The A-Z of Mediation: Assertiveness

Scott McIver Articles, The A-Z of Mediation

Welcome to a new series of blogs on our website called ‘The A-Z of Mediation’.

Each week, we will be taking a look at different topics relating to mediation: ranging from essential skills, parts of the mediation process, or the outcomes that we look to achieve.

First up is “Assertiveness”, which is a crucial skill for any good mediator.

An assertive person is usually thought to be someone who is confident, assured, and forthright in what they want.

And while assertiveness can sometimes be confused with aggression, the important difference between the two is that assertiveness refers to getting one’s needs met and simultaneously taking others’ needs into account. Aggression is solely about the individual getting what they want.

Because of this balance, assertiveness is a perfect quality to keep in mind when, as mediators, we are trying to negotiate around some form of interpersonal collaboration.

So how does this tie into mediation?

Going right back to the start, a lack of assertiveness may actually be the reason for people’s conflict in the first place. For example, boundaries may have been violated or shared rules may have been broken. There might have been a lack of communication about the impact of this, or about what the parties wanted to happen in relation to the breakdown between them.

It may actually be the case that those boundaries or rules were not communicated effectively to begin with. Had the participants been clearer and more assertive, the conflict wouldn’t have happened because the parties would have had a better mutual understanding.

When we look at the actual process of mediation, part of the mediation objective could be to negotiate to rebuild those boundaries. We might be supporting the parties to be more assertive so that they can regain a better shared understanding: for example, about how they talk to each other, which behaviours are OK and which are not, or what the rules are for how they conduct themselves around one another.

And, as mediators, part of our own assertiveness is to be crystal clear about our own role: we are not coming in to ‘rescue’ anyone, we are entirely impartial, and we do not decide the outcome in any way.

Also, an aspect of our assertiveness involves laying out what we expect of the disputants. We must agree with parties what is acceptable and what isn’t, with regard to potentially abusive language, violent behaviour, or persistently talking over each other. The parties need to feel safe in the mediation, and our own assertiveness helps that to happen.

It can also be argued that, by displaying this assertive behaviour, there may actually be a ‘rub off’ effect. It can demonstrate to the disputants that this is how we deal with conflict and that this is how they could deal with it in future. This could go some way to preventing further conflicts between the disputants, as they will know how to go about resolving the issue before it gets to that point again.

So, in conclusion, an assertive mediator can recognise how people’s passivity or aggression might contribute to the development of a dispute, whilst also creating a safe environment in which the parties can negotiate their way back to a collaborative relationship. Their assertiveness may even rub off in a way that future-proofs the parties’ ongoing relationship.

Listen to the Overthinking Conflict ‘Assertiveness’ podcast, featuring our CEO, Dr. Mike Talbot.
Train to become an accredited mediator with our Interpersonal Mediation Practitioner’s Certificate.
Train your team in conflict resolution with our in-house training courses.
Register for our upcoming free webinars, including this month’s ‘Mediating Salary Disputes’.