Yesterday I was delighted to join the board of @West Sussex Mediation Service as a trustee. I’m really looking forward to supporting them to develop the services they provide to individuals and businesses in the local community. They won a Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service in 2019 and cover all mediation disciplines. Mediation has been a big part of my working life, having first trained as a mediator with @CEDR in 2004. However, conflict has been an even bigger part of my working life.
I worked as a union official in the early 1990's so I inevitably dealt with conflict regularly and I had a determination to win every battle. Sometime after leaving the union, I was asked to intervene when the same union’s relationship deteriorated with an employer where I lived. My qualifications for this work seemed to be that I was trusted by at least one party and I lived locally. I saw first-hand that entire workplaces can get nasty when groups take positions and stop listening, and it gets personal very quickly, the business suffers and so do individuals. Someone who has the ability and willingness to listen to both parties, ask them to listen to each other and encourage them to commit to some practical steps to make work better can have a quiet, powerful and hugely positive voice. I continued to pick up work like this - not conflict between individuals but across whole departments. In one case, I was asked to support a large, unionised organisation and its unions to repair the damage after a high profile industrial dispute.
After my training, I learnt the basic mediation techniques and have used them in more projects but, perhaps as important, I have used the techniques in everyday working life (not just formal settings) and in my family life (and in my family, that’s been a useful skill!).
I have used a variety of techniques some straight from a mediator’s toolbox such as uninterrupted speaking time, the exchange, separate meetings and building the agreement. I have learnt how to set the tone, encourage openness, build trust, how to stay impartial and how to deal with emotionally difficult situations. The skills of summarising, asking the right questions, eliciting ideas and exploring alternatives are critical.
In one organisation, the senior union representatives and senior managers agreed to come together for the day. They had been through a recent dispute, which was internally damaging but their relationship had been deteriorating for some time and working together on business issues had become impossible and frustrating. I asked both parties to describe the current situation as they saw it and this was shared and discussed. I then asked both groups to describe themselves – their self image - and how they felt they were perceived by the other party. This was also shared and discussed. Over the course of the day, they addressed these perceptions, using examples to better understand the basis of them. Through various steps, we moved towards an agreed set of common goals regarding the business and its people. They had a lot more in common than they believed they had. From these broad common goals, we agreed a tangible action plan with issues of importance to both parties and with joint owners. We also agreed an owner for the overall plan and how it would be monitored and completed.
Not everything will be put right in a day. The work continues after the session and needs to infiltrate the day-to-day workings of the groups so that behaviours start to change and benefits can be seen. The key is to keep talking before too much damage is done and its harder to repair. Having mediation skills in your workplace will always be a wise investment. If that's not an option, know where you can get a trusted mediator and it could be in your local community.