On July 12 of this year, it will be 28 years since I began working as a mediator.
In 1993, as I was finishing my undergraduate degree and unsure about my next professional or academic steps, someone ‘shoulder tapped’ me to apply for a position at the local mediation center. At first, I thought that being a mediator was something I would do for a few years before moving on, but over time the job began to become a calling and, I suppose, a passion. Twenty-eight years later, I look back and see how my work as a mediator has given me and my life deep meaning, bountiful joy – and yes, at times, many challenges, though the challenges have largely been good ones.
While I am still a mediator today, I am also a coach, consultant, trainer, facilitator, circle leader, change management advisor, policy writer, mentor, investigator, author, speaker, and strategic planner – all in the same job. When I look at the diversity of roles I inhabit over the course of any given week, they all fit together; they all connect with one another. And – each role draws from the core skills I gained in my early days as a mediator.
Since the beginning of my career, it has been obvious to me that when helping groups of people become healthier in their relationships with one another there is typically more at play than conflict. It is critical to look at the system beyond the interpersonal relationships between parties and seek to understand how the system is aiding and abetting the conflicts. We must also consider the interior space of those in conflict, opening ourselves to the possibility that transformation at an interior or personal level might be a key factor in the transformation of the conflict between the parties.
I enjoy engaging with people in coaching conversations, supporting them as they think through the conflicts and/or leadership challenges they are facing. These meetings open the door to transformation at an interior level. In coaching conversations, my clients and I often encounter significant “a-ha” moments, which I am routinely humbled by and grateful for. On the other end of the continuum of my work, I find it interesting to think through all of the complexities of conflict and change at the systemic level. It is a bit like sorting out a puzzle, bringing with it the same joy of discovery when slowly but surely diverse pieces come together to create a clear picture of system changes that, if employed, can support the development of healthy organizations and communities.
Between working at issues of conflict and change at the systems level and at the personal level we find a middle space that is inhabited by strategies such as mediation, designed to work at transforming conflict at the interpersonal level. I define mediation as the presence of a third party who intentionally slows down the conversation so people can hear one another better. At their best, mediators engage each party with unconditional positive regard, helping people to be at their best – and helping people to see the best in the other. Sometimes mediation is hard and gruelling work involving walking step-by-step with people through profoundly tough conversations, other times mediation is more straightforward. Either way, mediation is designed to help the parties involved discover – for themselves and with one another – how to address the differences between them.
When I began my career, I mediated primarily interpersonal disputes – sometimes up to four mediation sessions per week – which, given the amount of time required in preparing parties for mediation, is a lot. This was an intense time of learning. It is both technically and emotionally challenging to sit with two opposing parties and find the strategy, questions, paraphrases, tone of voice, and style of engagement that will support both sides – and to do all of this without getting in the way of a process that is meant to belong to the parties themselves.
While my portfolio has expanded significantly since the early days of my career, when I look back over nearly three decades of work, I am keenly aware that every single day I draw on the micro-skills and process strategies that I learned and honed in the mediation room. The pressure cooker of a mediation room is a refiner’s fire for new mediators. It challenged me to engage in both-and thinking; it forced me to find the good and the wise in each party; it demanded that I pay attention to my listening and speaking skills even as I was looking at the big picture; it invited me to create a space that is both caring and honest, both kind and clear; and it compelled me to engage in a significant amount of self-work to ensure that my own stuff – hooks and biases – were not getting in the way of the mediation agenda. All these years later, I still use these skills when mediating. What has surprised me is that I also use these skills in each of my other roles. When facilitating a meeting regarding a change process, I draw on my mediation skills in moments where tensions could flare if participants do not feel heard. When coaching, I remember that the person my client is speaking about is worthy of the same unconditional positive regard that I offer my client. When teaching workshops, I ask questions of participants in a manner that they feel honoured. When listening to friends talk about the hard moments in their lives, I seek to listen deeply and well. And when at my own dinner table, I think through how to ask a tricky question of my children.
I have learned that the skills we develop and hone in the mediation room are more than mediation skills. They are life skills that help us to enter the social spaces of our lives – whether professionally or personally – in a manner that deeply honours the people with whom we are engaging, and that engages the issues in front of us in a manner that is both curious and honest while nonetheless being kind to the people involved. Perhaps most striking for me is that these same life skills transform us, allowing us to live more fully, more thoughtfully, and more joyfully in whatever we are doing.
Credence offers a variety of services that deepen the capacity to lead in challenging situations:
- Leadership Coaching
- Organizational Health Assessment
- The Art of Mindful Mediation
Let us work with you to customize your learning path. We can offer advice as you determine your best next step.