination is important. “Self-determination empowers the parties to discuss what it is that they need to discuss in the mediation process to enable them to come to a resolution that is workable and that they feel ownership over.” Self-determination future-proofs the parties’ continuing working relationship. Without the buy-in of self-determination, the first conflict may prove to be only round one of a series.
As often as not the mediator’s job is to repeat exactly what has been said dispassionately. Mediators only intervene in the conversations between the parties if one of the parties looks distressed or frightened or if they think an open non-judgemental question, or the re-framing of something said, could prove useful to the parties. I know from experience that there are words that can act as triggers where reframing a statement, using a less emotive term, can elicit a more constructive response.
I have to admit I found training as a mediator tough. I had to learn not to do all the things I’d been trained to do and had been doing, as a full-time union lay official, for the last eight years. Advocating, advising, judging, representing, and resolving – all not allowed! They are all breaches of the principles. Once the training sinks in, however, you have a whole new set of tools.
So, back in my day job I still did everything that was not allowed in mediation – but now I could choose which set of skills were most appropriate given the circumstances. For example, I used “reframing” to look for alternative solutions in personal cases. It is important to remember that there are some cases for which mediation would be inappropriate – but I think these exclusions are covered by the four basic principles – the first of which is that it must always be voluntary. I found that mediation training gave me a greater choice of what I could offer in a plethora of situations. As long as the essential four principles are adhered to I would highly recommend mediation – either as a process to use or as a set of skills to learn. Mediation can put the pieces of a working relationship back together – so long as it’s voluntary.