What is Mediation?


There are many interpretations of mediation and therefore many different practices go under its name.

Some of the approaches attach prefixes to the name of their practice such as evaluative, facilitative, narrative, transformative, solution-focused and many others besides.

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Some of these prefixes do not fit with the approach that I take but I would not align my approach with any particular one of the above as I believe the emergence of such labels can lead to confusion amongst the general public when trying to distinguish between them - as well as confusion amongst many practitioners!

I'd rather just say what I do and leave people to decide whether that is something they want. Below I would like to clarify that approach and explain some of the reasons for doing so.

What is meant by 'Mediation' on this site?

Mediation is not Arbitration!
Click here to go to a page that discusses a common confusion that occurs between arbitration and mediation - and yet they are two fundamentally different processes.

On this page I would like to set out what I mean by mediation, how I practice, what the thinking is behind my practice so that the visitor can understand the context of the word 'mediation' when they see it on this site.

The ethos, philosophy, underlying thinking etc. of my practice is based firmly in the Underlying Philosophies of Effective Communication and Conflict Resolution that I describe elsewhere.

These Philosophies lead to the Principles of Effective Communication which then inform how I approach mediation practically, including the skills used, as well as the training, conflict coaching and consultancy that I provide.

The Mediation Process

In all dispute/complaint/relationship breakdown cases that I am involved in the process I use is very simple:

The Initial Meeting

If only one party has consented to referral for mediation or has referred themselves for it, I will first of all meet with them for 3 main purposes - these are expanded upon further down the page:

1. To hear their view of the situation they are finding difficult.

2. To explain what mediation (as I practice it) is and what it is not, what my role is and what it is not and also to explain to them the structure and role of a face-to-face meeting so that they can decide whether this is something they want or not.

3. To help them to think through what they might do if the person with whom they are having difficulty does not want mediation, such that a face-to-face meeting does not occur.

And then, sometimes, but not always, comes....

The Face to Face Meeting - this is also described in more detail later. If the parties have a Face to Face meeting, sometimes two and, very rarely, a third, the case is then closed.



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So, let's look at the Initial Meeting, often called a 'Visit' in Community Mediation as, in that context, we go to see people in their own homes.

Once the first party has had the Initial Meeting, if they want to proceed to a face-to-face meeting, I will offer an Initial Meeting to the other person(s) with whom they would like mediation.

Sometimes it will be known beforehand that both/all parties involved in the dispute want mediation, but not always, and it is not a condition of my taking on a case to know that all parties want it. I only need to know that one person wants it.

The other person may accept a meeting with me but may not wish to have a face-to-face meeting, or they may simply not want mediation at all and so I will not even meet with them.

If the other party does want a meeting with me, I will do exactly the same things with them as I do with the first party.

I am not meeting them to 'carry messages' from the first party to the second, I am meeting them to hear what their concerns and thoughts are (if any) about the other person or their relationship with them, or some event(s) in the past that have led to difficulties.

Shuttle Mediation - reasons why not....

Some of the reasons I do not carry messages, often called 'shuttle mediation', include the following:

  • The second party may gain a false impression that I am 'representing' the first party and so I am at risk of losing their acceptance of my impartiality.
  • I see the role of mediation as being to support the parties in 'carrying messages' to each other through some form of communication - to do this for them is to risk creating a dependence on me to do their communicating for them, thereby disempowering them rather than empowering them - which is one of the Underlying Philosophies of Mediation. This also relates to....
  • Ownership of the situation and of the responses of the parties within it. The dispute is the parties' dispute and not mine and so I have an expectation that they will take ownership of creating ways of relating to each other by whatever means feels comfortable to them. If they do not wish to do so and I try to 'make' them or to do this for them I am starting to Rescue them. Resolution will never be achieved if I start to do this as any 'solutions' created from that point on will be dependent on me - but after the case closes, I am no longer available to 'do it for them'.

  • One of the Principles states that We speak only for ourselves and speak in the 'I'. Carrying messages breaches that Principle and puts me at risk of misrepresenting what the first party wishes to convey.

Some more about the 3 aspects of an Initial Meeting:

So now I will expand on the 3 aspects to the meeting with each individual that were given above. They do not occur sequentially. They are covered at different times and in different ways 'as a whole' throughout the meeting by listening, summarising and questioning and then, with regard to the role of mediation and my role as a mediator, through explanation and clarification. I will, however, explain the 3 aspects as separate parts for the purposes of this topic.

