Five Surprising Factors of Workplace Mediation!

Dr Mike Talbot Blog, mike

About twenty years ago, I started practising workplace mediation. As a psychotherapist and organisational consultant, I had originally been offering stress management, soft skills training, and other services, but now some of them wanted to find a better way to resolve grievance-type issues and to head off formal processes. So off I went!

My first dozen or so cases mostly went well, with plenty of happy customers, several grievances avoided, and a number of sticky situations unstuck. The mediation service I offered caught on pretty quickly, and soon I needed to start my own company: great!

Now twenty years on and about 1,200 mediation cases later, I’ve learnt a thing or two about what to expect from workplace mediations. And, in this article, I have decided to relate some of the aspects of workplace mediation that I found surprising as I began to gain experience: some things that I now practise to this day, having realised quite early on that these ideas really work in practice.

And to anyone who is just starting out as a workplace mediator, or are interested in becoming one, here are five factors of mediation that surprised me and may just surprise you!

You don’t need to be a lawyer to practice workplace mediation
As someone who was familiar with grievance procedures within organisations, as well as the legal implications and red tape that often came along with it, I was initially surprised to learn that there was no mandatory requirement of legal knowledge.

In fact, having none often benefited the process! This *almost* ignorance actually allows us to remain a truly impartial third party, neither sympathising nor leaning to one particular side. Instead, we can focus on the interpersonal relationship at the root of the conflict, aiming to find an agreeable outcome for all parties involved.

Most mediations can be completed in just one day
When you consider that many disputes have been dragging on for years, it may seem a little optimistic to say that we can unpack it all in just eight hours or less. However, due to the structured-yet-flexible seven-stage model that we use, I’ve seen some rather miraculous results in my time!

From the individual private sessions in the morning, through to the joint meeting in the afternoon, I very quickly found that one day can actually be the perfect amount of time to reach all of our objectives! We can give participants a good listening to, get everything out into the open, and, if they feel comfortable enough to do so, build some future-focused points of agreement.

Having said that…

Mediation can still be successful even without an agreement being reached
I really thought early on that ‘success’ meant the percentage agreement rate that I could boast about on my first marketing flyer: 80%, 86% of cases; how about, err… 99%? These days, it seems to be a requirement for starting-out mediation providers to put such a figure (however fictitious!) on their literature.

However, the indicator of success in mediation is the degree to which the disputing parties have restored their dialogue: the extent to which they can talk openly and honestly without fear, suspicion, or mistrust of the other party. If they can do this after mediation, they won’t need to leave their job, take out a grievance, or express contempt to another colleague.

We don’t need the disputing parties to forget the past 
So, let’s all put our nasty conflict behind us, yes? No. What has become quite clear to me, both when I started out and twenty years on, is that people are not going to agree about what has happened up to today. They have two completely different narratives about the events that have led their employer to make a mediation referral, and neither of them is yet ready to let it go.

And people don’t have to forget the past. They need to tell their stories about the history of their conflict, and as mediators we aren’t in any position to prevent them from doing so. And, although their two stories are different, neither is right or wrong. When they tell their different stories at mediation, they are actually informing each other, and the mediator, about how they are making sense of the difficult conflict situation.

It is unproductive to try and influence/pressure the participants’ behaviour
Much of my mediation practice has developed from what I know about human behaviour. And one very common theory when it comes to human behaviour is that, the more we push for something to change, the less likely it is to do so. Whether in therapy or in mediation, if the practitioner or any other party pressures someone to change their thoughts, feelings, or actions, then they simply become more resistant to doing so.

Conversely, the more genuine dialogue that we can build, and the more awareness that people can gain about themselves in relation to the other party, then the more that people may become ready to change.

So, there we have five aspects of successful mediation practice that I didn’t quite know about when I started out twenty years ago. And, even if I did, I either wouldn’t have believed you or would have been downright resistant to them!

I hope this article may benefit some of you who were considering a career in workplace mediation and, as always, I look forward to any feedback or discussion that this may bring about!

And, don’t forget, we will be hosting our live ‘Becoming a Workplace Mediator‘ webinar this Friday (15th) at 12pm. Register your free place here!