Towards a new narrative of mediation.

The recent National Mediation Conference was a wonderful opportunity for challenging long held ideas, to move towards innovation and change. This can only happen when exposed to new concepts that promote a different way of thinking and doing. The conference definitely achieved this for me!


As mediators and FDRPs we are taught the “classic mediation model” and encouraged to trust that this will enable us to guide our clients towards developing and owning their joint outcome to their disputes! We gain great comfort from this structure, and learn to internalize the steps in the process, and use this, together with all the other tools in our tool box, to apply the process to each different situation.


But we are all unique, and have our own backgrounds and individual way to approaching conflict, and assisting in dispute resolution. Experience tells us that there are many different versions of mediation being practiced every day, and that they all appear to suit some situations.


Many of us are now spending the bulk of our time working in this context, and regard ourselves as artists of our own industry and dare I say “profession”. This requires a code of conduct and standards, that are being developed and getting closer each year to what might enable us to call ourselves “professional mediators”.


At the recent National Mediation Conference we were challenged to consider whether we are shaped by what others say mediation should be, and how mediators should act, or whether we really are artists of our own profession. Do we have the sufficient desire for autonomy, to be ourselves with a sense of purpose whereby we feel that we are contribution something, and are we willing to focus on the pursuit of mastery, to enable us to be the best that we can be?


Many of the concepts that were considered crucial to the classic mediation model, such as the voluntary nature of the process, the power of neutrality, the virtue of confidentiality, the importance of separate sessions, are under threat of slipping away, yet I heard no suggestion during the Conference that what we are doing could not legitimately be regarded as “mediation”. On the contrary, a number of the speakers indicated that this movement is at a cross roads, and that a new narrative needs to be developed. We need to have the courage to embrace this discussion, the confidence to value what we do, the patience and energy to explore and examine this as a developing and emerging profession.


Our dialogue in the past has been determined by the language which has described the story of mediation. This was been repeated now for decades, passed down from one training course and assessment to the next, from coach to participant, assessor to student, and mentor to new mediator. The repetition of this in classes, materials, articles, journals and texts, has created an overall story that we accept as coherent and cohesive. But the underlying assumptions have been shifting. We need to question and disrupt this narrative of mediation, to use artistry to develop a new language and framework that supports thinking about mediation in a different way, that will foster innovation and new thinking.


Various speakers talked of the importance of mindfulness. The need to be in the moment, not worrying about what has happened in the past, or fearing for the future. This requires not so much a focus on management of the parties, but on us as mediators. We need to be in the here and now, present on the intellectual, emotional as well as spiritual levels. We need to be at peace within ourselves, authentic in our intent and genuinely interested to assist the parties. We need to have insight as to how we think, how we communicate, and how we engage in conflict and mediate. If we can be connected to our sense of artistry, our confidence in their own self worth, our compassion, courage and connection with others, then our sense of meaning, autonomy and best practice will be infectious. In being the best that we can be, we will facilitate the parties to also be the best that they can be, not only in the mediation process but from then on!


Professor Nadja Alexander used a beautiful poem to describe this. The poem spoke of building a fire. It might be tempting to pile many logs onto this fire to build up the flames. But to create a good fire, you not only need the logs, but you also need the space between the logs for the flames to find their way. In attending to the fire, attention must be given not only to the logs but also the spaces in between. In the mediation context, we must now turn our minds to these spaces, it is here where mindfulness can allow us to breathe, we can work to connect the dots in a different way that can create a framework that is inclusive rather than divisive. Fire can be warming and inviting, and we then turn towards it and share this as an experience that binds us together. But fire can also be destructive and fierce, when we turn away from it.


Nadja suggested that we can learn not only from poetry, but also from art. Art speaks many languages and bypasses jargon in a way that conveys understanding of complexity without reduction. It does not try to reduce images to a lower common denominator and then deal with each of these blocks separately and try to package them together. It can convey multiple complex concepts at the same time. It can convey the harmony between these, as well as the dissonance. She suggests that by using a different way of thinking, based on the fragmentation of our previous narrative, we can move towards the fire rather than turn away from it, embrace the conflict, then transform and move elsewhere, in a way that would engage our heart and all of our mind, as in art.


The overall message is that we as mediators need to be courageous enough to embrace change. We need to be prepared to move away from traditional thinking and use innovation and creativity to find new and different ways to consider ourselves, the nature of conflict, and how to assist parties to approach conflict management, negotiation and the path to the future. Current thinking tells us that this starts with us, and that when we have changed our thinking and our approach, then we will be able to better assist those we are working with. This authenticity will then provide a solid platform for us to move forward as a profession.

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