1. To hear their view of the situation they are finding difficult.

I do this in order for the party to start to 'vent' about their concerns. Sometimes this is the first opportunity they may have had to talk about their concerns without someone disagreeing with them or telling them not to get so upset, or giving an opinion or trying to 'fix' the problem for them. Talking through their concerns then enables an opportunity to reflect upon their situation. I will ask questions and summarise their answers to further enable this to happen. Click on the links to see further explanations of what I mean by listening, summarising and questioning in the context of mediation.

2. To explain what mediation (as I practice it) is and what it is not, what my role is and what it is not and also to explain to them the structure and role of a face-to-face meeting so that they can decide whether this is something they want or not.

The purpose of this is to ensure that the party understands as fully as possible what mediation involves so that they can make an informed decision about whether they want to proceed with it or not.

The aim at all times is to create a sense of safety and clarity about the process so that they can feel confident that it will provide an opportunity to openly discuss their concerns in order to seek genuine resolution. This includes resolution, just through their own actions and/or through a meeting with the person with whom they have difficulties.

Its purpose is also to clarify that the responsibility for finding and creating 'answers' to their situation rest entirely with them. This can be challenging in that it becomes clear that my expectation is that they own their situation and have responsibility for its resolution, not me, and sometimes it is not what people are wanting. At other times it is also felt to be empowering as they realise the process offers a genuine opportunity to create a way forward that is theirs and not one imposed upon them by others.

3. To help them to think through what they might do if the person with whom they are having difficulty does not want mediation, such that a face-to-face meeting does not occur.

This part of the meeting is akin to 'conflict coaching' as it can support the person in creating resolution in their situation without the need for the other person's involvement. Many people find that this aspect of the meeting enables them to:

  • ... take a different view of their situation such that it ceases to be so stressful for them, even to the extent of feeling that the situation is no longer a problem. Or....
  • they may create different ways of communicating with their neighbour which they had not considered previously, as a result of reflecting on:
    • how they have communicated so far,
    • why it didn't work,
    • what other ways they might consider,
    • how they feel about these new ways and how they could go about putting them into practice
    • what the worst/best case scenarios are for this and what they can do if it doesn't work
  • Following these explorations they have had a thorough opportunity to consider what they want and how they might communicate that and so if a face to face meeting does go ahead they are much clearer about what they want from the meeting and how they would go about requesting it or creating it with the other person.

However, this aspect of an Initial Meeting can also lead to a situation where there is no longer any need for a Face to Face meeting, or even for the other person to be offered an Initial Meeting.


Lies, Damn Lies and Mediation Statistics

Sadly, some organisations' performance is actually measured by the Number of Face to Face meetings that are carried out, leading to some mediators trying to 'encourage' people to attend them rather than seek resolution via other means. This has led some mediators to act in ways that are not conducive to effective resolution via a focus on getting a 'result' of running a Face to Face meeting rather than resolution. The priority is wrong.

I am also concerned when I hear statistics that 80% of Face to Face meetings reached an agreement, or similar. Having an Agreement means nothing, it could be torn up within a day of being written. What matters is do the parties involved in mediation believe it has helped, for example, 6 weeks after mediation has ended?

Being measured by 'how many agreements were reached' also leads mediators to 'try to get an agreement', placing the opportunity for parties to connect and learn secondary to the mediator getting 'a result'. Consider this comment from a disgruntled participant in mediation who wrote into Building Magazine:

In many cases, the mediators ........are only intent on three things: achieving the highest rate of prepayment possible for their activities; obtaining an agreement regardless of the justice of it; and protecting themselves and their profession from any legal comebacks. When at last I am free to publish the full story of our sad plight I will be sure to include the wording contained in a typical mediation agreement – it will make very interesting reading.

The last sentence would imply this person had very little sense of ownership of the agreement that came out of his mediation meeting.

Often people may not have anything in particular to 'agree' about, they just need to understand the other person, their actions and their view of the situation better, or even to understand themselves better. Being 'steered' to an agreement not owned by them but pushed through by a mediator is unlikely to lead to a sense of resolution for the parties involved.

Following on from this it is not appropriate, in my view, for mediation services to state on behalf of parties who have mediation that it has 'worked' or is 'successful'. Only the parties involved can state this. This follows the Principle that we speak only for ourselves.

