The Process of Mediation
Sometimes, HR professionals and others will instinctively deploy mediation techniques to help them move situations forward. This will often be successful and there is no reason why resolution can't be achieved via this approach.
However, since I've been delivering structured mediation, I've understood how important the process is in achieving consistent success.
Every mediator will have their own personal style to how they deliver the process but the steps will be the same in pretty much all cases. In this blog, I'm going to explain my approach to the process of mediation.
Engagement with the client
When I am contacted regarding mediation, the first thing I will explain to any potential client is the confidentiality aspect and that the only outcome they will be advised of is whether the process has been successful or not. I am very clear that, if it is unsuccessful, no reasons will be shared for why it hasn't been successful and they will not be informed at what stage mediation failed. If they are happy with this, we'll move forward.
Unless I'm working with one of my existing clients where I may be aware of the background, I try to encourage the client to tell me as little as possible about the case and what has caused the relationship breakdown. In some instances, a potential client may already have indicated some aspects when making initial contact and that's fine but I'll ask them not to share any further details. I find this allows me to engage with the parties without being influenced as to how the employer is viewing the situation.
Once the employer has obtained both parties' consent to provide me with their contact details, I will arrange the pre-mediation discussion.
The purpose of this discussion is to provide the parties with information about the process and deal with any questions they have. I will explain the confidential nature, including what will happen if either of the parties do not want to proceed at any stage of the process or if I decide that there is no realistic prospect of success. Just as the employer will not be advised what has caused the process to finish without success, the parties will not be advised of the cause either.
The voluntary nature of engagement is also explored which provides an opportunity to identify if an individual is feeling forced to participate in mediation.
In some cases, employers may have presented mediation as an alternative to more formal actions and this might leave someone feeling they have no choice. And even if the employer has simply offered mediation without any coercion, the individual may feel an implied threat that doesn't exist. Where this is the case, the pre-mediation discussion can help to address this and, in most cases, once the individual understands the process, they are happy to engage with it knowing that there's very little to lose by giving it a go!
So long as both parties are happy to proceed, I will meet with each person separately to understand what they feel is causing the issues. We will explore what has occurred to leave them feeling this way and I may challenge their thinking and encourage them to see that there could be alternative viewpoint.
In my experience, this discussion helps to make individuals feel heard and it provides some release of emotions that they have been holding on to as the situation has been escalating without resolution. Quite often, at the end of the session, people with thank me for the therapy session!
As mentioned above, it may become obvious that one or both parties are not fully engaged in the process or that there is no realistic prospect of achieving success. If this is the case, I will not move to the joint session and the mediation process has been unsuccessful. And neither party is obliged to move to the joint session as the whole process is entirely voluntary. If one party doesn't wish to engage in a joint session, again mediation has been unsuccessful.
A lot of mediators will hold the joint session straight after the individual sessions and this is a valid approach. I tend not to do this and prefer to hold it on a different day. I've found that this not only gives me as the mediator time to reflect on the individual discussions, it also gives both parties time to reflect. I've found that this period of reflection is particularly powerful for the parties and usually results in less emotion being brought into the joint session.
One of the most important aspects of the joint session is equality. There is no hierarchy and, as the mediator, I have to be seen to be treating both parties equally and with no favouritism. The room set up needs to reflect this and neither party enters the room before the other. They are both invited to the room at the same time.
As part of the introduction, all parties will agree the ground rules. I have some standard ones that I suggest and anyone can add their own. I try to make sure that these are visible to both parties throughout the session so that I can highlight the rules if it looks like they are not being observed.
The aim of mediation is not to get two warring parties to become BFFs. It is to reach a point where both parties can agree how they can have a positive working relationship moving forward. Some exploration of the past is required to reach this point, but I am very clear that the focus is on the future.
Focusing on equality, it is important that neither party dominates the discussion and it is my role to ensure that all parties have equal time to express their position. If necessary, I will ask one party to stop talking to allow the other party to put their view forward.
It is not necessary to reach agreement on every point raised and its unlikely that people will concede on every issue. Where agreement on an issue is not crucial to moving forward and the discussion is no longer being productive, I will ask each party to agree to disagree on those issues so that we can focus on the points that need to be resolved to move forward positively.
Assuming that both parties get to a point where there is agreement on a way forward, the mediation process has been successful.
Any agreement can be written or verbal and, whichever it is, the joint session will end with the agreement being summarised and both parties have to commit to it.
A written agreement can be particularly useful in some circumstances because memories can change over time and the parties can return to it to clarify and refresh their memories on what they agreed to.
A verbal agreement is more commonly appropriate if the relationship breakdown was caused by a misunderstanding that the mediation process has resolved.
Irrespective of the format, the agreement is confidential between the parties unless they agree they want to share it with others. It is not enforceable or monitored by anyone else other than the two parties and they are responsible for holding each other to account for sticking to what has been agreed.
Whether the process has been successful or not, the last step in any mediation process is feeding back to the client what the outcome was.
Even where the process has been agreed to be successful by both parties, I am not able to provide guarantees to the client that the relationship won't break down again in the future and the one downside to being a mediator is that you rarely find out out if the agreement between the parties holds firm. Having said that, there are some joint sessions where it is clear that all of the issues have been resolved and, sometimes, the parties do leave that session as BFFs!!!!!