Thinking Like a Mediator

Posted on: September 4th, 2023

Perhaps, as a result of all the training courses you have attended and the manuals you have read, you now know how to interview people, how to project manage, how to make amazing flowcharts or, perhaps even more usefully, how to clean and service a coffee machine?

And maybe, after a few botched interviews, a project that crashed, a few disastrous flowcharts, and some coffee-stained clothes, you also learned from experience: sharpening your skills and abilities towards being able to call yourself an expert.

How many different sets of skills have you learned over the course of your career?

A lot of people who are frustrated at the adversarial approach to resolving conflict also seek out training in mediation: the skills they would need, a step-by-step model to follow, some pitfalls to avoid, and perhaps what to do to get people talking. A lot of these folk will also go on to practise what they have learned: embedding their skills by carrying out real cases, probably getting some wrong and most right, and themselves becoming an expert over time.

The skills we learn allow us to complete a task competently: what to do first, what to do next, and how to know when we are finished. But the experience we gain through repeated practice, through trial and error, and through critical self-evaluation, doesn’t just lead to a practical expertise, but also gets us thinking in the right way about the task and our about true objective for completing the task.

And while I’m no expert on project management, flowcharts, or coffee machines, I have a pretty good idea about what it means to think like a mediator, and I’d like to offer a few suggestions about this here.

So, if you want to think like a mediator (i.e. an actual, interpersonal, humanistic mediator), I would suggest:    

Stop being an expert

With every case you do, remind yourself that the disputing parties know the resolution to their conflict: what needs to happen and what they need to do. Your job is to set up the conditions so that they can have the conversation that takes them there. 

Get out of the way

In any interpersonal dialogue, change is already happening. You don’t always have to ask the perfect question, the magic re-frame, or the perfectly timed empathic response. Change takes place in the silences, in the glances they exchange, and by virtue of the fact that they turned up. Do less.

Practice creative indifference

One of the biggest mistakes I see with inexperienced mediators, or those who are lodged in a quasi-legal model, is to decide from the outset what the so-called ‘Mediation Agreement’ should end up as. They stand at the metaphorical finishing line and beckon the disputing parties to come towards them. Try and be indifferent to the outcome of the mediation: it doesn’t have to be this or that, and in many cases it doesn’t have to be an agreement at all. Be more creative and so will they.   

For me, the step from knowing how to do mediation to thinking like a mediator comes through reflective practice: ongoing critical evaluation of our work, ideally involving feedback through consultative support (or ‘case supervision’), and recognising that learning to think like a mediator is not an end goal but a continual process.

Now, where did I put that coffee machine manual?