The Face to Face meeting

The structure that I use for a Face to Face meeting (which is pretty much the same as the one I learned at Camden Mediation Service in 1994) is designed to enable a maximised opportunity for the parties in dispute to hear all of the issues the other person/s is/are concerned about, and to have all of their issues of concern heard by the other person(s).

There are 4 main parts to the overall structure of a Face to Face meeting which are given below:

Stage 1- Opening

Parts A-D

A. Welcome

This includes:

• Welcome and introduction of all people present including any receptionist/observer. In this part all parties present are asked how they would like to be addressed, ie. by first name or as Mr/Mrs Smith etc.

• Summarise case contact to date eg. visited John first and then visited Susmita, both agreed to this meeting etc.

• Ask parties to confirm that they are there to try to resolve the dispute. (Acts as a sign of good faith)

• Thank parties for their willingness to participate and acknowledge the good faith shown by that willingness.

• Check if there are any time restrictions on anyone although parties should have been informed during visits and /or in contact letters that the meeting could take up to 3 hours.

B. Session Agenda

This section informs parties of the sequence of events for the session and clarifies expectations for mediators and parties:

1. that each party will be given an opportunity to give their view of the situation in ‘uninterrupted time’.

2. that the mediator will summarise each party’s account to ensure that everyone present has heard their view correctly. Parties will be able to correct or clarify anything in the summary if they feel it has not been heard correctly.

3. that as a result of hearing both/all parties’ views of the situation, a list of key issues will be agreed on to form the basis or ‘agenda’ for the main discussion.

4. that the main discussion of the key issues will then occur. The issues may start with a particular 'key issue' but it is usually acknowledged that the issues interrelate and therefore sticking to a strict 'agenda' is not possible.

5. that anyone present can call for a break at any time even if it is just to have a cigarette, coffee or to go to the toilet etc.

6. that any agreements arising from the main discussion can be written down if parties wish to, and copies of this agreement will be made for each party to take away with them. Of course it may not be that any 'agreement' as such is created but the parties may just find that having the opportunity to communicate their thoughts, feelings etc. and have them heard by the other party is enough. From this they may feel able to continue to communicate in the future.

C. Ground Rules

The parties are informed that in order to facilitate the meeting the mediators ask that the parties agree to some ground rules before they can continue with the meeting. These are:

1. That participants agree not to interrupt each other

2. That all participants agree not to use offensive or abusive language or behaviour

3. That any participant, including the mediators, has the right to end the meeting if they wish to.

D. Statements :

Those involved are told that:

• All proceedings are confidential and will not be shared by the mediator outside of the mediation face to face meeting.

• Any agreement reached and/or signed (if written down) has no legally binding status and is made in good faith.

• That the mediator cannot be called upon to speak on behalf of either party in any other forum as this would breach the guarantee of confidentiality and impartiality made to both parties.

The aim is at all times to create a ‘Safe Place’ for disputants to bring their concerns and air them and the Opening Statement stage sets the boundaries for that safe place.

The meeting then proceeds as described in B above.

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Are you experiencing difficulties communicating with someone? Perhaps at work with your boss, or your colleagues, or at home with your partner, children or other family members? Is there an unresolved conflict that you are struggling with?

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Alan,

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This is going to be very interesting and educational for myself as well as others.

This site is a big help. Thank you!

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Working with 'Bullying'? - This may interest you….

Hello Alan Sharland

Thank you SO MUCH for this article! It brings forward some very key points about the phenomenon of "bullying" which I have been pondering for some while. Among others, asking to what extent can/should the person on the receiving end of the bullying/perceived to be bullying take responsibility/initiate steps to shift the paradigm? How can this happen without implying that the recipient is somehow responsible for the bullying behavior?

Laurie McCann, Campus Ombuds, Univ Calif Santa Cruz


Hi Alan,

You have put together an awesome web site with lots of fantastic materials.

John Ford - Managing Editor Mediate.com



Hi Alan, ..... your site is great. I've been reading all the material and have to say its already made a difference in how I sort out/manage some of life's little problems. JH - West London, UK

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This article is the BEST article on questioning I have ever read and I'd like, with your permission, to pass it along to our mediators.Your examples of both genuinely open and 'not-so-open' with explanations are very insightful.

ML - Canadian Govt. Agency


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Hi Alan

I have just spent hours on your site as I truly love the eclectic mix of reference material that you kindly share. From Gibran to Byron Katie and the fab youtube clips! I am making my free hugs poster as of now :-)

Anni with joyful smile :-)
Preston, UK


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